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The Most Underrated Works of Political Philosophy

August 18, 2010

Over at the Pileus blog, Jason Sorens asks for what are the most persuasive and insightful, but overlooked works in political philosophy. I assume he means overlooked by university courses, so my suggestions will work on that assumption. He breaks it down into categories by era. Here are my passed over greats, with emphasis on the non-conforming but thought-provoking:

19th Century

  • The Limits of State Action by Wilhelm Von Humboldt, whose work J.S. Mill cannibalized and regurgitated into On Liberty.
  • The Grand Inquisitor by Ivan Karamazov, which makes a very persuasive argument that by nature humans cannot bear very much freedom. The Inquisitor’s insights about the church apply mutatis mutandis to the state. “Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”
  • The Law by Bastiat. A classic in libertarian circles, but unknown to the philosophically credentialed. With great economy and eloquence, it covers topics that remain bugbears to this day, in particular the political economy of democratic plunder and the importance of unseen, disparate costs.

Early Modern

  • The Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim. There’s been a resurgence of interest in Durkheim (see Jonathan Haidt’s work) because, unlike many of the secular left who are blind to such things, Durkheim paid great attention to the emotional sources of what binds communities together. Whole aspects of human nature–the full panoply of its innate moral intuitions–have been ignored by contemporary philosophers and their models of the just state. Durkheim gives a sense of what motivates community building and, when read in tandem with Nietzsche’s death of God musings, provides a satisfying account for the rise of The People’s Romance and other barbaric hordes.


  • Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but only the last third of the book, A Framework for Utopia. The first two thirds have drawn fire from all comers for years. In fact, the book is now known only for these sections. You can earn yourself a PhD writing on Anarchy and State, but not Utopia, getting pats on the head if you point out that Nozick never justifies his notion of “rights.” This party upfront is extremely unfortunate–the last third of his book is a cascade of fireworks on competitive government, a reinvention of a theory of clubs, and is far more rewarding than the previous sections. It deserves more attention than this.
  • The Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan and The Logic of Collective Action by Mancur Olson–both seminal works in understanding the incentives of constitutions and democratic decision making procedures. These make Rawls’ Theory of Justice look like it was written in crayon by a kindergartner on a lunch bag.
  • The Use of Knowledge in Society by Hayek. Knowledge problem. Emergent spontaneous order. Nuff said.
  • Story by Robert McKee, Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy, and The Seven Basic Plots-Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. I view all of these books as providing a keen and deep understanding of how delusional the human mind can be when it tries to explain complex disaggregated phenomena such as the modern economy or a political system. The legerdemain of storytelling and its emotional drivers explain an overlooked aspect to the behavioral economics of the voting booth and the demand driving an insipid mass media.
  • Impro by Keith Johnstone. Develop a Robin Hanson like world view in one easy to read chapter. (Chapter 2, Status.)
  • Google Reader–why have a bias towards books, when the best and most intelligent writing is on the web?

There is, of course, our recommendations page, which has links to many of the articles, books and posts that explain and justify competitive governance.


  1. August 19, 2010 3:44 pm


    Newt Gingrich is pushing a “free cities” idea similiar to the charter cities discussed here.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      August 19, 2010 3:51 pm


  2. Max Borders permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:09 pm

    I’d add:

    > David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement
    > James Buchanan’s Between Anarchy and Leviathan
    > Michael Oakeshott’s On Human Conduct

    In fact, these are woefully under-appreciated in my humble o.

    • Max Borders permalink
      August 19, 2010 1:11 pm

      Sorry – Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan

      • Mike Gibson permalink*
        August 19, 2010 1:25 pm

        I have to admit I’ve never read Oakeshott. I should.


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