The Unrepentant Nihilist

The topic of nihilism raises two important questions. “What do we mean by nihilism?” “What are the consequences of nihilism?” (Is it a disease or a cure?)

In her book “The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness” (1992) Karen Carr distinguishes between:

  1. Epistemological nihilism (the denial of the possibility of knowledge)
  2. Alethiological nihilism (the denial of the reality of truth)
  3. Metaphysical or ontological nihilism (the denial of an independently existing world)
  4. Ethical or moral nihilism (the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values)
  5. Existential or axiological nihilism (the feeling that life has no meaning).

Some forms of nihilism imply other forms of nihilism. For example, if one denies the possibility of knowledge or truth then this renders the idea of normative ethics void. On the other hand, one can believe that there is an objective world of which true knowledge is possible but also hold that all moral preferences are subjective and life has no objective meaning. In fact, the desire for knowledge and truth can turn against the idea of an objective morality. As Nietzsche observed: “But among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective–and now the recognition of this inveterate mendaciousness that one despairs of shedding becomes a stimulant.”

The main concern of Carr’s book is whether nihilism is considered a “crisis” with transformative and redemptive powers (as per Nietzsche or Karl Barth) or instead a “rather banal characterization of the human situation” that needs to be welcomed and celebrated as an antidote to dogmatism, a view she associates with the writings of Richard Rorty and contemporary deconstructionists and  anti-foundationalists. Carr herself does not welcome this “joyous affirmation” of nihilism because she believes that such an anti-dogmatic position produces the paradoxical effect of reinforcing “dominant social beliefs and practices of our culture” and the “absolutization of the dominant power structures of the culture to which we belong” because it cannot appeal to any critical (objective) standard outside of itself.

Carr’s position is puzzling for a number of reasons. It is not clear at all that nihilism would have the effect of reinforcing existing power structures. Most power structures and cultural norms are in fact based on residual beliefs about objective morality. It is also not clear why an abandonment of truth would have a reinforcing effect instead of a transformative effect. Carr herself writes that “one is left with simply the blind assertion of one’s private will; if the particular community to which one belongs does not support one’s will, one simply finds (or creates) a community more sympathetic to one’s tastes.” But this scenario of continuous power struggle and creating one’s own communities sounds rather dynamic, not static.

What she really appears to fear is a situation where critical thinking with universalist aspirations is replaced by a more individualist Hobbesian perspective in which “disagreements…deteriorate into contents of power.” A more cynical (or “nihilistic”) observer may point out that this has always been the condition of mankind and that the kind of critical perspectives that she feels are needed have always been rhetorical tools in power struggles and lack credible cognitive merit.

She approvingly quotes Thomas McCarthy who writes that “critical thought becomes aestheticized and privatized, deprived of any political or social implications. There can be no politically relevant critical theory and hence no theoretically-supported critical practice.” But is this a defect or a virtue of nihilism? Is this a disease or a cure? This assessment basically captures a modern, scientific, view of the world where morality and culture are an emergent property of evolution and politics can be best understood in a “contractarian” framework where individual preferences, coordination, and bargaining create moral and cultural conventions, an outlook that might be considered a major improvement over religion, or the vacuous nature of most “critical theory.”

Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness

Even people who are inclined to believe in a universal, objective foundation for morality are sometimes prone to the impression that in certain situations invoking “moral” arguments is rather insincere. For example, moral arguments in favor of (income) equality are often dismissed by libertarian-leaning individuals as just a sanitized expression of resentment and envy by “losers.” But can this argument be generalized? Is moral rhetoric simply a way of pulling someone’s leg, and often employed when faced with a poor bargaining position? In a remarkable experimental philosophy paper, Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness: Experimental Clues for an Ancient Puzzle (1997), Yanis Varoufakis throws some much-needed light on this topic.

