Is Machiavelli Friend or Foe to Liberty? (May 2022)
Niccolo Machiavelli remains one of the most contested figures in the history of liberalism. Was he an advocate of republican government, or an adviser to tyrants? Did he preach a politics of fear or a politics of civility? We asked several scholars where they thought Machiavelli's place in this history ought to be. Over the course of this month, you'll hear from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Whether we can arrive at a definitive answer to our question remains to be seen. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Edward J. Harpham, Is Machiavelli a Friend or Foe to Liberty?
On the face of it, the answer to the question “Is Machiavelli a Friend or Foe to Liberty” seems relatively straightforward. Over the last 40 years, scholars have placed Machiavelli at the heart of civic humanist and republican traditions of political discourse. Here Machiavelli serves as an important bridge between ancient concerns about political liberty in Greece and Rome and modern concerns about republican and democratic forms of government in nation states. His exhortation at the end of The Prince “to seize Italy and free her from the barbarians” speaks powerfully to contemporary views of political liberty and the nation state.
From the civic humanist or republican traditions, Machiavelli appears to be a close friend to liberty. In fact, the issue is a complicated one. In this essay, I propose to reassess Machiavelli on liberty by discussing three related issues: Machiavelli’s view of individual freedom in political action; his understanding of the nature of political liberty in free cities; and his problematic treatment of the political liberty of other political communities and of the personal liberties available to individual citizens residing in a “free city.”
Liberty and the Individual
Machiavelli’s goal in writing The Prince is to rethink conventional wisdom on how Princes should act in the world if they want to be successful. He begins by cautioning Princes to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. Did they come to power by inheriting it (convention), luck (fortune), or skill (virtù)? What approaches should Princes adopt to address their weaknesses? Should they be loved or hated? Generous or stingy? Cruel or compassionate in their actions? In their exercise of power, should they rely on mercenaries or militias? The general thrust of his analysis is to equate freedom of action with independence. Free political actors possess virtù when they are not dependent upon fortune or upon other human beings for their success. To be a free and independent political actor, one must learn to see through the illusions created by others and cultivate one’s own political illusions to manipulate others. As he concludes at the end of Chapter 24, “No method of defense is good, certain, and lasting that does not depend on your own decisions and your own strength [virtù].” (Machiavelli 1994: 74)
In Chapter 25, Machiavelli extends this discussion of an actor’s freedom in politics when he asks the deeper philosophical question of free will in political affairs. How much of our lives are governed by fortune or God, and how much by our own actions? His answer is revealing: “Nevertheless, since our free will must not be eliminated, I think that it may be true that fortune determines one half of our actions, but that, even so, she leaves us to control the other half or thereabouts.” (Machiavelli 1994: 74) Fortune cannot be completely controlled by any individual, but it can be guided and directed by prudential actions that minimize damage caused by fortune and maximize individuals’ control over their own destiny. The metaphor of building up banks and sluices to control a rampaging river captures the essence of what freedom means to an individual political actor.
Two things are worth noting about Machiavelli’s notion of individual political freedom in The Prince. First, he is not discussing metaphysical freedom but practical freedom in the world of political action. He is not giving philosophical arguments about why an individual possesses free will or how freedom might be attained by adopting a certain religious perspective in this life. His concern is about political action, with a working assumption that free will “may be true” and not that it “is true.” To teach Princes how to be effective in political affairs demands assuming that possessing virtù and attaining independence from fortune and the actions of others is possible. For Machiavelli, we must grant this assumption about free will if we are to have any meaningful control over practical political affairs.
Second, he merges this discussion of virtuous actors’ ability to control their own destiny with the plight facing contemporary Italy in his time. He writes, “If you think about Italy, which is the location of all these changes in circumstance, and the origin of the forces making for change, you will realize she is a landscape without banks and without any barriers.” (Machiavelli 1994: 75) Machiavelli’s education of an effective and free political actor is part of his desire to create an effective and free political community in modern Italy. As he notes at the beginning of the concluding chapter of The Prince “Italy, so long enslaved, awaits her redeemer.” (Machiavelli 1994: 79)
Political Liberty in the City
Much as The Prince is about creating an effective and independent political actor, The Discourses is about building a virtuous people capable of making their city effective and independent in international affairs. A free city is one that is self-governing and independent of outside influences important to affairs of state. Citizens are free through their participation in the institutions of a free city. A city’s success is measured by its ability to impose itself on other communities and to survive over time. Creating a virtuous city is much more complicated than creating a virtuous Prince. To engage in free political actions, Princes need to be taught how to look at the world properly so that they might act effectively in a world of ongoing change. In contrast, cities need institutions and religious practices to instill virtù into the citizenry, enabling them to remain committed to the public good, rather than to narrow interests that promote factionalism in public life. The practical problem facing legislators of great cities is learning how to establish religious practices and political institutions that instill virtù into the people as a whole and make the city free and self-governing over an extended period.
