Skip to main content

10 Liberal Texts

Iain Dale put down some thoughts on his blog as to what the 10 key texts of Conservatism were. I was interested to see that several Conservatives tried to claim Liberal thinkers, such as JS Mill, as Conservative.

My own choice for Liberalism would be (in no particular order):

JS Mill: On Liberty
FA Hayek: The Constitution of Liberty
Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies
John Locke: Second Treatise on Civil Government
Voltaire: Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations and on the Principal Occurrences in History
Rousseau: The Social Contract
von Humboldt: On the limits of State Action
Isaiah Berlin: Two concepts of Liberty
James Madision/Alexander Hamilton: The Federalist Papers
David Hume: A Treatise on Human Nature

Probably various others such as Aristotle's Politics or Joseph Steiglitz' Globalisation and its Discontents, should be included- please leave your ideas...


I actually can't understand why so many liberals seem to think that Rousseau was a liberal. Indeed, Rousseau said in the footnotes of the Social Contract that "In Genoa, the word, libertas, can be read on the front of prisons and on the fetters of galley‐slaves. The application of this motto is fine and just."

Probably one reason why so many make the mistake to take Rousseau as liberal is because his book was called "the Social contract". However, it wasn't the first time that the idea of a social contract was introduced, and not all the social contract models are liberal. Rousseau's certainly wasn't, and he has inspired and appealed to later socialists, communists, anarchists, fascists, populists and the modern greens - almost everybody except the liberals.

The most important political thoughts of Voltaire were presented in his contribution to the Encyclopédie, but as there were other (also less liberal) contributors and the whole book isn't about political theory, I'd mention "A Treatise on Toleration" as a good example of his contribution to liberalism.

Though James Madison was clearly a liberal, his co-authors of the Federalist Papers, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, are usually regarded as conservatives.

David Hume was a great philosopher, but don't you think that his contribution to the political philosophy was somewhat modest, and "A Treatise on Human Nature" was hardly about liberalism?

I think there are some essential texts you have missed (here in chronological order):

Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
Immanuel Kant: On the common saying: this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice (OR: Theory and Practice)
Frédéric Bastiat: The Law
Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia
RE Aritotle and Stiglitz:

Aristotle was rather conservative, supporting for instance slavery unlike some more radical but less known thinker of his time. But of course he was less socialist than Plato, which probably why many liberals would like to adopt him as a liberal. However, I recall that Popper mentioned some more liberal thinkers from the classical period in the Open Society and its Enemies.

As for Stiglitz, if you'll add him, you might want to mention also some books of Peter Thomas Bauer,Jagdish Bhagwati and Hernando de Soto.
Cicero said…
I must say I do have reservations about Rousseau, but I included him since teh main thrust of the Social Contract is what the state may not do, and this was one of my definitions of Liberal. As for David Hume, although I agree, he is more of a moral philosopher, one can see empiricism and utilitarianism as major features in his work. Smith and Kant I also concur are in the Liberal school, but in limiting my list to 10- and assuming that Smith is regarded with approval by most political schools (Marxists aside), but I will happily claim him as a Liberal. Bastiat was a forerunner of the Austrian school, but I did not consider him to be top 10. Nozick is usually considered "anarcho-capitalist" as much as Liberal, but in any event he lacks the Ciceronian moderation that I was also looking for in my classification.

Arguably including Aristotle is an anachronism, but I often find myself using Aristotilian definitions, and I wanted to use him as an intellectual contrast to Plato, whose influence can be seen in many anti-Liberal philosophers.

As for Bauer- certainly a friend of Hayek, but not, I submit as significant. I do approve of Jagdish Bhagwati- especially "In defence of globalization". Hernando de Soto is a more controversial figure who while he clearly has a liberal inspiration, I think is not of sufficient stature to be included.

Thanks for your thoughts
"Nozick is usually considered "anarcho-capitalist" as much as Liberal,...

That's a common mistake, made by people I suspect have not read his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, and are judging him by the name of the book. However, in the first part of his book, Anarchy, he starts, like John Locke, from a state of nature (anarchy) and tries to show how a state can rise from it without violating the rights of individuals. It is sometimes disputed whether he succeeded, but he can't by any means be described an "anarcho-capitalist".

In the second part of the book, State he tries to define the limits of the state, and ends in supporting a minimal state, or a night-watchman state, as it is also called. This makes him a minarchist, which is mutually exclusive with anarcho-capitalism.

In the third part, Utopia, he introduces his vision, a framework of utopia, where people within a minimal state could set up their own communities, where they could practise their own ideals, even socialism (of course as long as the membership of these communities would be voluntary).
Tristan said…
I'd say that to get a fuller picture the Anti-federalist papers should be read with the Federalist papers.

The other glaring omission would be Cato's Letters (Gordon & Trenchard) which deal with many areas of liberalism.

The Liberal Internation has an (incomplete) list of liberal thinkers on its website as well as those in the Hall of Freedom

Its a diverse group of people from Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises to L.T. Hobhouse, Eleanor Rosevelt and John Rawls.

Many of the writings of these people could probably be included on this list, even though many of them vehemently disagree with each other...
Anonymous said…
thank you nice sharing

cep program

Popular posts from this blog

Trump and Brexit are the Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore in Russia's Hybrid war against the West.

In December 1941, Imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor. After the subsequent declaration of war, within three days, the Japanese had sunk the British warships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and the rapid Japanese attack led to the surrender of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 and the fall of Singapore only two months after Pearl Harbor. These were the opening blows in the long war of the Pacific that cost over 30,000,000 lives and was only ended with the detonations above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"History doesn't often repeat itself, but it rhymes" is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain, and in a way it seems quite appropriate when we survey the current scene. 

In 1941, Imperial Japan, knowing its own weakness, chose a non-conventional form of war, the surprise attack. Since the end of his first Presidential term, Vladimir Putin, knowing Russia's weakness, has also chosen non-conventional ways to promote his domestic powe…

Cicero ReDux

By Special Request of Baroness Scott and Mark Valladares... Cicero's Songs returns: bigger, longer and uncut.
October 1st marked the half way point of the Estonian Presidency of the European Union.  Perhaps for many people such an anniversary is of passing interest at best.  Yet the conduct of the Estonian Presidency is reinforcing just how forward looking and innovative the most northerly of the Baltic States has become.
Estonia is a country that wants to live in the future, and with its openness and innovation, that future seems a lot closer than almost anywhere else in Europe
It is not that Estonia does not “do” the past: the picturesque cobbled streets of old Tallinn have tourist crowds a-plenty enjoying the mediaeval architecture in an Indian summer of sunshine and blue skies.  The real point is that Estonia refuses to be a prisoner of its past. Lennart Meri, Estonia’s President in the 1990s- who spent years of his childhood in Siberia- once told me that the country had to conc…

The American National nightmare becomes a global nightmare

It is a basic contention of this blog that Donald J Trump is not fit for office.

A crooked real estate developer with a dubious past and highly questionable finances. he has systematically lied his way into financial or other advantage. His personal qualities include vulgarity, sexual assault allegations and fraudulent statements on almost every subject. 

He lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes.

He has, of course, been under criminal investigation practically since before he took the oath of office. The indictment of some of closest advisers is just the beginning. His track record suggests that in due course there is no action he will not take, whether illegal or unconstitutional in order to derail his own inevitable impeachment and the indictments that must surely follow the successful investigation of Robert Mueller into his connections with Russia.

However, all of that is a matter for the American people. 

It is also a matter for the American people that Trump is cheating…