What books should the interested individualist have on their shelves and their bedside table? What should the would-be freedom-lover be reading to get up to speed for the intellectual battle? I’ve offered a few suggestions myself for eager readers, and half a century ago writer Henry Hazlitt (author of the essential classic Economics in One Lesson amongst other treasures) offered his own definitive ‘short-list’ representing the cream of “the liberal tradition.”
Did I just say Liberal? I sure did.
One of the crowning ironies of the present era [says Hazlitt in the introduction to his reading list] is that it is precisely … the people who flatteringly refer to themselves as "liberals" who have forgotten or repudiated the essence of the true liberal tradition. The typical butts of their ridicule are such writers as Adam Smith, Bastiat, Cobden ("the Manchester School"), and Herbert Spencer. Whatever errors any of these writers may have been guilty of individually, they were among the chief architects of true liberalism.
Yet our modern "progressives" now refer to this whole philosophy contemptuously as "laissez faire." They present a grotesque caricature of it in order to refute it to their own satisfaction, and then go on to advocate more and more governmental power, more centralization of government … more and more discretionary power for an appointed bureaucracy...
Which gives you both the reason for Hazlitt’s list, which appeared in book form as The Free Man’s Library, and the reason you should be interested in it: because if you don’t know capitalism’s proud history and the intellectual tradition of liberty and laissez faire, then you leave your “progressive” enemies free to redefine it and misrepresent it for you – just as they redefined the word “liberal,” and the likes of Mr Trotter will always misrepresent capitalism – and you leave your would-be friends to sell out the very things they, and you, purport to uphold.
"Oh, Liberty!" Madame Roland is said to have exclaimed as she passed a statue to that goddess on her way to the guillotine, "what crimes are committed in thy name!" Looking at the world today, we are tempted to stress the intellectual crimes committed in the name of liberty as much as the moral crimes. Never were men more ardent in defense of "liberty" than they are today; but never were there more diverse concepts of what constitutes true liberty. Many of today's writers who are most eloquent in their arguments for liberty in fact preach philosophies that would destroy it.
Very true. The greatest tragedy can be to attempt the right things for the wrong reasons. If take up intellectual arms you’re going to need intellectual ammunition – which means knowing and taking advantage of the intellectual tradition that came before you.
Now this tradition, rich and deep and noble as it is, is being treated by most present-day intellectuals almost as if it had never existed. . .
This bibliography, [Hazlitt hopes], will help to clarify as well as to mobilize the case for individualism and true liberalism. It is designed to strengthen individualists in their knowledge and convictions, to place in their hands the intellectual weapons that will help them to combat the totalitarian trend. It is designed, also, to call attention to the richness of the truly liberal tradition, to the excellent books and the many noble minds that have helped to shape it.
Read Hazlitt’s introduction to get yourself started – and to find out his “top ten classics,” his top ten from a half-century ago, and the books he suggests you might want to start with. And feel free to compare it to my own.