Our Great Books

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In his review of 100 Great Books of Liberty, edited by John Roskam and myself, with Andrew Kemp, Merv Bendle argues our book “obscures the extent to which liberty had to won [sic] in spite of the immense power wielded over the millennia by Platonic and related metaphysical systems of thought.”

In his review, Bendle reproduces part of the book’s blurb and spends more than 2,000 words critiquing it. 

Fortunately most, if not all, of his concerns about 100 Great Books of Liberty are dealt with in the introduction.

Bendle’s review is less about the book we have produced, and more about what book he would have preferred we produce.

100 Great Books of Liberty is not a narrow compendium, seeking to measure the works of the past by the tight ideological standards of the present. As the subtitle – “The essential guide to the greatest idea of Western Civilisation” – makes clear, our purpose is different.

We seek to demonstrate the supreme achievement of Western Civilisation is the idea of liberty – the idea that individuals should be free to pursue their own goals, constrained only by the equally-applied rule of law.

While the desire for freedom from repression is a universal constant, found in every civilisation and in every historical period, only within the West has it developed into a systematic program.

Bendle characterises the modern coherence of this program as an illustration of the “fundamental unity of liberal thought” – he argues our book fails to demonstrate this unity – but to describe it as Bendle does is entirely ahistorical.

It is not possible to fully grasp liberty and liberalism without having some appreciation of how the debates over, say, the Glorious, or French, or American Revolutions, or over natural rights, or empiricism, or the Renaissance played out. Liberty-seeking thinkers have fallen on both sides of each of those issues. Their contributions should not be casually dismissed.

Take the French Revolution. Bendle argues that the inclusion of both Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man undermines the project, “as if they were [both] champions of liberty.”

But both illuminate the quest for, and ideals, of liberty in important ways – conservative and revolutionary liberalism are two major strands of thought about the struggle for freedom. A liberalism that cannot accommodate both is a weak liberalism. Should change be radical or evolutionary? The history of Western Civilisation is a chronicle of attempts to answer that question.

Modern liberals are the heirs of both Burke and Paine.

This is why we cast a wide net for one hundred books which illuminate the struggle for liberty. We include the obvious – Smith, Hume, Hayek, de Tocqueville, Friedman, Rothbard, and Mises. We include works that focus on certain elements of liberalism – Perez Zagorin’s How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Matt Ridley’s The Origin of Virtue, and Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture. We include character studies, such as Robert Caro’s magnificent multi-volume study of Lyndon Baines Johnson. No work better explores the drive for political power than Caro’s as-yet-incomplete biography.

We include works which explore particular historical periods where liberty developed. And unusually for a collection such as this, we look at the development of Australian liberalism.

We include the ultimate statement of totalitarianism, Plato’s The Republic, and Karl Popper’s devastating rebuttal.

That should be the first clue that we’re not just trying to draw up an arid list of “approved” books. We’re trying to explore every facet of liberty and Western Civilisation in an accessible and engaging way.

So what about the book Bendle would have preferred?

He would like Hobbes’ Leviathan to have been included – which is fair enough – but would prefer Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to be excluded for deviationism.

Burke opposed the French Revolution because he feared it would not further the cause of French liberty. Hobbes defended a state with almost limitless power. Yet it is Burke who Bendle would like to kick out of liberty’s canon.

Likewise with Jacob Burckhardt, who, in his later years, expressed a distinctly nineteenth century conservative’s pessimism about individualism, democracy, and technological progress. But as Charles Richardson makes clear in his contribution, those views did not stop his Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy from identifying the Renaissance as critical for the development of many of the liberal ideals he personally opposed. If a student is to grasp the cultural origins of individualism, they’re going to have to read Burckhardt, even if he was a bit of a pessimist.

Ayn Rand was crazy – nobody is disputing that – but her books remain one of the most powerful ways to get young people interested in individualism and liberty.

Following Bendle, we could easily pick faults in almost every book and author in the canon.

He rightly recommends John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, but Locke’s labour theory of value is not totally sound. No one would exclude Friedrich Hayek from the liberal canon, but that doesn’t mean they have to accept the model constitution he proposes in Law, Legislation and Liberty.

Alexander Hamilton – who Bendle praises – was an advocate of “energetic” government. Karl Popper wrote that “Marx was right in asserting that increasing misery tends to be the result of laissez-faire capitalism”. And John Stuart Mill supported industry protection. Ludwig von Mises wrote some very un-Misean work while he was an Austrian bureaucrat.

Oh, and George Orwell was a proud socialist.

But that doesn’t mean their books didn’t make liberty the greatest idea of Western Civilisation.

Bendle may prefer five great books of liberty to our one hundred, but if we were to follow his advice, liberalism would be sterile and fragile.

100 Great Books of Liberty: The essential introduction to the greatest idea of Western Civilisation is published by Connor Court Publishing with the Institute of Public Affairs and Mannkal Economic Education Foundation. It is available from bookshops and www.connorcourt.com

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