year will mark the 35th anniversary of the publication
of Harry Browne's self-help classic, How
I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.
While I don't
agree with everything in the book, I regard it as the best book
I've ever read, and I've read it and re-read it so many times that
I literally almost have it memorized. It's one of those books that
had such a profound effect on my thinking that I felt like a completely
different (and much improved) person after reading it. Except for
the Bible, never have I read something that is so full of wisdom
and so clear about life, people, and how the world really works.
the book to explain how most of life's restrictions and problems
are self-imposed; and to shake people awake from the unquestioned
assumptions that they make in life that cause them to blindly follow
what others expect of them, rather than realizing that their lives
are theirs to do with whatever they want; in most cases, other people
are in no position to force their demands on them.
these unquestioned assumptions "Traps," and they are the
core of the book's three sections.
section identifies the 14 basic Traps that Harry saw people falling
into, although he acknowledges that life has many other Traps.
his list of Traps, I'm going to add one of my own.)
section contains Harry's advice for freeing yourself from these
And the third
section contains Harry's instructions for implementing his advice.
at Harry's 14 Traps.
Trap is the Identity Trap, which is pretending to be something you're
not or expecting others to be like you.
have severe consequences. If you pretend to be something you're
not, it's impossible to experience one of the greatest joys life
has to offer, which is to be liked, and even loved, for who and
what you really are. That's an integral part of the bond of genuine
intimacy. How can you truly connect with people if they don't know
who you really are? And how can people who value your true traits
find you if you try to force yourself to be like everyone else?
advise constructing false differences for yourself, but he strongly
advises being honest about your real differences (in marketing,
this is called your unique selling proposition). Harry writes of
how his life improved dramatically once he came to terms with things
about himself that are commonly considered less-than-virtuous, such
as his laziness or how easily he was moved to tears by music he
liked, and by being honest with others about these traits.
you? What are you hiding about yourself for which someone else might
enthusiastically love you?
aspect of the Identity Trap is expecting others to act as you would.
This is a common trap that everyone has been guilty of at times.
this aspect, Harry advises accepting people as they are and focusing
on what you control, which is your response to how others treat
you. This attitude is one of the marks of a mature person, and adopting
it not just intellectually, but emotionally, will save you a lot
of grief in life.
No one owes
you love, friendship, courtesy, intelligence, honesty, integrity,
or anything else just because you want it or because you think they
"should" give it to you. Maybe they "should,"
but so what? If they don't, the fact that they "should"
isn't going to change what they're doing. It's a lot easier to look
for people who naturally are what you want than to try and change
those who aren't.
and Emotional Traps
two traps are the Intellectual and Emotional Traps, the Intellectual
being the expectation that your emotions should conform to what
your intellect knows, and the Emotional being the belief that it's
okay to make a decision — especially an important one — when your
emotions are dominating your mind and you can't see all of the consequences
Trap is to deny your emotions, which are the clearest indications
of pleasure or pain in your life. How can you really know what makes
you happy if you deny or suppress your happy feelings? And how can
you know that there's a problem in your life if you try to convince
yourself that something doesn't bother you?
your emotions rarely means that it's a good idea to act on them
in an emotional state, instead of first planning your response calmly
and rationally, after the emotions have passed. To do so is to fall
into the Emotional Trap. In my view, this is one of the most important
lessons to learn in life; I've probably never lost my temper, for
example, when I didn't later regret it.
Fans of Seinfeld
will remember the early episode where George lost his temper with
his boss, quit his job and stormed out, only to realize once he'd
calmed down that he had no other job prospects and should've waited
to calmly quit after he had lined up something else. That's a classic
example of someone falling into the Emotional Trap
was based on how Seinfeld co-creator and writer Larry David quit
Saturday Night Live in real life, after going almost a whole season
without having even one of his sketches air, only to have the one
they finally picked air at 12:55 A.M. — five minutes before the
show ended. After he told off his boss, Dick Ebersol, and stormed
out, David realized he needed the job, so he showed up the next
work day like it never happened, and no one said a word. But it
didn't work out so well in the story he wrote for George.)
