A Libertarian Syllabus

A friend of mine who is involved in youth politics asked me to put together a curriculum for Ron Paul libertarians, a four-year course of study that will take students from the basics of free-market economics and the Constitution into the deeper waters where theory, history, and policy meet. Here’s the tentative curriculum I’ve come up with:

Year 1

Ron Paul – The Revolution: A Manifesto
Barry Goldwater – The Conscience of a Conservative
Tom Paine – “Common Sense,” “The Crisis”
The Federalist (selections)
The Anti-Federalist Papers (selections)
The Constitution of the United States of America
Douglas Hyde – Dedication and Leadership
Henry Hazlitt – Economics in One Lesson
Murray Rothbard – What Has Government Done to Our Money?

I’m fairly confident in this first-year syllabus. Arguably I ought to add Thomas Woods’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and Kevin R.C. Gutzman’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, but I wanted to restrict myself mostly to primary sources. The Federalist, Anti-Federalist, and Paine selections, plus the Constitution itself, will give students a basic feel for what was at stake in the Revolutionary War and the struggle over ratification. Hazlitt’s book is a terrific economic primer. Hyde’s very short book is an activist’s handbook. The Paul and Goldwater books both establish the essential character of the movement. And Rothbard’s brief book is a good introduction to Dr. Paul’s thinking on monetary policy.

This isn’t as much reading as it might look like, since most of these texts aren’t long.

Year 2

Gene Callahan – Economics for Real People
Frederic Bastiat – The Law
Israel Kirzner – Ludwig von Mises
Andrew Bacevich – American Empire
Ron Paul – A Foreign Policy of Freedom
Justin Raimondo – Reclaiming the American Right

The Law is basic enough that it could be included in Year 1, but I actually think it’s better to have some grounding in economics before reading The Law. The Callahan and Kirzner books will serve as the student’s introduction to specifically Austrian economics. Bacevich’s book is still, to my mind, the best general introduction to what’s wrong with American foreign policy that’s on the market. And since Bacevich is a conservative Catholic and former Army colonel, it’s not easy to dismiss him as an anti-American leftist. His book provides scholarly support for the views expressed in Ron Paul’s collection. Justin Raimondo’s book, meanwhile, ties things together, showing how the Right was drawn into supporting an interventionist foreign policy and the beginnings of the Old Right’s comeback in the early 1990s.

Year 3

Friedrich Hayek – The Road to Serfdom
Murray Rothbard – America’s Great Depression
Albert Jay Nock – Our Enemy, the State
Chalmers Johnson – Blowback
Ludwig von Mises – Liberalism

Now we’re getting into deceptively deep waters. Hayek and Rothbard make a good unit, since both show the relationship economic crisis and the growth of state power. Rothbard’s book provides answers to the usual Keynesian and left-liberal arguments that we need the Federal Reserve to stave off another depression, while Hayek spells out where state economic interventionism leads. Liberalism is a relatively easy-going introduction to Mises and sets out the positive case for classical liberalism. Johnson’s Blowback picks up the foreign-policy thread from the last year’s syllabus, showing how foreign-policy interventionism gives rise to terrorism, or “blowback” in the CIA’s term. Nock’s short but deceptively dense book presents a general case against state action. On reflection, this course fits together better than I originally thought it did.

Year 4

Murray Rothbard – Man, Economy, and State
Hans-Hermann Hoppe – Democracy: The God That Failed
Michael Scheuer – Imperial Hubris
Robert Pape – Dying to Win

Now we’re into some very long texts. I originally had Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action listed in place of Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, but I decided that the latter would be somewhat easier going on the students, and it’s a fine summation of Austrian economics in its own right. Hoppe’s book builds upon Rothbard and applies his thoughts to controversial policy questions such as immigration. Scheuer and Pape complete the student’s basic training in foreign policy, presenting some hard realities about war, nation-building, occupation, and terrorism.

I welcome everyone’s feedback on this list. As I say, it’s a rough draft, and I’d like to fine-tune it. There are many other libertarian and conservative books that I’d like to include, but these seem like the best fit for what my friend has in mind. I may have overlooked something important, however, so feel free to make other suggestions.


