Oooh, that’s tough.
Since you didn’t specify, I’ll assume you mean that anyone, living or dead, is fair game. Also, I’m going to treat the “libertarian” category a little loosely, and I’ll probably be dissatisfied with this list as soon as I publish it, but here goes (in chronological order):
- John Locke. While not a libertarian per se, the influence of the father of classical liberalism, particularly here in America, is huge.
- Adam Smith. Also a classical liberal, Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor and other ideas in his The Wealth of Nations have been incredibly influential. Even Murray Rothbard, who was quite critical of Smith’s most famous work, couldn’t deny its “colossal impact.”
- Frédéric Bastiat. Author of The Law and the parable explaining the broken window fallacy. Enough said.
- Ludwig von Mises. And with Mises, of course, comes Murray Rothbard. While these Austrian Economists are not famous among the general public, their influence has still been significant. Lew Rockwell, founder of the Mises Institute, is something of a modern successor. (I know, it’s kind of cheating to list them all at once.)
- Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt was a journalist and able popular apologist for libertarianism in the 20th century. While Hazlitt is now best remembered for Economics in One Lesson, he was widely known in his writing heyday as a prominent libertarian voice. New York Times bestselling author Tom Woods is something of a modern Hazlitt, albeit without the regular gig at Newsweek or its equivalent.
- Freidrich Hayek. I’m not a huge Hayek fan — consistent he most certainly was not (come on, Pinochet? Really? Not to mention the support for redistribution) — but the man won the Nobel Prize and reached many with The Road to Serfdom, which continues to be a bestseller 70 years after publication.
- Isabel Paterson. Along with Rand and Lane (below), Isabel Paterson is one of the three “founding mothers” of modern American libertarianism.
- Ayn Rand. As I've recently mentioned, Ayn Rand is not my cup of tea, but her influence can’t be denied. Actually, she’d be quite angry to be listed as an influential libertarian, which amuses me.
- Rose Wilder Lane. See above.
- Ron Paul. Duh.
- Rand Paul? Much too soon to tell. We’ll see.
I could easily go on, of course: Albert Jay Nock, Jacob Hornberger, Lysander Spooner, Glenn Greenwald, Zora Neale Hurston…there are so many others who, in one way or another — and whether they would call themselves “libertarian” or not — have done much to advance the message of liberty.
For most of those alive today, of course, it’s really too soon to tell. That’s why, at risk of verging into the same kind of foolishness that led Time to name “You” the Person of the Year a few years back, I’d add our generation to the list. There’s a real sense in which our generation is being “raised libertarian,” and I suspect and hope that this list will be much more difficult to make (and much more diverse) 30 years from now.
But in the meantime, who would you add? Who would you subtract? Who do you agree is already a good choice?