What Harry Browne Taught Us
[Jeff Deist recently gave a talk entitled Libertarian, Heal Thyself at a Mises Institute event in San Diego. The following is an excerpt from his remarks- Ed.]
I’m sure many people in this room remember the late Harry Browne, who was an investment advisor and a great libertarian. In fact he was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 1996 and 2000.
Harry was a superb public speaker; very tall and always well dressed. An elegant and eloquent man, and we surely missed him in this last election, because he had what Rand Paul and Gary Johnson, with all due respect, did not: an innate ability to present the libertarian message in a simple and compelling way.
Harry Browne made quite a bit of money as a contrarian investor, and wrote a book called How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation. But he’s most famous for How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, which was a big seller in the 1970s. And the title of Tom Woods's talk today is a tongue in cheek reference to the book.
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World is a quasi self-help book, although it predates a lot of that genre which became so prevalent later. It’s full of Harry’s advice about avoiding what he called “traps” in our thinking: in Harry’s view, we always fall into thinking and acting how we “should,” rather than examining things for ourselves and commanding our own lives.
Now the book does have a very 1970s feel to it, evidenced for example by his thoughts on marriage. Committing to the same person for the rest of your life is a bit of a drag, and getting the government involved by issuing a license and deciding what happens if you want to divorce is an even bigger drag — so why not just live as a couple the way you want? Your parents think you should be a doctor? Be an artist instead, if that's what you truly want. Don’t feel like going to college? Skip it. And so on.
But the great gift we get from the book is mindset: you have the ability to live freely, as you wish, right here and right now — at least to a much greater extent than you think. What we should do, Harry says, is improve our own lives first and foremost. That is the key to everything. When we worry too much about government and politics, we waste our energy and fall into a glass half-empty mentality.
Harry called this the “Utopia Trap”: a mistaken belief that we have some right to live in a world of our liking, which is preposterous on its face. Other people have their own opinions, goals, and beliefs, which may be completely different than ours. The goal is not to change other people, but rather to live in harmony with our own beliefs and values.
Quoting from the book, Harry challenges the wisdom of busy-bodyness:
If you’re not free now, it isn’t because you haven’t done enough to change the world. Quite the contrary, it may be that you’ve been doing too much to try to change the world. The effort you’ve expended in that direction could have been used to provide freedom for yourself …
You don’t have to reconstruct the social order; you don’t have to overpower the villains; you don’t have to re-educate the world; you don’t need a miracle. You can have your freedom back any time you choose to take it.
Hyperbole? Maybe. Nobody doubts that the state can come along and ruin your day. But his point remains: everything begins and ends with you, and mindset has far more to do with how freely you live than government or society.
Albert J. Nock, the tragically under-appreciated libertarian theorist, grappled with this almost a century ago. Nock was a radical who certainly understood the threat government posed to liberty. Our Enemy, the State was his great contribution to the world, a groundbreaking book that made a compelling case against state power. But even Nock was convinced that the only reform that mattered was within, that all we can do is present the world with “one improved unit.”
We all know this on some level, but it takes a lot of strength to apply it every day. It’s not easy. It’s easy to wake up and check social media for the latest outrage; it’s easy to blame politics for our problems. But the most important thing you can do for liberty, far and away, is to improve yourself: materially, intellectually, and otherwise. That’s the real revolution, and the most difficult one.
It was true for the high school and college kids who visited us in Ron Paul’s office and it’s true for everyone in this room. Nobody listens to poor, unsuccessful people, it’s just a simple fact of life. That’s what Harry Browne and Albert J Nock understood. Focus on yourself and your own life, free yourself mentally from all this angst about government and get on with the best possible life for you and your family. Save yourself first. Find your freedom in the world as it is.
Harry followed his own advice, enjoying a very rich life full of friends and travel and great achievements. He even spoke at Carnegie Hall! Sometime before he died in 2006, he wrote these words for his own funeral service:
Setting Your Sights
As I look back over my life, I can see so many ways in which
I could have done things better than I did, and I certainly
wish I'd learned a lot of things sooner than I did.
And yet I have enjoyed a wonderful life. I'm married to the
ideal woman. I have had the good fortune to be associated in
business with highly competent, honest, compatible people.
I've had a book that was #1 on the best-seller list, and others
that sold well above average. I've had first-class friends in many
different areas of my life. I've been able to live in three countries and
enjoy the best the world has to offer. I was honored to be the
Presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party.
To have made so many mistakes, and yet to have had so much.
It proves that you don't have to be perfect to succeed.
When I die (if ever), I'd like the epitaph on my tombstone to read:
I didn't do everything I wanted to do,
I didn't become everything I wanted to be,
But because I aimed for the stars,
I reached the top of the world."
I don't advise being careless or sloppy. I do advise that you
hold fast to your beliefs and act in the best way you know how —
but then forgive yourself whenever you fail to measure up to
You will never be perfect. But you can be free and happy.
I hope you make it.
RIP Harry, and thank you.