In his analysis of the institutions and practices of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli makes numerous contributions to our understanding of political freedom. Three stand out. First, he takes seriously the idea that in political life we “should assume that all men are wicked and will always give vent to their evil impulses whenever they have the chance to do so.” (Machiavelli 1994: 92). Other than the belief in the importance of a free city, there is no place for sentimentality in Machiavelli’s view of man or the city. Second, his analysis of political freedom highlights the importance of constitutional, religious, and educational practices. If free cities are to survive over time, they need anchoring in the principles and practices that made them great at their founding. They must return to these founding principles and practices periodically through political reforms or institutional innovation. Third, he argues that tensions and conflicts found in a city can serve the public good by making the city stronger. Mixed government that balances aspects of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic regimes can be more effective and powerful than any one pure regime. Checks and balances in the constitution of a city can foster political freedom domestically and internationally by making the city more powerful. One key for Machiavelli is to identify the group in the city that has an interest in protecting the liberty of the city. “Depending on whether this task is entrusted to the right group or not, political liberty will be preserved for a longer or shorter period of time.” (Machiavelli 1994: 95) In practical terms, this means deciding whether a city’s goal is simply to defend itself from outside forces (as was the case of republics like Sparta and Venice) or to impose itself on others through territorial expansion (as was the case in Rome). The former relied on the elite for maintaining political liberty; the latter depended upon the populace.
The Limits to Machiavelli’s Vision of Liberty
Machiavelli’s vision of liberty is flawed in two important ways, one involving international affairs, the other domestic affairs. First, in Machiavelli’s eyes the Roman Republic and its citizens were free because they could impose their will upon other political communities. Roman freedom in international affairs involved the oppression of others. Political freedom was, in this regard, a zero-sum game with one winner and many losers. Why should my nation’s political freedom constrain your nation’s freedom? Machiavelli suggests that inwardly looking cities like Sparta and Venice might offer an alternative to expansionist Rome, but their elitist politics bred discontent and class conflict that threatened the stability of both cities. (see Machiavelli 1994: 96) In a pluralistic world, it is increasingly difficult to accept Machiavelli as the final word about political liberty in international affairs.
A second limitation is equally problematic. There is no space in Machiavelli’s thought for a modern notion of a society composed of free individuals pursuing different private concerns and values. Nor is there any sense that such individuals might have the right to govern their own private lives, actions, or property freed from the interference of the city. In Machiavelli’s world, order does not emerge from the experiences or actions of individuals voluntarily coming together to promote their own ends in their everyday lives. Order is imposed from the top down through the actions of an independent Prince or the institutions of a self-governing virtuous community. Liberty for the citizen is acquired through participation in a larger community that is self-governing and independent, not a condition of being left alone by that community to pursue one’s personal vision of happiness.
In 1815, Benjamin Constant drew an important distinction between ancient and modern forms of liberty that is relevant to my assessment of Machiavelli’s view of liberty. He writes, “The freedom of ancient times was everything which assured the citizens the biggest share in the exercise of political power. The freedom of modern times is everything which guarantees the citizens independence from the government.” (Constant: 361). Seen in this light, Machiavelli is a close friend to ancient notions of political liberty. But he remains, at best, a distant acquaintance to modern notions of liberty where personal liberty is valued alongside a variety of other modern forms of political liberty including the vote and the rule of law.
Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli. 1990. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Colish, Marcia L. 1971. “The Idea of Liberty in Machiavelli.” Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 32. No. 3: 323–350.
Cavallo, Jo Ann. 2014. “On Political Power and Personal Liberty in The Prince and the Discourses.” Social Research. Vol. 81. No. 1: 107-132.
Constant, Benjamin. 2003. Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments. Edited by Etienne Hoffman. Translated by Dennis O’Keefe. Introduction by Nicolas Capaldi. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Hörnqvist, Mikael. 2004. Machivelli and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1988. Florentine Histories. A New Translation by Laura F. Banfield and
Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. With an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1994. Selected Political Writings. Edited and translated by David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Inc.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1996. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McCormick, John P. 2018. Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements and the Virtue of Populist Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pettit, Philip. 2011. “The Republican Ideal of Freedom.” In David Miller, ed. The Liberty Reader. London and New York: Routledge. Pp. 223-242.
Pocock, J.G.A. 1973. Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History. New York: Atheneum.
Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition.
Pokhovnik, Raia. 2011. “An Interview with Quentin Skinner.” Contemporary Political Theory. Vol. 10, 2, 273-285.
