Looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer? Try Libertarianism for Beginners by Todd Seavey with illustrations by Nathan Smith.
As the title suggests, this is not a book for someone already steeped in libertarian economics, history, or philosophy. Nor is it for liberty activists already familiar with the liberty movement's various factions.
This book is for the "educated laymen" who wants a quick introduction to libertarian ideas and to the movement. In only 200 pages, Todd (confession: Todd is a personal friend) outlines the basics of libertarian philosophy, traces the history of libertarianism from its roots in classical liberalism of the 18th century, explains the competing schools of thought that libertarians adhere to (e.g. Austrian School vs. Chicago School, natural rights versus utilitarianism); looks at various factions within the movement; and provides mini-bios of leading libertarian figures such as Misses, Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and Campaign for Liberty Chairman Ron Paul. Todd's book also contains Nathan Smith's wonderfully clever illustrations.
Todd defines libertarianism as a philosophy rooted in property rights and the non-aggression principle. He also embraces the subjective theory of value, which means that individuals place different values on goods and services. Since individual preferences differ, it is impossible for government to efficiently plan society so as to maximize each individual's happiness.
The book also examines many of the criticisms hurled at libertarians--such as: What would happen to the poor in a free society? How do you stop businesses from selling shoddy products and mistreating their workers without government regulations? Won't giving individuals the freedom to make their own lifestyle choices lead to rampant immortality? Who will educate the children and pick up the trash?
While I enjoyed reading this book, and am impressed that Todd put so much into a 200-page book, I do have a few quibbles. For one thing, Todd claims that the liberty movement's various factions and incarnations arose in the 90's alongside the growth of the Internet. The Internet facilitated the growth of factions along with the (usually pointless) infighting among them, but the various competing strains of libertarianism -- as well as the inter-movement feuding and fighting -- date back to the 1950's and 1960's. I also don't think Bill Clinton-era "neoliberalism" is necessarily part of the libertarian intellectual or political heritage.
My biggest complaint with the book is that Todd gives short attention to the explosion in interest in libertarianism sparked by the Ron Paul rEVOLution. In his brief bio of Ron Paul, Todd mentioned that his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns did "raise awareness of libertarian issues, attract new people to the movement, and pushed the GOP in a libertarian direction." This is an understatement considering that there are literally millions of Americans, and people round the world, who became familiar with libertarianism because of Ron Paul.
Todd also does not mention the growing number of pro-liberty elected officials, such as Representative Thomas Massie. Other than a brief mention of libertarianism's influence on the Tea Party, there is no mention of the growing non-partisan movement, led by organizations like Campaign for Liberty, that is moving public policy in a pro-liberty direction.
These quibbles aside, Libertarianism for Beginners is an excellent introduction to the ideas, history, and of various shades of libertarianism.
And you still have time to order it before Christmas!