18 thoughts on “A Libertarian Syllabus

  1. dylan waco March 15, 2008 / 4:36 am

    The other day I was confronted by a young libertarian here in Charleston, who had recognized me from some Ron Paul events in the area, and he asked me the same question. I recommended the “Democracy The God That Failed” also. I am not at all sympathetic to the general theses of the book, but it really is an outstanding critique of democracy as the false idol of American politics. As a defense of property rights it is unparalleled.

    Thoughts on these picks:

    I don’t know that I would include Imperial Hubris. It is a great book, as is Marching Toward Hell (on page 250, there is a paragraph long synopsis of U.S. foreign policy and its failing, that is as good as most books written on the subject), but it not libertarian. In fact the book calls for a remarkably aggressive foreign policy. Marching Toward Hell expands on this if Imperial Hubris left any doubts.

    I’d say Chodorov, Spooner, and probably Benjamin Tucker really should be included. “Income Tax: The Root Of All Evil” is particularly easy to get a hold of, brief and an essential part of the libertarian canon.

    I rather like Chalmers Johnson, and Blowback is a great book, but I would favor William Appleman Williams “Empire As A Way Of LIfe”. Again it is brief and though polemical in nature, it laid down the groundwork for guys like Johnson, Bacevich, Ivan Eland and other critics of expansionism and empire.

    I think Gabriel Kolko’s “The Triumph of Conservatism” and James Bovard’s “Lost Rights” should be read hand-in-hand by as many young Paulites as possible. Kolko argues strongly from the left that the progressive era was all about establishing a system of government subsidized cartels that would drive under artisans and small farmers. Rothbard and ohers consistently cited this as a seminal work of anti-statist revisionism. Bovard’s book expands on these themes in a modern context, focusing on things like the Americans With Disabilities Act and how they have further contributed to the demise of local business, government and tradition. While Kolko’s book is overtly scholarly and Bovard’s is more of a “pulp” work, both are important and worthwhile.

    Having just read it, I would argue strongly for Rothbard’s “The Betrayal Of The American Right”. While it may not be the best history of the “Old Right” or non-interventionism, it is the only one available today that is told by someone who lived through at least part of the movement. It is also rich with lengthy quotes from Mencken, Chodorov, Wilder Lane, Nock and others that will otherwise be lost to the younger generations.

    It is hard to get a hold of, but Wayne S. Cole’s “American First and The Battle Against Interventionism 1940-41” is the best book of its kind (maybe the only book of its kind).

    Finally, Paul Craig Roberts book with Lawrence Stratton, “The Tyrrany Of Good Intentions” is being re-released in less than two weeks and is an excellent look at the abuse of law being perpetrated upon the public by overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. For a civil libertarian, it would be a nice addition.

    Overall I like all of these picks and think it is a great list. You can nitpick it here or there, but it is a great start and here is hoping that some younger folks out there take the chance on some, or all, of these titles.


  2. Tim March 15, 2008 / 7:16 am

    I would recommend some historical reading on the ‘isolationist’ movement as well. Ronald Radosh’s book on the ‘right wing’ non-interventionist opponents of the early Cold War “Prophets on The Right” and anything from Wayne S Cole on the WW2 non-interventionists. The young Paulians need to know that there are historical roots ‘depth’ as well as wide intellectual / ideological diversity ‘width’ to the tradition they are rebuilding.

  3. xenos March 15, 2008 / 6:21 pm

    This must have been Jeff Frazee’s idea.

    Good list.

  4. jefffrazee March 15, 2008 / 9:58 pm

    xenos, you already know too much.

  5. xenos March 15, 2008 / 10:19 pm

    Please don’t kill me.

  6. John Payne March 16, 2008 / 11:15 pm

    This is a good list, but there are several things I would also include. First, I think you have to read some Locke and probably some Nozick to understand some of libertarianism’s philosophical underpinnings. I’m not saying you have to read both of the treatises on government and “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”, but some selections are definitely in order.

    Second, they are just essays, but everyone–regardless of political persuasion–needs to read Mises’ “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” and Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”….probably more than once. They are absolutely essential for understanding that prices aren’t just random: they convey important dispersed information and can’t function properly when government controls the means of production and/or distribution.