Rahe, Paul A. 2006. Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shaw, Carl K.Y. 2003. “Quentin Skinner on the Proper Meaning of Republican Liberty.” Politics. Vol. 23. No. 1: 46-56.
Skinner, Quentin. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Skinner, Quentin. 1981. Machiavelli. New York: Hill and Wang.
Skinner, Quentin. 1998. Liberty Before Liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Skinner, Quentin. 2006. “A Third Concept of Liberty.” In David Miller, ed. The Liberty Reader. London and New York: Routledge. Pp. 243-254.
Viroli, Maurizio. 2014. Redeeming the Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 Colish (1971) provides an excellent analysis of the ways that the idea of liberty is used in Machiavelli’s various works.
 There is an enormous literature on Machiavelli’s place in civic humanist and republican political discourse. See Pocock (1973, 1975), Skinner (1978, 1981, 1998, 2006). See also Pettit (2011), Shaw (2003), Viroli (2014), Hörnqvist (2004), and Bock, Skinner, and Viroli (1990). Pokhovnik (2011) provides Skinner’s reflections on the evolution of his interpretation of republican and neo-roman thought out of the work of Machiavelli. For readings that situate Machiavelli in alternative interpretive frameworks see McCormick (2018, chapter 6), Rahe (2006), and the editors’ introductions to Machiavelli (1988, 1994, 1996).
 I disagree with Colish (1974: 345-346) and Cavallo (2014) who argue that Machiavelli “clearly identifies freedom with the protection of private rights.” (Cavallo: 107). Concern over personal liberty is, at best, marginal for Machiavelli. The thrust of his argument is about the liberty of the city and the political freedom provided to citizens by the city. He does not offer any systematic way for understanding the autonomous rights of individuals or the operations of what we might call a “civil society.”
James E. Hartley, Is Liberty a Means or an End?
The course of the Roman republic demonstrates extremely well how difficult it is, in ordering a republic, to provide for all the laws that maintain it free.…[I]f those cities that have had their beginning free and that have been corrected by themselves, like Rome, have great difficulty in finding good laws for maintaining themselves free, it is not marvelous that the cities that have had their beginnings immediately servile have not difficulty but an impossibility in ever ordering themselves so that they may be able to live civilly and quietly.
Liberty is not the default state for a society. Looking at 16th century Italy in The Prince and the early years of the Roman Republic in Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli amply demonstrates liberty was indeed a very tenuous thing. Regardless of whether authority in a country is nominally lodged in a prince or the people, liberty is always at risk.
How, then, can a society achieve liberty? Having achieved it, how can liberty be preserved? Enter Machiavelli, who explains that since liberty does not arise and maintain itself, it needs the help of an enlightened ruler. He offers his counsel, like the friend who cares enough about you to tell you what you really do not want to hear. To enable a society to live in freedom requires someone willing to do hard, and often unpleasant, work.
How unpleasant in the work of establishing and maintaining liberty? You should not get into this business if you want to keep your hands clean. “This will always be known by those who read of ancient things: that after a change of state, either from republic to tyranny or from tyranny to republic, a memorable execution against the enemies of present conditions is necessary.” A memorable execution is necessary? That is blood, not dirt, on the hands of the ruler. A free state creates many enemies, which inevitably create problems for the ruler. “If one wishes to remedy these inconveniences and the disorders that the difficulties written above might bring with them, there is no remedy more powerful, nor more valid, more secure, and more necessary, then to kill the sons of Brutus.” Who were these sons of Brutus? Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew the last of the Roman kings and established a republic in 509 BC. His own sons soon joined a plot to bring back the monarchy. Once discovered, Brutus’ sons were flogged and beheaded while their father watched. Machiavelli approves.
What good comes of these executions? In yet another rather revealing anecdote Machiavelli demonstrates the objective. A duke wanted to pacify an unruly region.
So he put there Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and ready man, to whom he gave the fullest power. In a short time Remirro reduced it to peace and unity, with the very greatest reputation for himself. Then the duke judged that such excessive authority was not necessary, because he feared that it might become hateful; and he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with a most excellent president, where each city had its advocate. And because he knew that past rigors had generated some hatred for Remirro, to purge the spirits of that people and to gain them entirely to himself, he wished to show that if any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having seized this opportunity, he had him placed one morning in the piazza at Cesana in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.
One can well imagine that having seen a ruthless and cruel ruler thus dispatched, the people felt an overwhelming sense of freedom from cruel tyranny.
Machiavelli patiently explains, page after page, that achieving and maintaining liberty sometimes requires illiberal means. Indeed, a society which wants to be free must prepare for the day of trouble in which it needs to abandon its freedom. “So a republic will never be perfect unless it has provided for everything with its laws and has established a remedy for every accident and given the mode to govern it. So, concluding, I say that those republics that in urgent dangers do not take refuge either in the dictator or in similar authorities will always come to ruin in grave accidents.”