So how should
a real George handle such a situation? He shouldn't deny his bad
feelings about his job, which is falling into the Intellectual Trap.
But he also shouldn't quit when consumed by those bad feelings,
without stopping to think of the consequences; that's falling into
the Emotional Trap. The two go hand-in-hand. He may decide that
his job isn't worth the stress and that he should quit, but he should
make that decision calmly after weighing all the consequences.
The next trap
Harry identifies is the Morality Trap, which is living by a moral
code dictated by someone else.
to Harry, there are three types of morality: Personal Morality,
which is a code of conduct you devise yourself, only for yourself,
based on the consequences of your actions to you; Universal Morality,
which is a code of conduct that will bring happiness to anyone who
follows it; and Absolute Morality, which is a moral code dictated
from someone wiser or better than you, such as God or a human guru.
believe that Universal Morality exists, because people are too different
to all receive happiness from the same code of conduct.
And he believed
the weakness in Absolute Morality is that it requires total obedience,
even if you believe that certain required conduct would bring you
So Harry advocates
following a Personal Morality, which he defines as a code of conduct
created by you, based only on the consequences of your actions to
In my view,
this definition of Personal Morality is one of the weaknesses of
the book, and it seems to be something Harry didn't think completely
through; by this logic, it would be fine morally to invade others'
bodies or property if it brought you no bad consequences (some people
have little or no conscience and wouldn't even suffer the consequence
of guilt). A more complete starting point for defining personal
morality would be to incorporate the libertarian non-aggression
axiom, and forbid yourself from doing anything that you believe
would bring bad consequences to you or that would violate anyone
else's body or property,
attack Harry as advising people to abandon organized religion, traditional
mores and bourgeois values. However, a Personal Morality could incorporate
outside teachings, and the bigger lesson to take from this chapter
is that, if you choose to follow a moral code derived from someone
or something else, you're still the one who made the decision to
follow it. So you're deciding for yourself even when you try not
necessarily advise you not to follow the advice or teachings of
others; he simply advises you not to follow them blindly, without
stopping to think about why you're doing it; or to follow something,
whether blindly or in spite of the fact that you consciously know
that you don't really believe it, just because you're trying to
impress others by presenting a false image of yourself.
trap is the Unselfishness Trap, which is the belief that you should
put others' interests ahead of your own. This isn't as callous and
hedonistic as it appears at first glance, and the popular connotation
of "selfishness" as being something that inherently hurts
others isn't true.
is that different things motivate different people, and no one does
anything unless they believe that they will either gain from it
or prevent some kind of loss. That was as true for Mother Theresa
as it was for Hitler. The gain may just be a warm feeling for doing
something nice for someone else or believing youu2018re storing riches
for the afterlife. But altruism is, at its core, really selfishness;
no one would engage in altruism if they literally saw no benefit
whatsoever for themselves in doing so.
Next is the
Group Trap, which is the belief that you can accomplish more by
acting in groups than you can by acting on your own. Harry didn't
believe that there's anything inherently wrong with participating
in groups; you may enjoy the social aspect or something else about
it. But you should be consciously aware that, if you just want to
accomplish something, you not only don't have to go through
a group, but it's actually easier to act on your own.
of this Trap is what Harry states is one of the most important keys
to finding freedom in life, which is understanding the difference
between what he called Direct and Indirect Alternatives. An Indirect
Alternative is one that requires you to go through others to get
what you want; a Direct Alternative involves you acting by yourself
to get what you want, without having to convince anyone else that
Harry gives is a college student who's dissatisfied with his school's
curriculum. An Indirect Alternative would be to circulate a petition
around campus or to lobby the school's board of directors to implement
your change. Direct Alternatives would be to change schools or study
the missing subjects on the side.
