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Harry Browne is running for the Libertarian Party's nomination for President in 1996. In conjunction with his campaign, he has written a book, Why Government Doesn't Work. Since Formulations is published by an educational foundation, I will neither advocate voting for nor voting against Harry Browne. Instead, my purpose here will be to review the ideas Browne presents, to discuss the evolution of this thought, and to comment on his current strategy for achieving a free society.
Harry Browne is the first libertarian author I ever read. I stumbled across his 1974 best-seller You Can Profit from the Monetary Crisis in — of all places — The New York Public Library. I was impressed with the book, and later went on to read New Profits from the Monetary Crisis, which appeared in 1978. (Browne's first investment best-seller, How You Can Profit From the Coming Devaluation, was published in 1970.)
Browne's investment books contained discussions of his libertarian political philosophy. In You Can Profit from the Monetary Crisis, he sketched a fictional European country that gets by perfectly well without any government whatsoever. His writings also contained frequent praise of Switzerland, which he saw as the last bastion of economic freedom and sound money.
In the 1970s, Browne believed that the U.S. government's errant fiscal and monetary policy would most likely cause an acute financial crisis. His 1978 New Profits handicapped the ten years through 1988 as follows: a 35% chance of a runaway inflation, a 50% chance of deflation, a 10% chance of continued stagflation and only a 5% chance of a "soft landing" (page 50).
Browne was among a group of extremely pessimistic investment advisers known as the gold bugs. This group believed that the government had done so much damage to the market system that a collapse of American civilization was almost inevitable. All advocated investing heavily in gold and silver, while some suggested purchasing large quantities of guns, ammunition and freeze dried food, and then fleeing to an isolated cabin in the woods.
Browne was one of the more responsible gold bugs, carefully hedging his advice and allowing for a variety of outcomes. Nonetheless, hindsight shows that he was unduly pessimistic. Like the other gold bugs and their followers (this writer included), he underestimated the underlying strength of the economy, the stabilizing influence of foreign economies, the increasing ability of markets to influence the actions of policy makers, and the ability of government to step back from the precipice when it disrupts the economy too much. All of these factors prevented the stagflation of the seventies from turning into the much ballyhooed economic Armageddon of the eighties.
Another strand of Browne's thought at the time was his strong belief in emotional self sufficiency, as outlined in his 1973 book How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World. In this volume, Browne outlined a number of "traps" — or what we might now call "codependency" situations — that the self-assured individualist should avoid. Among these was the political trap — the mistaken idea that by getting involved in the political debate one could improve his or her life. To Browne, political involvement was one of many barriers we erect for ourselves in our own search for personal freedom.
How much difference two decades make! Gone from Browne's thinking are the extreme pessimism and anti-politicism of the past. In their place is the belief that through concerted action, libertarians acting through the Libertarian Party can and should move America in the right direction.
The biggest disappointment I experienced in reading Why Government Doesn't Work and hearing Browne speak after declaring his candidacy, is not finding out why his thinking has changed. Of course, this is too much to expect. In the book and on the campaign trail, Browne is primarily addressing himself to the uninitiated.
And Why Government Doesn't Work does an excellent job of explaining libertarian ideas to newcomers. Browne has retained his simple, clear writing style of his earlier investment books. He divides the material into a large number of short chapters and sections, making it easy to dip in and dip out of the book, or to dive directly into the portions of greatest interest.
His style of argument is logical and patient, and he avoids demonizing those with opposing opinions. Thus, libertarians can give the book to their friends with little risk. While they may not be convinced, they are not likely to be turned off.
Although Browne avoids becoming overwrought, he does appeal to the emotions. He offers numerous case studies of innocent, well meaning people whose lives were disrupted by random acts of government. By personalizing the consequences of coercion, he engages readers who might become bored with a more detached presentation.
While Browne's book is definitely geared toward outreach, it will also appeal to libertarian activists. This group tends to be split among advocates of consistency — those who want an uncompromising attack on government coercion — and advocates of pragmatism — those who want to couch libertarian rhetoric in ways that won't alienate potential adherents. Browne does a nice job of bridging this gap within the activist community.
Without admitting the need for government involvement in just about anything, he nonetheless manages to avoid scaring the reader with calls for private police forces and the prospect of kicking everyone off the dole. He does this by largely limiting himself to a discussion of the federal government. Thus, he can call for getting the federal government out of crime fighting, education and welfare without demanding the complete privatization of any of these services. He simply shifts the argument down to a lower level of government.
Near the end of the book, Browne offers his own budget proposals, which should please all but the most radical libertarians. Essentially, he advocates the immediate abolition of all direct taxation, and the reduction of the federal budget to $100 billion annually by the year 2004. He proposes to use sales of federal assets to retire the federal debt, and to finance private annuities for those currently receiving social security or who will soon begin receiving benefits.
The big question is whether the revenue from the asset sales will cover all of these expenses. Given the government's prior record on liquidating assets (consider the RTC, for example), one cannot be too optimistic. If the asset sales fail to raise the required $12 trillion, Browne would have to scale down the social security portion of his package — hopefully, by convincing wealthier social security claimants to give up their annuities.
As a libertarian candidate, Browne does about the best one can do in applying radical libertarian ideas to the current political situation. He correctly recognizes that relatively small, piece-meal cuts in government spending will be reversed by future administrations. Thus he suggests rapid implementation of much sharper cuts. But it is precisely this approach that will make him unelectable (although the mainstream media's policy of ignoring minor party candidates would probably make him unelectable in any case).
It is hard to imagine how more than a handful of people would vote for someone who wanted to pay off social security recipients by selling the "national jewels." The situation in this country is just not bad enough for the average, disengaged citizen to support such a radical change.
Indeed, things can get a lot worse, and the majority will continue to oppose extreme policy shifts. Support for this assertion is available on page 164 of Why Government Doesn't Work. There, Browne presents a chart showing the combined employee and employer social insurance tax rates in different countries. In the United States, this figure is 15.3% of income — a seemingly crushing burden. But the tax is a lot higher elsewhere: in Austria the rate is 41%, in Holland 47%, and, in Italy, 56%. Certainly in the first two cases, and arguably in the last, there is no groundswell of support for radical change. In short, things can and will get a lot worse before the natives become restless.
Although Browne doesn't fully explain his evolution from pessimist to optimist, he offers reasons for why he thinks he can get a significant proportion of the vote and possibly even win. First, he cites successful libertarian efforts over the past 25 to 30 years to educate the public about the evils of government. Then, he goes on to point out poll results that suggest that 73% of the people believe that "the federal government is much too large and has too much power," and that 54% of the public would vote for the best candidate "even if he seemed to have no chance of winning."
Unfortunately, we've come to learn that poll results can be very deceiving. Respondents have rarely thought these issues through, and usually try to give the socially acceptable response. Phrase the question properly, and it will be possible to get a majority of people to favor lots of ideas, including some that are diametrically opposed to libertarian thinking.
While educational efforts have brought more people into the libertarian camp, they have most definitely not yet prepared the ground for a radical lurch in our direction. Unfortunately, Browne and his supporters won't realize this until after the disappointing vote totals are tallied. D
Marc D. Joffe is a self-employed computer consultant based in northern New Jersey. He is also a founding member of The New Country Foundation. He holds an MBA in Finance from New York University.
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