As Machiavelli proceeds in his analysis of good statecraft, one begins to notice the contradiction. If preserving liberty means frequently resorting to illiberal methods, what exactly is the difference between living in a free state and living under a tranny? Is the difference purely the relative number of atrocities?
We begin to see the solution to this puzzle of whether liberty can only be maintained by illiberal means when we observe why Machiavelli thinks people care about freedom. The people’s interest in liberty is extremely parochial. “[T]he common utility that is drawn from a free way of life is not recognized by anyone while it is possessed: this is being able to enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion, not fearing for the honor of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself.” As Machiavelli observes in The Prince, a ruler can avoid becoming hated “if he abstains from the property of his citizens and his subjects, and from their women.” For Machiavelli, this is the entire extent of the blessings of liberty. It is not freedom of speech or religion or the press or assembly or trial by jury that matters to people. It is simply making sure their bank accounts and spouses are not appropriated by the rulers.
The error of thinking that Machiavelli is acting as a friend to liberty arises because we have not been clear about the nature of liberty in his writings. For Machiavelli, liberty is a means, not an end. He attributes the source of thinking of liberty as a means to the people themselves. A ruler “should examine what causes are those that make [peoples] (sic) desire to be free. He will find that a small part of them desires to be free so as to command, but all the others, who are infinite, desire freedom so as to live secure.” Security, not liberty, is the desired end.
If liberty is a means and not an end, it explains everything that Machiavelli has counseled above. While Machiavelli never actually explicitly said the ends justify the means, it is not farfetched to attribute such a sentiment to him. If liberty is useful in attaining the end of secure society, then by all means, liberty should be promoted. But, at the first sign that liberty is not a useful means, it should be abandoned hastily.
Far from being that ever honest friend to liberty telling us what we do not want to hear, Machiavelli is the serpent in the garden, whispering sweetly in the ears of a would-be ruler that the appearance of supporting liberty is a good means to achieving and maintaining power. In talking about whether a ruler should be morally good, Machiavelli notes:
[It] is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary.
In exactly the same way, it is more important to appear to care about liberty than to actually make that the end toward which you are striving.
Machiavelli’s influence is thus quite pernicious. The ruler who comes to power with the promise of bringing liberty is soon corrupted. Machiavelli is quick to note “how easily men are corrupted and make themselves assume a contrary nature, however good and well brought up.” But, this path to corruption is made easier by Machiavelli’s frequent reminders that abandoning liberty sometimes really is necessary: “Whoever takes up the governing of a multitude, either by the way of freedom or by the way of principality, and does not secure himself against those who are enemies to that new order makes a state of short life.”
Sadly we have seen Machiavelli’s influence in generation after generation. By encouraging us to think about liberty as a means rather than an end, Machiavelli has made it all too easy to abandon the commitment to liberty whenever more convenient means come along to achieve desirable ends.
Machiavelli, Niccolo (1996) Discourses on Livy, Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, translators, University of Chicago Press.
Machiavelli, Niccolo (1998) The Prince, Harvey Mansfield, translator, University of Chicago Press.
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 49
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, III 3
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
 Machiavelli, The Prince, VII
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy p. I 34
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
 Machiavelli, The Prince, XVII
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
 Machiavelli, The Prince, XVIII
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 42
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
Dr. Harpham currently is Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas at Dallas. He was the inaugural Dean of the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College (2014-2021), inaugural Director of the Collegium V Honors Program (1998-2014), and Associate Provost of UT Dallas (2008-2021). He held the Mary McDermott Cook Chair in the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College from 2018-2021. Dr. Harpham teaches courses in political theory, American government, and Texas politics.
Dr. Harpham is the author or editor of 10 books, one that has gone through 7 editions, one that has gone through five editions, and two which have gone through 2 editions. He also has published numerous professional articles, chapters in books, and on-line publications in the fields of political theory and American politics. The unifying theme to Dr. Harpham’s work is the exploration of the relationship between economics and politics in the modern world.
James E Hartley is Professor of Economics at Mount Holyoke College, where in addition to economics courses, he has taught multiple courses using the Great Books, including “Western Civilization: An Introduction Through the Great Books,” “Leadership and the Liberal Arts,” “Is Business Moral?” (developed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities), and numerous tutorials and reading groups on the Western Canon. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Kolkata, India, and returned to India a second time as a visiting professor at IISWBM (India’s oldest business school) and gave talks throughout Northeastern India in events organized by the US Consulate. You can follow him at https://jamesehartley.com or on Twitter @JamesEHartley.
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