A series of elegant games were designed to test the hypothesis that the “strong” would have a tendency to maximize their strategic advantage and the “weak” would have a tendency to choose “quasi-moral acts,” even when this is clearly against their own interests. In all three variants of the game, the cooperative solution was dominated by the solution to “cheat” but, quite remarkably, as the incentive of the “strong” to “cheat” increased, the “weak” displayed even more “cooperating” behavior. In the third version of the game, the tendency of the “weak” to cooperate slightly declined but this was only because the payoff for the “strong” to cheat was decreased (but still a dominating strategy). Since the participants of the game alternated between being “strong” and being “weak,” and long-term reputation effects were ruled out by not allowing the same pair of players to play the game twice in a row, we cannot claim that different kinds of people will play the game differently, or that the cooperative behavior of the “weak” was motivated by reputation effects. And since players varied their strategy depending on whether they were in a strong or weak bargaining position, moral theories that would predict that players in both roles would recognize the value of having a cooperative disposition (a la David Gauthier) can be dismissed, too.

Since it never makes sense in these games to cooperate against an uncooperative opponent, the most credible explanation of the “weak” to often cooperate is that this kind of behavior (or rhetoric) comes with being in an “unfavorable” strategic situation (i.e., one’s “social location.”) As the author of the paper notes, “Many (and on occasion most) of our participants swapped happily their cooperative choices for strategic aggression when they moved from the weaker to the stronger role.”

What to make of these results? For one thing, they could be seen as evidence that “power corrupts” and that the (formerly) “oppressed” will exhibit the same kind of aggressive behavior when they are in a position to become the oppressors. This is a popular view, and it does not seem these experimental results contradict it. This perspective also seems to reinforce political views that aim for the abolition of political power (anarchism) instead of giving all people (as represented by parties or coalitions) equal access to it (democracy). Of course, differences in bargaining power do not disappear in the absence of political power so even in a stateless society we would still expect to see the tendency of those in a strategically “weak” position to moralize. Also, in the real world there will often be “reputation” effects, and we would also expect people with natural (hereditary) advantages to find themselves more often in a stronger bargaining position.

It is undeniable, however, that “moral rhetoric” is often used by those in power (sometimes even more so), too, instead of just naked appeals to strategic advantage.  In a sense one could argue that in modern societies the division of resources is not exclusively settled by strategic advantage (or strength) but by a combination of strategic self-interest and moral rhetoric. We then would expect political actors that reconcile self-interest (or group interest) with evolved (“hardwired”)  moral outlooks (egalitarianism) to prevail.

Experimental evidence that those in a weak strategic position tend to play the “morality card” does not necessarily imply that the idea of a objective morality is a chimera. Many people still seem to believe that universal normative ethics is possible. On the other hand, a position of moral skepticism or moral nihilism does not mean that morality can be exclusively explained as a (psychological) response to a weak strategic position. In this sense, studies like these cannot provide definitive answers concerning the truth value of normative statements (or the lack thereof) or the evolutionary psychology of  moralizing. Also, the tendency to cooperate is not identical to moral rhetoric (or moral behavior in general) and additional research is needed to further differentiate between the two in the face of strategic weakness.

Our best understanding of moral behavior at this time is that it is an outcome of evolution and specific to species and their life history. In such an evolutionary perspective the question of which moral perspective is “correct” simply does not make sense. As this understanding of morality will come to dominate in society, bargaining will gradually come to replace traditional ethics and moral rhetoric will increasingly be seen as either ignorant or (deliberate) manipulation. Such a development  could be classified as the end of “morality” as we know it, but it can also been as the beginning of an era where modern (secular) humans arrive at a new understanding of what morality means. It is difficult to predict what a society will look like in which “a-moral” humans settle disagreements and conflicts about scarce resources exclusively by strategic interaction and conventions, but some efforts to understand and predict this have been made by writers like David Gauthier, Anthony de Jasay, and James Buchanan (albeit from different perspectives).

David Gauthier revisits Morals by Agreement

“The prohibition on bettering by worsening seems to me to lie at the core of any adequate social morality.” David Gauthier, 2013

In may 2011, the York University in Toronto organized a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement. Gauthier’s own contribution to the conference, “Twenty-Five On,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Ethics. Since Gauthier has only sporadically published since the start of this millennium, his article provides a valuable resource to understand how Gauthier’s views have changed since the publication of Morals by Agreement.

