How Harry Found Freedom in an Unfree World


Next 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.

Harry wrote 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.

Harry calls these unquestioned assumptions "Traps," and they are the core of the book's three sections.

The first section identifies the 14 basic Traps that Harry saw people falling into, although he acknowledges that life has many other Traps.

(Following his list of Traps, I'm going to add one of my own.)

The second section contains Harry's advice for freeing yourself from these Traps.

And the third section contains Harry's instructions for implementing his advice.

Let's look at Harry's 14 Traps.

The Identity Trap

The first Trap is the Identity Trap, which is pretending to be something you're not or expecting others to be like you.

Both Traps 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?

Harry doesn't 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.

What about you? What are you hiding about yourself for which someone else might enthusiastically love you?

The other 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.

Regarding 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.

The Intellectual and Emotional Traps

Harry's next 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 clearly.

The Intellectual 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?

However, accepting 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

(This episode 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 Morality Trap

The next trap Harry identifies is the Morality Trap, which is living by a moral code dictated by someone else.

According 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.

Harry didn't 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 unhappiness.

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 you.

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,

Many will 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 to decide.

Harry doesn't 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.

The Unselfishness Trap

Harry's next 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.

Harry's point 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.

The Group Trap

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.

The heart 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 you're right.

An example 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.

Harry's example 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?

Probably not. 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).

As another 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.

Also stop 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.

Again, the 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.

The Government Traps

Harry's next 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.

Regarding 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.

The belief 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.

Another point 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.

Harry elaborated 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.

Suppose you 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?

Congressperson 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"?

Of course 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.

Harry discusses 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.

The Despair Trap

Harry's next 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 Rights Trap

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?

As another 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 it?

As always, 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 care about.

The Utopia Trap

Harry's next 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 already discussed.

The Burning-Issue Trap

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.

The Previous-Investment Trap

Next Harry 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.

For example, 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.

An important point here is the basic economic principle of there being other costs in life besides money – such as time, opportunity or emotional distress.

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.

"There is a bright, glorious, free future ahead – if you keep looking forward."

The Box Trap

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.

The principle 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.

Harry advises 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.

The Certainty Trap

The final 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 be wrong.

The obvious example is someone betting money he can't afford to lose on a stock, certain that it "has" to go up.

There's nothing 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.

The Uncertainty Trap

The corollary 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.

As discussed 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 action!

Buying the book

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.

Hard copies can be found online in the usual places, like Amazon, eBay and, but they've become rare and fairly expensive.

However, a downloadable e-book is available at 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 present.

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.

As Richard 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."

PS: "The 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.)

Earlier 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, which also contains much more information about Harry Browne's life and work.

September 26, 2007