The most admirably fascinating aspect of the books Harry Browne wrote to accompany his two quixotic attempts to capture the White House for the Libertarian Party — Why Government Doesn’t Work (1995) and The Great Libertarian Offer (2000) — was his total lack of any interest in sharing a story of personal growth.
George W. Bush’s A Charge to Keep, for contrast, begins with a sappy convoluted discussion of the many wonders of evangelical sermons and the various Bush family inaugurations. John Kerry’s A Call to Service opens with his mother’s environmentalism, his father’s diplomacy, and the “steady diet of civic obligation” his children have been “nurtured” on. John Edwards’ Four Trials grabs immediately for the heartstrings by taking the first words of the book out of the mouth of a crippled man he represented in a civil trial. Dick Gephardt’s An Even Better Place: America in the 21st Century lays on all-we-had-was-our-wits-and-the-union schlock on pretty thick, relating on page one, “My father set a family pattern of frugality. He always used to say that the only way to have money was not to spend it.” (And that related how to Gephardt’s political platform?)
Browne, who passed away last week from Lou Gehrig’s disease, had no use for any such faux Regular Joe proselytizing. By page 40 of Why Government Doesn’t Work, the political and investment maverick had not told us one smidgen about his personal life, but had used that saved space instead to invoke James Madison to chide foreign aid proponents, torn down the New Deal as a disastrous political program with a great PR campaign, eviscerated the Federal Reserve as an economy killer not savior, and described the federal government in general as an “unworkable monster.” (Katrina response, anyone?)
At a time when every “town hall meeting” centered on how a particular candidate would arrange the government payoffs and payouts, Browne was unlikely to win many votes by grousing that the American government was “breeding a nation of welfare dependents, victims, litigants, thumb-suckers and buck-passers.” Yet in the very unrelenting totality of his attack on the political status quo in America; in his audacity to call for a government not of coercion but of minimal refereeing, Browne secured my vote as well as the votes of 384,431 other Americans unconvinced by Social Security lockboxes and compassionate conservatism. I didn’t care about wins or losses. I wanted to cast an anti-government vote that had some teeth.
IT’S PROBABLY A GOOD THING my respect for Browne was cemented before I had read his entire canon.
Case in point: How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World (1973) has some beautifully subversive chapters on how to evade government intrusion in one’s daily life. Of course, the first thing a sissy like me thinks when reading a line such as, “Sooner or later you’ll have to make a decision regarding your willingness to obey laws,” is “Oh, God, am I really? Please no!” And Browne’s insistence that, “while the totalitarian state may include a TV camera in every room, I doubt that the camera will work,” didn’t do much to buck up my law-breaking confidence.
Browne’s overarching idea that personal freedom must be divorced from an expectation of a future utopian society or others’ perceptions was one that resonated for me, then and now. Some of the more personal sections of the book gave me pause, however.
Under the header “Helping Others,” for example, Browne recounted a story about his landlady offering him a piece of cake as an example of how “indiscriminate gift-giving and favor-doing is usually a waste of resources — or worse can upset the well-laid plans of the receiver.”
“I won’t try to describe the various ways I tried to get the cake plate back to her without being confronted with a request for my judgment of her cake,” Browne explained. “Suffice to say that her well-intentioned favor interfered with my own plans.”
Even to a mind such as my own that often as not appreciates true believer zealousness, it seemed that sometime a piece of cake is just a cake rather than an attack on individual freedoms. Sometimes in life you just tell the nice lady the cake was good, thank you very much, and move on.
Further along Browne’s criticism was not limited to the freedom-restraining aspects of cake, however. He also suggested that even loving couples divorce to regain “individual sovereignty” and hold two-person auctions in their own homes to split their communal property. His recounting of his own divorce — “When my wife said she wanted it all, including sole access to my daughter, I accepted those terms without fighting. I knew I could reacquire everything I wanted on a better basis” — seemed almost a caricature of the capitalistic hedonist libertarians are so often accused of being and his thoughts on children versus freedom did little to quell that uneasiness. “If you have children now, ask yourself if they were in the dream world you imagined when starting from zero,” Browne suggested in a section advising how to begin anew. “If not, you aren’t likely to help them or yourself by taking them into your new life.”
THEN AGAIN, IT’S DIFFICULT to know what transformations Browne underwent between 1973 and 1995, by which time he was dedicating Why Government Doesn’t Work to his wife Pamela. Her description of her husband in a short addendum to that same book as “the most wise, kind, civil, benevolent man I’ve known in my life” suggests that whatever other experiences this man and woman had together, they most certainly did not sit around the house bidding against each other for their joint belongings in a private auction.
In recent years, Browne’s influence waned with some and grew with others for his Buchananite position on the September 11 attacks — in a nutshell, the terrorists are here, because we are over there. It wasn’t really all that unpredictable a contention in the context of what he had said and written in the past on American foreign policy, but writing a column expounding that worldview on September 12, 2001 was bound to ruffle some feathers. Browne didn’t care. Did anyone really expect him to?
Despite the eccentricities and sometime excesses, there were few advocates for individual freedom and actual limited government, especially within the Libertarian Party proper, who could seem so sane or argue so persuasively, using humor and careful study where others all too often simply offered sputtering indignation.
“Until they die, the hopeful remain just as enslaved as they’ve always been,” Browne wrote in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. “The plans, the movements, the crusades — none of these things has worked. And so the unfree man continues to dream, to condemn, and to remain where he is. There must be a better way. There must be a way to be free without having to wish for a miracle. It must be a way by which an individual can change things without having to rally the rest of the world to his side.”
During his lifetime Harry Browne never stopped striving to solve this puzzle. Along the way he encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to accept responsibility for their lives and personal freedom. We need not buy into every position he took or every stand he made to recognize the unfortunate uniqueness or true worth in that.