Gauthier identifies his contractarian approach as an alternative to both “Kantianism or utilitarianism” and contrasts the maximization paradigm of classical game theory with Pareto-optimization:

“Instead of supposing that an action is rational only if it maximizes the agent’s payoff given the actions of the other agents, I am proposing that a set of actions, one for each agent, is fully rational only if it yields a Pareto-optimal outcome….To the maximizer’s charge that it cannot be rational for a person to take less than he can get, the Pareto-optimizer replies that it cannot be rational for each of a group of persons to take less than, acting together, each can get.”

Gauthier’s rational cooperators (the updated version of his “constrained maximizers”) do do not “bargain” and interact on a maximizing basis but seek agreement using the principle of “maximin proportionate gain” (previously called “maximin relative benefit”). Unlike in Morals by Agreement, Gauthier does not really discuss under which conditions these issues are relevant, but perhaps they comes into play in the production of “public goods.” After all, as has been argued by philosophers such as Jan Narveson, without such an argument, Gauthier’s Lockean proviso can do all the important work without having to consider the distribution of goods arising from public action. As Anthony de Jasay has written:

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Interestingly enough, Gauthier has strengthened the role of his revised Lockean proviso:

“The proviso is not the whole of morality or even the last word, but it is, I believe, the first word. It provides a default condition that may be appealed to set a baseline for social interaction.”

It does not seem Gauthier has substantially revised his interpretation of the Lockean proviso. In a nutshell, the proviso forbids bettering oneself at the expense of another person. As such, the proviso can be “sharpened as a weapon of reason against parasitism.” As Gauthier appears to recognize in his discussion of “Robin Hood,” the proviso does not seem to leave much room for coerced income re-distribution where one party is worsened for the benefit of another (provided the proviso was not violated prior to this action). In his final remarks in an online discussion that his paper triggered, he writes:

“Any form of redistribution may involve a proviso violation, and so is prima facie wrong. Whether the violation is actually justified depends on (among other considerations) whether it rectifies an earlier wrong.”

While Gauthier has often followed John Rawls in characterizing society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” he now prefers the phrase “mutual fulfillment” because mutual advantage puts too much emphasis on “competitive or positional orientation” and is too restrictive. This change of wording, however, does not fundamentally change the contractarian framework that Gauthier advocates. In fact, one could argue that the word “contractarianism” suffers from a similar defect in characterizing his approach to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is where Gauthier reflects on the nature of his contractarian enterprise. In Gauthier’s opinion, absent a plausible justification of Kantian and utilitarian approaches, the Hobbesian contractarian approach is the only credible road to construct a modern, rational, approach to morality. As evidenced by his emphasis on the Lockean proviso, Gauthier’s contractarianism is not aimed at conferring legitimacy on whatever outcome results from markets and bargaining because this would privilege conditions that reflect prior violations of the provis. As such, his contractarianism is not an exclusive forward-looking approach using the status quo as a starting point. He writes:

“The key idea is that the best justification we can offer for any expectation or requirement is that it could be agreed to, or follow from what could be agreed to, by the persons subject to it, were they to be choosing, ex ante, together with their fellows, the terms of their (subsequent) cooperation. The hypothetical nature of the justification is clear—if, per impossible, you were to be choosing, together with your fellow humans, the terms on which you would interact with them, then what terms would you accept? Those are the terms of rational acceptance, the terms that you, as a cooperator, have good reason to accept given that others have like reason. “

In reality this requirement can, of course, produce vigorous discussion because it is rather challenging to objectively demonstrate who has unjustly benefited from violations of the proviso/contractarian approach and to what degree. This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that over time groups that were deprived of their liberties have now been granted special privileges by governments to offset such events. It also not clear how the individualist assumption embodied in Gauthier’s contractarianism can be squared with compensating victims (ranging from taxpayers to minority groups) by any other person than the specific individual(s) who engaged in behavior that violated the proviso.

Gauthier discusses three different objections to his contractarian approach.

