Harry Browne's Cogent Wisdom, and Why I'm a Libertarian

Harry Browne, author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on politics, economics and investing, and the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, has passed away. We have lost a great libertarian.

In Harry’s last published article, "Why You’re A Libertarian," he gave the answer simply: You are a libertarian because "you’re willing to tolerate anything that’s peaceful, and you practice the principle of live and let live — opposing the initiation of force (violence) against anyone for any purpose.u201D This is the radical conception of libertarianism that he espoused, reduced to its glorious basics, ethically compelling, and unencumbered by a single concession to the statist impulse.

It is for these principles that I am a libertarian, and his campaigns were crucial in my development as one. In 1996, four years before I would be allowed by the state to vote in its presidential elections, I followed the campaign unusually closely for a freshman in high-school. Young and naïve, I believed that Bob Dole was the lesser of two evils, but Harry helped to open the doors to a much deeper understanding of political reality.

He ran a radical campaign, though, as always, he was able to make radical liberty sound appealing. Whereas many libertarian activists have managed to water down the message of liberty and yet still come off as extremist kooks, Harry demonstrated a rare ability to take principled ideas, backed up by complicated concepts in history and economics, and explain them to the average thinking person without losing focus of the goal of unbridled liberty and the forever incompetent and immoral state that would always make things worse.

By 1996, I had known that government was too big, that the drug war was a disaster, that, ideally, people should be allowed to live their lives as they saw fit. But Harry, even in the context of the often-corrupting, always frustrating task of politicking, helped to show me how to apply the ethical and practical cases for liberty to all issues, from the relatively dry and cool topic of healthcare to the boiling, inflammatory realm of foreign policy. As a teenager, having read his campaign book Why Government Doesn’t Work, I had an unusual appreciation for revisionist history, for radical interpretations of the Bill of Rights, for methodological individualism in economics — all of which I had seen first in Harry’s writings and incorporated in my discussions with the many people to whom I’ve since introduced libertarianism, often with success.

He was so convincing. One of the most convincing voices in the movement, in fact. He was notoriously civil, too, angering warmongering callers on his radio show and making talking heads such as Sean Hannity turn the color of blood simply by stating the truth politely, without raising his voice, allowing his detractors to lose their own arguments in enraged disbelief as Harry just sat there, smiling, good-natured, unwavering and sincere.

And how many other political candidates could respond to obscure questions about everything from environmental policy to secession with accessible answers, common sense, and an arsenal of solid facts? From him I first learned the inconvenient truth about Love Canal, the HMO Act, and the First World War. The knowledge was out there, in journals and academic studies. But we were all lucky, and still are, that the most well-known libertarian, the man whose words were widely seen as summing up our beliefs, the first impression of libertarian thought for millions of Americans, happened to have a clue what he was talking about.

I had wondered about the Civil War, which was an apparently huge government program with devastating losses in life and liberty for millions of Americans and yet had always been taught as an indispensable part of American history, freeing the slaves and preserving the United States as an entity. I had wondered about the New Deal, which I had disliked automatically but which many told me was crucial in saving the American economy. I had wondered about taxation, all of which seemed fundamentally contrary to libertarian principle but which appeared necessary to fund even a limited government. How unusual it was to get my first satisfactory answers to these difficult questions from a third-party presidential candidate.

It’s important for Americans to hear and read the kind of pithy arguments that Harry had mastered by his 2000 campaign. See his article on the seven vital principles of government for a wonderful sampling of his clear and concise treatment of the nature of the state. It’s essential that libertarians who speak to their friends and acquaintances in person and on e-lists have the deep understanding and ethical compass seen in his writing over the years.

I had the honor of meeting him several times. During the 2000 campaign, I told the candidate that I was very glad that he had chosen, despite the protests of rightwing elements within the movement, to stress that if he were elected, the first thing he would do is pardon all federal drug offenders. I respected that, and told him that I thought it would actually win him more votes than it would lose him. He replied to me that even if it lost him votes, he would still say it. He saw it as a moral imperative to oppose oppression, to say plainly and openly that libertarians cared about its victims and wanted to see the state violence stop immediately.

He knew he would never win the presidency. He thought the best political strategy within the framework of electoral politics was to use the media opportunities otherwise unavailable to the libertarian movement to explain in lucid English the libertarian philosophy and what it means for various issues. He didn’t hold back. He knew that there would be no libertarian future unless there were more libertarians, and that there wouldn’t be more libertarians until more people knew what libertarianism meant. He did not hide from the implications of freedom, but basked in them, and inspired so many of us to set our sights higher than we had thought possible.

His long-term strategy is correct, of course. Contrary to popular complaints, the problem we face has never been that people immediately think we’re the ones who want to legalize drugs, but rather that they don’t know what it is we believe, and why such positions as favoring drug legalization flow naturally from the philosophy.

His speeches could topple Berlin Walls in the minds of the yet unconvinced. One friend of mine gave up on leftist politics altogether after she heard him speak in person. In the flesh, he was even more persuasive than on C-Span or streaming video — and that is not faint praise; he had once said something beautifully disdainful of the very idea that the president should "lead" America, which had caught the ear of my apolitical friend, a true skeptic of libertarianism, as Harry’s cogent wisdom came through my cable modem line and out my computer speakers. "I want him to be president," my friend said. The great thing about it was that I did too, but I had no doubts that Harry himself didn’t want the loathsome job. What real libertarian would?

His speeches sometimes made me tear a little bit, especially when he quoted, as he often did, the conclusion of the poem, "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

That’s the America he wanted to live in, and he made me want to even more than I had.

For many libertarians, Harry’s greatest shining moments came after his stint in electoral politics. Starting on the day after 9/11 with his courageous article "When Will We Learn?" he was one of the brightest lights among the antiwar voices in the movement, explaining clearly that the terrorist attacks were a response to years of aggressive U.S. foreign policy, and that more acts of U.S. terrorism, such as the impending war in Afghanistan, were not the answer. He got a lot of heat for his remarks. But he made me proud that I had voted for him, the only candidate from the 2000 election to come out explicitly and unconditionally against the entire slate of disastrous and immoral domestic and foreign policies known collectively as the war on terror. As on so many other issues, following his guidance encouraged many libertarians to see matters clearly and not let understandably heated emotion cloud over reason and morality. He knew that war was the greatest enemy of our liberty, and that it, much more often than not, relied on a mountain of lies. See his brief analysis of Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN in February, 2003, for an example of how elegantly he cut through the fog.

On a personal note, I’ll miss his e-mails. He was one of those heroes of mine who would very occasionally e-mail me after I wrote something, reassuring me, whether he knew it or not, that I had indeed not said something too radical, after all.

The loss of Harry Browne, on March 1, 2006, is a tragedy for the libertarian movement. It is the newest reason to sympathize with a joke he cracked as emcee of a banquet at the 2004 Libertarian Party Convention in Atlanta, the last time I saw him, when he said, in reference to a libertarian activist he much admired who had passed away several years before: "I hate death." Dryly, he continued, "If I were president, I would outlaw death. And just like every other law, Congress would be exempt."

Harry appeared fond of joking. From what I could tell, he appreciated the pursuit of happiness nearly as much as he appreciated life, his "obsession" with which led to his "obsession" with war, its great adversary; and liberty, for which he fought without flinching throughout his admirable life.

He will be warmly regarded and highly respected as long as there are libertarians, and, I do believe, his influence has helped ensure that there always will be.