    The rest of what I would add is all history. I second Dylan’s suggestion of Kolko’s “The Triumph of Conservatism”. And as long as we’re on the subject of New Left historians, I wouldn’t mind seeing some William Appleman Williams on here, but it should be “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” or “The Contours of American History”–although the latter contains far too much discussion of the First Earl of Shaftesbury. Turning to historians of a more libertarian persuasion, I think it would be fine to add one or both of Woods’ pop history books–they’re fun and easy reads. However, this list will be woefully incomplete without the addition of Higgs’ “Crisis and Leviathan”, so don’t go adding the Woods’ book(s) if it means sacrificing Higgs. Some of the essays from “Capitalism and the Historians” would also make a good addition.

  7. Daniel McCarthy March 17, 2008 / 12:06 am

    Thanks for the input, everyone. Crisis and Leviathan is a serious omission from my list — I’m a Robert Higgs fan, and I should have thought to include that.

    There’s no Nozick or Locke just because the list is directed mostly toward young political activists. So it’s a very minimal list, and as important as Locke and Nozick are to understanding libertarian theory, the emphasis here is on practice. I’d put Nozick and Locke on a supplemental reading list.

    I think Bacevich may serve as a gateway to William Appleman Williams, but I’ll have to think about whether Williams should also be added in his own right. Kolko is an excellent suggestion. I have to admit, shame-facedly, that I haven’t read Kolko’s classic Triumph of Conservatism myself, even though I know how important and well-regarded it is. I’ll have to remedy that oversight some day soon.

    Wayne Cole and Ron Radosh are good ideas as well. But again I think they might be better for a supplemental list, since they will deepen the student’s knowledge of the history of anti-interventionism, but the works already on the syllabus will provide a foundation (and lead the student on to other things, ideally).

    Point taken about Scheuer’s non-libertarian worldview. I had that in mind when I put him on the “year 4” syllabus. I think by that time the libertarian student activist should be firmed up enough in his core beliefs that he will get plenty of benefit from reading Scheuer without deciding that torture is ok. Plus I think it’s important for the activist to be able to grapple with the ideas of someone like Scheuer, who supports many of the right ideas but also some that are not so attractive, and who doesn’t come from a libertarian background. In the larger world of practical politics, the students will run into a lot of people like that.

  8. dylan waco March 17, 2008 / 1:22 am


    As a self-identified “left conservative”, with heavy libertarian tendencies, Kolko (who was a student of William Appleman Williams) was the guy who finally convinced me once and for all that big government was as bad as big business. While my Catholic Worker mother did much to try and further this, even mom was (and is) a Universal Health Care supporting, EPA enthusiast. The greatness of Kolko’s book is that it is a work by a hardline Marxist, that documents exactly why the supposedly benevolent state agencies are often times the worst of the worst. It rips the lid off of the Progressive Era and exposes it for what it was; an era of mass centralization and state cartels aimed to destroy some of the competitive advantage that small artisans and family farmers had. For a leftist, to blow the lid off of the supposedly “neccsary” do-gooder regulatory agencies, by going straight to their origins is really an incredible achievement. The only thing objectionable about the book is the title.

    You are probably right about Bacevich being the gateway to Williams, since American Empire is a modern extension of Williams arguments. Bacevich makes no attempt to hide this and in fact provides an excellent preface to the most recent edition of “Empire As A Way Of LIfe”.

    As for Scheuer..you may have a point. I would certainly recommend all three of his books (in fact I think the newest-Marching Toward Hell-is clearly the best of the bunch). My only concern is that some folks may confuse some of Scheuer’s more belligerent arguments, with libertarian or non-interventionist arguments. But again, that far along in such a program they should be confronted with some other ideas, and at the end of the day Scheuer is much more of an ally than an enemy.


  9. George March 17, 2008 / 1:26 am

    There is one essential libertarian book I believe you left out: Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. It is probably the best introduction to consistent libertarianism.

  10. Jesse Walker March 17, 2008 / 6:51 pm

    Radosh (or Cole, or Doenecke) would be a good substitute for Raimondo’s book, which is more of a pop text.

    Most of the other books I’d like to add are probably beyond the scope of your survey — Jane Jacobs, Thomas Szasz, James Scott, and so on — so I’ll leave it at that.

  11. Daniel McCarthy March 18, 2008 / 2:31 am

    Thanks. My friend who asked me to put this together is interested in appealing to right-of-center libertarians, which is one reason why some things are on the list and others are not. Independently, two other people who admire Rothbard just as much as I do told me that they wouldn’t recommend For a New Liberty, despite all its positive qualities, because they think the abortion passages and some of the other material might not go down well.

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