The first is the objection that only actual contracts are binding. Gauthier replies that “actual agreement would not show that the terms agreed to were rational, since it privileges existing circumstances. The contractarian test, in taking the ex ante perspective, removes that privilege.” This perspective may sound overly optimistic because it requires that people who think about ex-ante agreement reach a specific determinate result (see below). In response to Gauthier, however, one could argue that there is an interesting asymmetry here. While the existence of a contract does not necessarily reflect (non-coerced) rational agreement, a person who denies and can demonstrate not having agreed to a certain obligation (as is the case with most government obligations) provides reasonably good evidence that the contractarian test has failed.

A second objection to the contractarian framework is that it is redundant. If it is rational to act in a certain way, than the appeal of a social contract is superfluous. Gauthier answers that this misses the point because individual rational behavior will not tell us what it would be rational to agree under “suitably constrained circumstances.” As with the first objection, it is clear that Gauthier, like Rawls, wants to push the reset button on existing circumstances to allow for a social agreement that does not privilege existing conditions. What is really important for Gauthier is to show that a rejection of existing conditions as a starting point does not follow from an (arbitrary) moral conviction but is required by his contractarian framework, a non-trivial challenge.

The third objection, and in my opinion the strongest, is that an appeal to ex-ante agreement does not yield a sufficiently determined result. One might even go further and argue that the substance of hypothetical agreements cannot be established in a meaningful fashion.

Gauthier disagrees and refers the reader to his paper on “Political Contractarianism,” where he outlines which kind of society would pass the contractarian test. Most readers read some kind of (moderate) libertarianism in his political writings (he also wrote a back cover endorsement of Jan Narveson’s “The Libertarian Idea”) so it would seem that in Gauthier’s view rational agreement produces classical liberalism, perhaps with some allowance for a very limited welfare state based on mutual insurance arguments (Gauthier’s own writings are not particularly clear here).

Gauthier may not sufficiently recognize that his emphasis on voluntary association, the Lockean proviso, and rejection of parasitism puts him at odds with many other philosophers and people. In particular, his position that there is a morally relevant distinction between “harming” and “failing to help” is a core libertarian belief that is not shared by many. When most people think about a (hypothetical) social contract they do not think about the terms of interaction (like Robert Nozick’s side constraints) but about specific conditions they would like society to conform to such as equality of opportunity or equality of income. Absent these conditions, they will “reject’ the society they live in, regardless of whether such conditions can occur without worsening the position of anyone. Similarly, Gauthier’s writings strongly reflect the perspective that non-zero sum interactions between people prevail in markets that pass the contractarian test, a position that does not seem to resonate with many people yet.

Both Gauthier’s approach to morality and his view of society as a cooperative venture for mutual fulfillment is far removed from the democratic “churning society” that we live in today. Gauthier seems to be very much a philosopher of the future, or of a society with people of high intelligence. This would be consistent with Steven Pinker’s perspective, who writes in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that the General Social Survey, which tracks the characteristics of society in the United States, contains hints that “intelligence tracks classical liberalism more closely than left-liberalism” (p. 663).

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Summer 2012 issue of the Independent Review features my review essay (PDF) of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. There can be little doubt that this work constitutes one of the most ambitious and credible contributions to social science to date. Although the review essay was written from a classical liberal perspective, I think that one of the main criticisms of Pinker’s project can be sustained without any kind of “ideological” perspective. In fact, one of the concerns I have about his project is that insufficient attention has been given to providing a neutral definition of violence. Why is this important?

If we would go back in time and challenge some of the violence that was routine in those days inevitable objections would be that these acts of cruelty should not be condemned because they simply involved the execution of God’s will, proper punishment, served “the common good,” etc. One of the themes of Pinker’s book is that we have become less tolerant of these kinds of justification for violence and acts of extreme cruelty. Naturally, this raises the question of whether there are still many acts of violence, cruelty, and punishment that are being rationalized with poor reasoning. In my review I suggest that most of what we consider the normal operation of government, such as collecting taxes and “regulation,” is sustained through violence and threats of violence.

One might object that this perspective reflects a minority position on violence that does not conform to common use of the term violence. I do not believe that this response would be credible because the common opinion is not that government operates without threats of violence (and punishment if one fails to obey) but that in this case the use of force is legitimate and socially sanctioned. In that case, however, Pinker’s project would not be about the decline of violence but the decline in violence not approved by governments. Pinker does not go that far because he does not exclude warfare by democratic governments from his review of violence, but there is something rather arbitrary about what matters to him.

