About the recommended reading list: the reading list often will include books that I disagree with in whole or in part, as it’s necessary to go head to head with some very terrible ideas in the effort to understand the world and fight back against the most destructive ideas. The “book of the week” is usually the book I am reading in a given week, or a book I’ve previously read that deserves attention. I do not have affiliate links or receive any other form of financial compensation for these recommendations, but I’ve linked options to buy on Amazon for most of these because they usually have best prices and availability. If you know of a better bookseller, I’d be happy to hear about it!
Fredrick Bastiat, The Law (1850)
The Law is the essential primer on libertarian thought. In the short pamphlet, French economist Fredrick Bastiat builds a basic framework for understanding liberty that has endured in libertarian thought ever since. He coins the phrase “legal plunder,” to demonstrate the illegitimacy of socialist programs, which Ezra Taft Benson would quote in his article “The Proper Role of Government” in 1968. The Law is short and accessible, and Bastiat’s biting wit should keep any reader over the age of twelve fully engaged. It’s the best economic and philosophical introduction to libertarian ideas available.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949)
Austrian Economics are a key part of modern libertariansim, as the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle is the most powerful tool to show how the monetary actions of the Federal Government weigh down the economy and contribute to future recessions. Human Action is a large and dense book, but it has the most comprehensive account that relates human needs and desires to a full picture of their economic lives. A more reader-friendly introduction to these concepts can also be found in Robert P. Murphy’s shorter volume Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action (2015).
Available as a Free PDF from the Mises Institute
Also available in a hardcover edition from the Mises Institute
Robert P. Murphy’s simplified Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action is available in paperback or Kindle eTextbook via Amazon
Thomas E. Woods Jr., Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse (1949)
For a case study in applying Austrian Economics to a real-world economic situation we all remember, Tom Woods’s Meltdown is the place to start. It was written early in the long recession that followed the 2007-2008 collapse and explains how Federal Reserve policy and various laws and regulations created the distortions in the market that allowed the housing bubble to inflate with so little regard for actual economic conditions. Dr. Woods also explains why the reallocation of capital by the Bush and Obama administrations would set up a long term drag on the economy, a period of stunted growth that lasted almost a decade after he wrote Meltdown.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience.”-Rod Serling, “Deaths-Head Revisited,” 1961.
Our memory of the holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor, and many other crimes of the state against human life must be continuously refreshed, so the consequences of subjecting our reason and conscience to the collective will not be forgotten. Man’s Search for Meaning is one of many works of art depicting the holocaust, documenting from the perspective of a psychologist the gruesome effects of the genocide not just on man’s body, but on his mind. Frankl is remembered for his focus on finding meaning in the suffering of Auschwitz, but he also documented what happened to those who could not find meaning before their minds were broken down by the camps, observing that “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
Frankl’s focus on the search for meaning – existentialism – is particularly relevant to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because of our belief of an eternal destiny, without beginning or end. Suffering and the search for meaning are part of that destiny.
W. Cleon Skousen, The Making of America (1985)
The late BYU Professor and Salt Lake City Chief of Police W. Cleon Skousen was the central figure of Latter-Day Saint conservatism in the 80s and 90s. While I’ll admit that I dislike his dives into conspiratorial speculation, and believe that accusing people of communist collaboration instead of arguing against their ideas undermines the ideological war against Marxism, The Making of America is the ultimate tool for understanding how the US Constitution secures liberty. It takes us clause by clause through the full text of the Constitution, explaining in the founders’ own words how each clause was intended to protect individual rights.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005)
The reading list of any member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints should have Rough Stone Rolling just a notch below the Bible. It’s the full story in cultural context of the life of the prophet Joseph Smith, but it’s also an examination of how imperfect humans in an imperfect world relate to the perfect divinity of our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, and make themselves and the world better because of it. “The past is a foreign land,” and Richard Lyman Bushman is a perfect tour guide, explaining the complications and quirks of a long-gone culture to help us understand the meaning of human actions in their context.
Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005)
No one is more hated by racists than economist Thomas Sowell. Because no one else with Sowell’s intellectual ability and qualifications dares to say things like “With blacks as with whites, the redneck culture has been a less achieving culture. Moreover, that culture has affected a higher proportion of the black population than of the white population.” His essays collected in Black Rednecks and White Liberals and other great books, are kryptonite for those who use race to divide humanity for their own cynical ends.
The color of Sowell’s skin has made the left despise him as a race traitor and the right turn to him as an ally who is mostly immune from the race card, but it’s the quality of his scholarship that makes him the greatest elder statesmen among living libertarians. His research is thorough, his reasoning is strong, and his prose is distinct and clear – traits ascribed by critical theory scholarship to “whiteness.”