It's not that
there's necessarily anything wrong with trying to improve the world
or with wanting to be apart of a movement thatu2018s bigger than yourself;
it's that you should be consciously aware that you don't have to
do that to get what you want out of life — if you do it anyway,
it should be for other reasons.
also illustrates the permanence of involvement in social or political
movements. Let's suppose our student decides to use an Indirect
Alternative, working to persuade others that what he wants is right
— and he succeeds. Will that be the end of it?
Others probably liked the curriculum as it was; while still others
also wanted it changed — but to what they wanted. Do you
think they'll just roll over and accept the changes? If anything,
his success will show them that they, too, can change things. Our
student has just unwittingly enlisted himself in a battle that won't
end until he graduates (and even then it won't end, although it
won't be his problem anymore).
example, consider the abortion debate. Forty years ago, many pro-choice
people probably worked for their cause with the vague notion that,
if they succeeded, it would be V-J Day for them and they could quit
and go back to their regular lives. But they found out quickly that
their opponents weren't giving up, so they've had to spend 35 years
safeguarding their victory. Today, many pro-lifers probably toil
under the same mistaken notion of chasing their phantom V-J Day.
to consider the issue mathematically. For example, in a group of
100 people, you contribute 1% to the total if everyone works equally
hard, which of course they won't. If you do less than the others,
you contribute even less than 1%, so your efforts are statistically
meaningless; if you do more, your efforts are subsidizing the slackers
— but you'll still have to share the reward with them.
point isn't necessarily that you shouldn't fight for causes bigger
than yourself if you believe in them that much and it gives you
some sense of joy or accomplishment; the point is you should be
consciously aware that you don't have to do that to get what
you want, that there are easier, much more direct ways to keep the
issue from affecting you adversely, whichever side you're on, that
you don't have to spend your life fighting for or against
something that's never going away.
traps are the Government Traps, which are the beliefs that governments
perform socially useful functions that you should support; that
you have a duty to obey laws; and that government can be counted
on to enact a social reform you favor.
Not much more
has to be said about these points to libertarians, but let's examine
them a little more closely for those unfamiliar with these ideas.
the belief that you should support governments, naturally not all
laws — even bad ones — entail bad personal advice. Most libertarians
don't use illicit drugs, for example, and tend not to associate
with those who do, even though they believe others should be legally
free to do so. But we're back to Direct vs. Indirect Alternatives
again. If you want to avoid things like illicit drugs, there are
more direct, easier ways to ensure that they don't affect you or
your loved ones, without looking to the law to coerce others from
engaging in peaceful, voluntary behavior. Besides, as the Drug War
has shown, such laws usually backfire.
that you have a duty to obey laws is legal positivism, the belief
that the law should always be obeyed, regardless of its morality.
Nothing more has to be said about this to anyone with a pulse, except
that Harry isn't necessarily advising you to break the law; he's
advising that your concern should be the consequences to you (not
to an amorphous, ill-defined "society"), instead of being
concerned that you're breaking the law just because you're breaking
the law, or because you think the government's laws are moral ideals
that must be defended at all costs.
about the duty to obey is that there are now so many laws in the
U.S. that it's literally impossible to just go about your life,
minding your own business, without constantly breaking laws.
on the idea of looking to government to enact your social reforms
in his 1996 campaign book, Why
Government Doesn't Work. There he defined it as "The
Dictator Syndrome," which is the idea that something you want
the government to do will be enacted and applied exactly as you
envision it. This mentality reflects an incredibly naïve, unrealistic
view of the world and of government.
have an idea for a new law, so you call your Congressperson and
suggest it. Imagine that he or she likes your idea and introduces
it as a bill. What happens now?
A won't vote for it unless one thing is taken out; B won't vote
for it unless something else is added; and C won't vote for it unless
yet another thing is changed somehow. By the time it comes up for
a vote, it likely won't even remotely resemble what you had in mind.
And the president
may want more changes before he agrees to sign it.
If it becomes
law, do you think a judge or juror deciding a case will call you,
explain the case to you, and then say, "This law was your idea,
so I'd like to know how you'd like me to rule"?
not; you won't be consulted at any point during the process.
