Harry Browne, 10 Years Gone

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We lost Harry Browne ten years ago today. He was a co-founder of DownsizeDC.org. The best-selling author and former presidential candidate was also a friend and mentor to me. His work lives on at HarryBrowne.org.

Harry was a fan of the Read the Bills Act and of what became our Educate the Powerful System. But…

  • One Subject at a Time and Write the Laws bills didn’t yet exist.
  • The 2008 financial crisis hadn’t happened.
  • Only a couple states had medical marijuana, let alone full legalization.
  • And who could have predicted Edward Snowden?

Harry would’ve had something unique and useful to say about all these subjects. Instead, his voice is missing. We’re poorer for it.

Harry’s wife, Pamela, gave me a framed picture of Harry that sits in my office. I think of him often. And I wonder what he would have to say about what I’m doing now? Let me take a stab at my 2016 version of an answer to that question…

Harry Browne pioneered a form of libertarian persuasion that focused on personal benefits. Harry believed that ideas should be sold like products. What mattered was what a product or idea did for a customer. “You” was his favorite word. He sprinkled it everywhere in his communications. He openly appealed to his audience’s self-interest.

  • Social Security? It robs you of a truly prosperous retirement and an estate that you can pass on to your heirs.
  • The Drug War? It makes your streets less safe. And one indiscretion could ruin your teenager’s life.
  • Foreign intervention? It likely won’t make things better overseas, but it will create new enemies to endanger you.

Now, 15 years after I worked for him, and a decade since I guest-hosted his radio show, I’ve come to believe two things about Harry’s approach:

  1. It was a huge leap forward in how libertarian ideas were sold. No one did it better. No national candidate since has come close. But…
  2. It was incomplete, because we humans also have an interest in the welfare of others.

    That is, even if something like a government program harms us, we might be able to bear that pain if we think the benefit to others is worth the price.

For example, millions of Americans believe we need a welfare state, even if you show them how much it costs them personally. They don’t even need to have a relationship with a recipient. They’re willing to bear the cost, because they believe starvation and homelessness would result without it.

But then, after Harry had run two Presidential campaigns focused on the personal benefits of smaller government, 9/11 happened. Ending statist warmongering became Harry’s primary passion. He…

  • Spoke of war’s horrors.
  • Called neoconservatives “criminals” — including Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.
  • Wanted his audience to understand the unnatural desperation that motivated terrorists.

When Harry spoke or wrote about war, it seemed like a deviation from his self-interest sales approach.

Harry was adaptive. The best writers know admitting previous error is an opportunity to publish a new discovery, and Harry was a great writer. So I believe that, on the issue of war, Harry’s approach was a foreshadowing of how he might have evolved in the future.

I too was evolving. By 2012, my thoughts had converged on one word: Empathy. I began to see empathy as both the source of rights, and their greatest or only protection. I also saw connections between empathy, politics, and Harry’s interest in war.

Our society is political to the core. And politics is “war by other means.” Politics is unempathetic. Its sole concern is to determine which group gets to impose its preferences on others.

The partisans, be they Republican, Democrat, or Green, wrap this political warfare in comforting euphemisms. They hide the violence they initiate — even from themselves. They reason that if you’re going to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.

But as Harry observed, “It’s always someone else’s eggs that get broken.” The desire to break other people’s eggs demonstrates how anti-empathy politics really is.

Alas, most people think empathy is sappy and unrealistic. In reality, empathy is…

  • The groundspring of charity
  • The glue by which your relationships cohere
  • The basis of morality (according to psychologists)
  • The source of innovation as entrepreneurs empathetically recognize what other people need

Even activists find they must harness this power that Adam Smith labeled “moral sentiment.”

This concern for the welfare of others, steers great social power. It even extends to animals, whose pain we increasingly cannot bear. But without this sentiment, you’d have no actual rights. Others could simply murder you. Who else would care?

Harry believed in the Zero Aggression PrincipleDon’t threaten or initiate force against others, or ask politicians to do it for you. That principle appeals to empathy. The question that Harry was asking about war is a question that should be asked about all of The State’s political wars — wars on poverty, illiteracy, terrorism, drugs, immorality, etc. And that empathetic question is, “Whose eggs are getting broken?” Look closely enough, you’ll see the damage inflicted by do-gooders.

With the new Zero Aggression Project, we intend to keep asking that question and to insist that statists stare, uneasily, at their social terrorism. I think Harry Browne would heartily approve.