For example, Pinker writes that “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other” but does not give good reason why we should view contemporary states much differently. In fact, one can even argue (as individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner have done) that modern democratic states do not only extort protection money but in turn use this against the victim in the form of “regulation.”

I suspect that what makes Pinker exempt force associated with normal government operations is that the actual use of violence is rather rare. But that is not necessarily because most people prefer paying taxes or complying with regulations but because individual resistance is not rational. As Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay Self-Contradictory Contractarianism (collected in his book Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order).

If the cost of rebellion is high, if the expected (“risk-adjusted”) value of its success is not very much higher, and if the very possibility of collective action against the sovereign is problematical (at least in normal peacetime conditions), then two plausible conjectures suggest themselves. The equilibrium strategy of the sovereign will be to use its discretionary power to satisfy its preferences, perhaps by exploiting all its subjects in the service of some holistic end, perhaps by exploiting some of them to benefit others. The equilibrium strategy of the subjects will be, not to resist, but to obey, adjust, and profit from the opportunities for parasitic conduct that coalition forming with the sovereign at the expense of the rest of society may offer.

A potential rejoinder to this argument is that the operation of government is necessary to prevent even more violence. Leaving the usual problems with utilitarian arguments like this to the side, such a perspective can at best confer legitimacy to a very minimal form of government and would not exempt most other operations of government. If social order and peaceful commerce can arise without government, there is no reason at all to exempt any operations of government from a critical perspective. Pinker does recognize the existence of anarchist perspectives but his treatment of this topic does not indicate a thorough familiarity with the literature on conflict resolution without the state. This is problematic because reason and commerce (two of Pinker’s drivers of the decline in violence) may be sufficient for a peaceful society. In fact, the advantage of commerce versus government (or ‘democracy’) is that commerce itself is a peaceful activity.

One might further object that there is a difference between war and collecting taxes on the one hand and regulating on the other. In a real showdown between individuals and government officials, however, the priority of government is to prevail using as much force as necessary. As mentioned above, that does generally not require a lot of force because most individuals recognize the futile nature of individual resistance. In fact, it may be the increase of intelligence and individualism that Pinker also discusses in his book that makes more people less inclined to mount heroic but ineffective forms of resistance.

This does not mean that Pinker’s claims are completely arbitrary and dependent on whether one includes normal government operations in his definition of violence. For example, it is indisputable that the nature of violence and the cruelty of punishment has seen substantial changes since the middle ages. Also, in spite of the increase of public force associated with the growth of modern governments, the tolerance of people for violence is still declining. In fact, many public debates concern forms of harm that can hardly be construed as violence (discrimination, ‘hate speech’, insensitivity, poverty, etc.). This phenomenon itself raises a rather interesting question. How can the widespread tolerance of government force co-exist with increasing sensitivities about acts of human behavior that do not even involve physical harm (or threats thereof)?

There are a lot of other interesting topics in Pinker’s book such as his treatment of the sociobiology of violence, morality, and ideology. On the topic of morality he writes:

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is not a treatise on (meta)ethics but Pinker’s evolutionary perspective leaves little room for grandiose moral theories and is more in line with classical liberal views in which morality is an emergent phenomenon that allows for peaceful human interaction, which is evidenced by his observation that “modern morality is “a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games” and that “assumptions of self-interest and sociality combine with reason to lay out a morality in which non-violence is the goal.”

He also observes that “to kill by the millions, you need an ideology.” At the same time he notes that “intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.” He does not discuss the potential tension between his (wholesale) rejection of ideology and his identification with classical liberalism. Perhaps Pinker believes, as does the author of this review, that classical liberalism, conceived in a non-dogmatic fashion, is not so much an ideology but a perspective that starts from the recognition that individuals have different interests and that reason can provide guidance to coordinate these interests to mutual advantage.

Against Politics: 15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception in 2000 the outlook of Against Politics has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom 

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.