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)
J D Vance is a Yale-educated Juris Doctor, a Marine Corps veteran, a venture capitalist, and now a candidate for Senate in Ohio. Before that, he was raised as what can only be called “white trash” by his addict mother and his grandmother who once tried to burn her husband to death after a drunken argument. His memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is an unintentional companion piece to Black Rednecks and White Liberals, showing us in visceral, emotional terms what Sowell described academically.
Vance was briefly a darling of the left for his insights into the mentality of white redneck culture, which they partially blamed for Trump. The New Republic complained at the time that Vance is “liberal media’s favorite white trash-splainer.” But now that he’s running for Senate as a Republican in Ohio, The Atlantic only laments that there are no words to describe how terrible he is.
Vance’s story demonstrates that the redneck mentality Sowell identifies in black and white communities is a product of cultural factors, not of genetics or skin colors.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Not since the work of Shakespeare has the writing of one man so permeated our language. In 1984, Orwell gave us the language we use to describe the machinery of despotism right up to the present, and that we will continue to use as long as the conflict between freedom and tyranny continues. 1984 is grim, as it is an exploration of traps that can keep the human mind enslaved. Once society is controlled by “English Socialism,” there’s no going back, which is why Orwell was so desperate to try to hold humanity back from the brink.
Yet Orwell was socialist. He thought that the subordination of the individual to the collective was the unavoidable next step in the evolution of civilization, and he made the same mistake that has fueled the authoritarian horrors of the Twentieth Century: that international socialism and national socialist fascism were opposites, and the only two choices for humanity. Individual freedom was not a realistic possibility for Orwell, which is why his future looks so grim.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is my personal favorite of the four great dystopian novels (the other two being Brave New World and Atlas Shrugged). Where the other three and many others focus on the various ways we might be enslaved by society, Fahrenheit 451 explores how we naturally enslave ourselves. It focuses on our personal path to despotism.
Many Americans read Fahrenheit 451 in middle school or high school, and remember only that it is about a dystopian society that burns books. But the important thread of the book is why they burn books, why almost all society wants to see them removed. Our cultural and intellectual life is crucial to developing and maintaining mental freedom, and Bradbury asks us if we dare to seek out works that “show the pores in the face of life.” If we as individuals can do so, we might have more hope than Orwell believed.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)
When I first read The Screwtape Letters, I believed it was about the devil and temptation. It is, after all, written from the fictional point of view of an experienced demon writing letters of advice to his nephew on how to best tempt a certain Englishman. Screwtape is fictional, we don’t know the details of how demons and devils organize themselves and go about their plans. But do know a little about human nature, and that’s what The Screwtape Letters is ultimately about; the stubbornness and bad habits and capacity for willful ignorance that must make the devil laugh at us, as well as the capacity to have hope and courage and take control of our lives with the help of the Savior. Lewis’s insight on this topic is immense.
Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (2020)
Understanding the “critical theory” based ideologies that permeate modern discourse requires going to their sources. Unfortunately, the sources are filled with deliberately indecipherable or ambiguous prose, lengthy tangents intended to prove points of pedantry that are often barely related to their arguments, and confusing jumps from academic observation to activist agitation (see Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality for a relatively simple example of this pattern).
It requires even more effort to connect these strange, theory-driven origins to the network of simple but outrageous claims that they have led to in the modern day. Once this connection has been made, one then needs to refute them. On this last step, Cynical Theories is deficient, but as a primer on the strange language and upside-down worldview of critical theory, Cynical Theories is the best there is.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)
Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace is a book like no other, a thousand page journey to impress on the reader Tolstoy’s vision of the workings of history and human life: God is in control, and hardships are for our benefit in ways we can’t possibly understand yet. The reader is in a position like that of the characters for most of the book: confronted with enormous ideas and conflicts but unable to see the hand of God, we lash out in search of an answer. Tolstoy’s seemingly strange diversions into historical theory – asking why history happens the way it does – in analyzing the Napoleonic Wars serve as a backdrop to the drama but illustrate that this theme of providence applies at level of individuals and of empires. Maybe I’ve given too much away, but these are insights that can only be experienced by an emotional journey, not told in precise language. War and Peace is also a grand drama and great war epic, filled with characters that range from enchanting to exciting to repulsive yet sympathetic.
Available to read free online in HTML from Project Gutenberg
Also available in a beautiful hardcover edition from Oxford World’s Classics via Amazon
Two-part unabridged audiobook available from Audible, narrated by Neville Jackson