The Libertarian Gift Guide

I often get email in response to my columns asking for additional sources of information on whatever issue it is I’ve addressed in a particular week.

Because I’m a libertarian, I also get quite a bit of mail asking for more information on libertarianism, and email from libertarians asking if there are books they can recommend to convince friends and family of the virtues of limited government, free trade and civil liberties.

With that in my mind, I thought I’d pass along a few freedom-loving gift recommendations for the holiday season. These are books (and one movie) that I frequently give to friends and family who want to know more about libertarianism.

One note of disclosure: In addition to being a columnist for, I am also the web site manager for the Cato Institute. A few of the books I’ve recommended below were either written by Cato Institute scholars or published by the Cato Institute, and some of the authors I know personally. But the list below consists of books that I feel are worth recommending, regardless of who wrote or published them.

The list is by no means comprehensive; it’s just a start, with a few unconventional additions:

-- The Pocket Constitution and Declaration of Independence (The Cato Institute, 2000)

The Cato Institute has distributed more than two million of these over the years. I’m giving a copy to all of my many cousins this year. A unique stocking-stuffer idea, particularly for kids old enough to be taking civics or government classes.

-- What it Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray (Broadway Books, 1998)

As eloquent an introduction to the philosophy of libertarianism as you’ll find. Murray lays out the case for limited government in clear and sober prose. Great for anyone curious about libertarian thought, but also ideal for students as young as high school with an interest in politics and policy.

-- Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz (Free Press, 1998)

If Murray’s book is Libertarianism 101, Boaz’s is probably a 300-level class on the same topic. A little thicker, a little more involved, but still delivered in an accessible, readable, easy-to-follow voice. Boaz also edited The Libertarian Reader, which is a great collection of texts, excerpts and passages from the likes of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Locke, Lao-Tzu and Milton Friedman.

-- Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick (Basic Books, 1977)

Written in response to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1999) this book is seen by many as the definitive defense of libertarianism and critique of the welfare state. Nozick was a Harvard philosopher, an academic of impeccable credentials. Yet, while Anarchy, State and Utopia is in some ways an ivory tower defense of limited government, it too is accessible enough to be read and understood by those of us without Harvard philosophy professor intellects.

-- Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism by Brink Lindsey (The Cato Institute, 2001)

I should confess, I’m only about a third of the way through this book, but from what I’ve read so far, and from what I’ve read of Brink Lindsey’s other work, I’m comfortable recommending it. This book was released last year and has been widely acclaimed as the most well-reasoned, fair, articulate modern defense of free trade and "globalization" on the market. Again, it’s light on economic jargon – no regression analyses -- and it’s great fodder for barroom/dinner table debates about the alleged evils of global capitalism.

-- The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon by Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover (Sourcebook Trade, 2002)

Lenny Bruce was perhaps the 20th Century’s greatest free speech martyr. The stand-up comedian was rude and ribald, but rarely gratuitous. He loved to obliterate social mores, and to strip racial epithets of their power, usually by shocking his audiences. For this, he became something of a pariah to the decency police and zealous district attorneys in cities where he performed. In this book, Collins and Skover document in grand detail Bruce’s famous obscenity trials in San Francisco and Chicago. It comes with a CD narrated by acclaimed civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, and features some of Bruce’s most infamous bits.

-- Traffic (Home Vision Entertainment) directed by Steven Soderbergh

This 2000 movie interweaves a series of plotlines to expose the hypocrisy, tragedy, and futility of America’s long and tired drug war. Great performances by Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, and Ericka Christiansen. The movie was nominated for best picture, and won four Oscars, including del Toro for best supporting actor and Soderbergh for best director.

-- The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson (Transaction Publishers, 1993)

Isabel Paterson has become one of my favorite libertarian writers. She wrote with fire, putting forth a passionate advocacy for capitalism and freedom. The book is sweeping in scope, looking at the development of human freedom from ancient times until the book’s publication in 1943. What’s even more remarkable is that Paterson could write with such furious optimism in what was one of the bleakest periods of the 20th Century.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at

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