And the law
may even accomplish the opposite of what you intended.
Even if you
believe in the idea of government, it's the least efficient way
possible to get what you want.
numerous sensible alternatives for doing what you want without running
afoul of the law, and the biggest point here is that, contrary to
how it's often portrayed, governments are not omniscient; in fact,
what little they accomplish is usually done via the voluntary cooperation
of their citizens. For most things you'd want to do, there's little
chance of being caught; just don't flaunt what you're doing and
you probably have little to worry about.
trap is the Despair Trap, which is the belief that others can stop
you from being free or from having the kind of life you want. Harry
advises that there's a way out of almost any situation, no matter
how bleak it seems, if you use your imagination.
The next trap
is the Rights Trap, which is expecting your rights to make you free.
No sensible person would rely on their rights to get what they want
or protect them from harm, no matter how strongly they believe in
rights in theory.
As an example,
you probably believe that you have a right to keep your property
and that no one else has a right to steal it. But you don't leave
your front door hanging open when you go out and expect those rights
to protect you. You recognize the world for how it really is, regardless
of how you think it "should" be, and you concentrate on
what you control, such as locking your doors and windows, buying
insurance and an alarm, a dog or a gun, to protect your property.
Using what you control, you try to mitigate the threat as best you
can and make it in a thief's self-interest to go elsewhere.
And if you
suffer a theft anyway and you're an extraordinarily mature person,
you ask yourself if there's a lesson you can learn from it for the
future. If there is, you apply it. If there's not and you took every
precaution and it happened anyway, you calmly accept the fact that
the odds finally went against you, pay the damages and move on to
better things. You don't waste time or energy decrying the fact
that there are thieves in the world. You've always known that, and
there's nothing you can do to change it except to insulate yourself
from it as best you can, so why complain?
example, the government probably taxes you more than you think it
has a right to, depriving you of property you believe you have a
right to keep. It probably abuses you in other ways that you feel
violate your theoretical rights. But that doesn't stop it, does
the point isn't necessarily that you shouldn't campaign for rights,
if you want; the point is you shouldn't do so because you think
it's the only way to get what you want for yourself and those who
Trap is the Utopia Trap, which is the belief that you must create
a better world as a precondition to having the life you want. The
essence is the idea of Direct vs. Indirect Alternatives that we've
The next trap
is the Burning-Issue Trap, which is the belief that there are compelling
social or political issues that require your support, and that it’s
more important to join such causes than to make the most of your
own life. We've already covered the essence of this too.
discusses the Previous-Investment Trap, which is the belief that
any resource spent in the past must be considered when making a
decision in the present. This is a Trap that has affected everyone,
and it can be subtle.
an investor holds onto a stock that's in a loss position because
he feels he has to at least break even — and he probably loses more
by holding onto it. Or a man refuses to quit an unpleasant occupation
because he's had it for five years. Or a doctor finds that he hates
medicine, but won't quit because he doesn't want to "throw
away" the years he spent in medical school, or because he doesn't
want to disappoint his proud mother.
As Ron Paul
often says about Iraq, it makes no sense to attempt to justify past
mistakes by perpetuating them. Whether resources spent in the past
were spent wisely or not is irrelevant, because they're gone forever.
What matters is what you have left in the present that can be applied
to improving your future.
point here is the basic economic principle of there being other
costs in life besides money — such as time, opportunity or emotional
As an example,
Harry tells of a woman he knew who spent $150 (about $600 in 2007)
on a non-refundable, 15-lesson course. She confessed to him after
the first three lessons that the course bored her out of her mind.
When he asked her why she didn't quit, she said she couldn't because
she had $150 tied up in it, so now she "had" to finish
it. As Harry observes, she basically was saying that since she had
already wasted her money, now she was going to waste her time, too.
As Harry writes
at the end of the chapter, "Don't try to justify past mistakes
by perpetuating them. For when you do, you throw away the future
you could've had.
is a bright, glorious, free future ahead — if you keep looking forward."
The next Trap
is the Box Trap. Harry defines a "box" as any uncomfortable
situation, and the Trap as the belief that the cost of getting out
is too horrible to even consider.
A box can
be big, like an unhappy marriage; or small, like a boring dinner
every Sunday with your relatives.
of this chapter is to avoid getting stuck in a rut simply because
you can't think of anything better to do, or because you think the
price of getting out is too fearful to even consider.
examining your life, making a note of everything you're unhappy
with, and to getting tough with yourself and figuring out why you're
letting any uncomfortable situations continue.
It's not necessarily
that you shouldn't stay in the "box"; after you've examined
the situation closely, you may decide that the price required to
get out really is worse than staying in. But at least then you'll
have made a conscious decision to tolerate it, rather than just
going along with it because you're too afraid to face the reality
of what it would take to free yourself.
trap is the Certainty Trap, which Harry describes as being so certain
that what you know is true that it causes you to take unnecessary,
foolish risks because it never even occurs to you that you might
example is someone betting money he can't afford to lose on a stock,
certain that it "has" to go up.
wrong with taking calculated risks; in fact, it's impossible to
accomplish anything significant in life without taking risks. But
you should never lose sight of the fact that your information is
inherently uncertain, and that there may be factors you can't see
now. So take risks with that in mind, and be prepared for the fact
that you might be wrong — and, if you are, that the consequences
may be different, or even worse, than what you imagined.
to the previous Trap, which Harry left out of the book (ironically,
Harry identified this in a 2002 speech as the book's major omission,
long after it had occurred to me) is what could be called the Uncertainty
Trap, which is the state of being so consciously aware that what
you know is uncertain that it makes you afraid to do anything. The
fear of failure is a perfect example of this trap.
about the Certainty Trap, you have to take risks in life. Don't
take stupid risks without considering the consequences or the idea
that you might be wrong, but also don't let the knowledge that you
can't know for certain beforehand how something will work out cause
you to be too afraid to do anything. Figure out what you want, calmly
weigh the risks vs. the rewards, and consider the idea that you
might be wrong and that you can't see everything. Then, if you still
feel that the rewards outweigh the risks, and you feel you're as
prepared for uncertain outcomes as you reasonably can be, then take
So there are
Harry's 14 Traps, plus one of mine as a bonus.
If you'd like
to read about the Traps in more detail, as well as Harry's thorough
advice for how to free yourself from them, and how he ties all of
this together to explain how he found freedom in an unfree world
— and how you can too, the book is well, well worth your time and
money, and it would be a bargain even for $500.
can be found online in the usual places, like Amazon, eBay and Bookfinder.com,
but they've become rare and fairly expensive.
downloadable e-book is available at HarryBrowne.org for $9.75, and
Harry's widow, Pamela, has told me she intends to have it republished
as a hardcopy someday. (Please note that I have no financial interest
in the e-book; I'm just a great admirer of Harry's who's looking
to spread the joy of his work to others.)
With the Holiday
season approaching, this book would make a great Christmas or Hanukkah
Or just give
it to a friend or relative for no special reason but to say, "You're
special to me." I've given away numerous copies over the years;
recently I gave away another to two friends for their wedding.
Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, states on the back
cover of Harry's book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World
is "a gift of power and of joy for whoever yearns to be free."
Art of Profitable Living" course
How I Found
Freedom in an Unfree World arose partly out of a lecture series
that Harry used to give in the '60s called "The Art of Profitable
Living." (As a trivia note, that was also the working title
of the book.)
this year, Pamela Browne found a box of reel-to-reel audio tapes
of those lectures in her garage. She's working with the Advocates
for Self-Government to digitally re-master these tapes, which are
supposed to be released later this year as a 20-CD course. They
need donations to finish the project; to learn more, please visit
HarryBrowne.org, which also
contains much more information about Harry Browne's life and work.
[send him mail]
writes from Wichita, KS.