Harry Browne for President
by Ari Armstrong, April 3, 2000
Harry Browne has won my support for his presidential bid.
Last fall, I tentatively supported L. Neil Smith's candidacy (http://www.freecolorado.com/cfrsept1999/lneilsmith.html), so it would seem that I have some explaining to do concerning my change of support. Fair enough.
Harry Browne meets with LP State Chair BetteRose Smith for a March 28 dinner in Denver.
The main reason I supported Smith is that he is a strong advocate of the civil right to bear arms. I remain a big fan of Smith's work and of his support of civil gun rights. However, Harry Browne is also showing great promise on this issue. I had occasion to chat with Browne at a March 28 dinner organized (spur of the moment) with local LP members. Browne was adamant that the right to bear arms be restored and that the laws deal only with violent crimes committed with a gun. In addition, Browne was very open to making the most of that issue in Colorado.
In my previous endorsement of Smith, I made a couple of comments: "If Smith at times lets his rhetoric get the best of him, I can live with that, because he is also a principled and passionate defender of liberty." Also, "Browne just doesn't have the emotional urgency to make a good candidate." Now I see that I underestimated the extent to which Smith "lets his rhetoric get the best of him," while I also underestimated the zest of Harry Browne.
Recently Smith said publicly that Harry Browne is a "crook," a statement for which I have seen no evidence. Smith cited the recent articles by Jacob "Bumper" Hornberger, but Browne has answered those criticisms to my satisfaction. (See http://www.freecolorado.com/2000/03/browne.html.) I have read most, though not all, of Hornberger's material pertaining to Browne, because Hornberger has failed to reply to a personal e-mail in which I requested links to the entire body of material. From the material I have been able to find on my own, however, I believe that Hornberger's criticisms are trivial at most and downright mean-spirited and unjust at worst.
So Smith has said some things about Browne which I believe to be unwarranted and inappropriate -- a strike against Smith. Smith has also taken his rhetoric to an unjustified extreme concerning the foes of civil arms. In a recent article, Smith referred to such foes as "stupid, insane, or evil." While I agree that those terms apply to many foes of civil arms, surely they do not cover all the relevant possibilities. Many who support gun restrictions are merely ignorant. Ad hominem attacks tend only to alienate our potential allies.
Browne, on the other hand, states his principled positions with a passion tempered by eloquence and good sense. I believe Browne has a much greater potential to convince others of libertarian positions.
If I underestimated Smith's tendency to employ needlessly inflammatory and alienating rhetoric, I also underestimated Browne's passion for liberty. When I left the March 28 dinner, I felt emotionally charged and ready to take the message to the world. True, I still think Browne can be overly academic sometimes and a bit dry. But that's a minor criticism. Browne's willingness to bear the banner for civil arms proves that he has heart.
Browne has also recently said he is considering the possibility of purposely violating the campaign finance laws in order to stand up for the First Amendment and free speech. When's the last time any politician has actively pursued civil disobedience? Though Browne is still weighing the pros and cons of breaking those laws, the fact that he's considering it shows that he has plenty of guts and a true love of liberty.
There remains the issue of the "old school Browne" vs. the "new school Browne." In his 1973 How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Browne explicitly renounced political activism. However, I'm ready to allow him this change in position. Lord knows I've rethought some of my own positions over the years. (I have not yet read the new material published in the newer versions of that book, in which Browne explains the change; I plan to do so in the near future.) Fortunately, Browne also has a sense of humor. He referred to the changes in viewpoint as the "green stage" and the "red stage," to differentiate between the time when he was making good money and the present. Along those lines, in my older article, I wondered if Browne might just be using the campaign as a way to sell books. But Browne doesn't even make much money off some of his works, and, heck, it seems like most major politicians come out with books (except George W., who is proud of his relative illiteracy). I decided it's a little silly of me to criticize Browne for his free market exchanges. However, I must continue to wonder: since Browne appeals to a distinctly egoistic ethics, what are all the factors that contribute to his motivation to run for president?
Browne and Smith differ in fundamental libertarian theory. For Smith (as I noted in the older article), libertarianism is grounded in the "non-initiation of force" principle. Unfortunately, as Jeffrey Friedman has discussed in Critical Review, this principle too often takes the form of an a priori moral claim separated from consequentialist concerns. That is, it becomes a dogma rather than an sound moral theory connected to human ends and evidentiary support.
Browne certainly avoids that problem. He calls on libertarians to appeal to the self-interest of voters. "The great Libertarian offer," he calls his campaign. He says we should not try to sell a philosophical system or an economic system -- only the idea that libertarianism will make people's lives better. Unfortunately, if Smith takes one extreme by invoking a dogmatic a priori absolute, Browne takes the other by appealing to pragmatic concerns. In my view, the Objectivists transcend the dualism by pointing to a principled self-interest. The "Libertarian offer" will never appeal to voters who believe capitalism is the root of all social ills. Nor will it appear sound to those who dispute libertarian claims about human nature. Browne is right that libertarian politics will make people's lives better, but people will never be convinced of that until we make the economic and philosophical case, at least in terms of essentials.
The final major reason I'm supporting Browne over Smith is that Browne is actually pursuing his campaign. I haven't seen any evidence that Smith is serious about running. Browne has an active organization, he is appearing on television and radio, he takes an obvious interest in his success and the success of the party. When I contacted Browne's campaign, I got a quick reply. Smith, on the other hand, has completely ignored the two or three e-mails I have sent him. I want the LP candidate to make waves. I can see Browne accomplishing that.
What about Gore? Even if George W. Bush is terrible, isn't Al Gore infinitely worse? Probably, even though some have made the argument that Gore with a Republican Congress would make for excellent grid-lock. But by the time of the election, the race may be obviously one-sided, which would help Browne. I sympathize both with those who want to vote their principles and with those who want to keep Gore out of the White House. However, surely even those who intend to vote for Bush can see the value in helping Browne spread his ideas. Browne's candidacy isn't primarily about votes, but about winning the hearts and minds of the American public. That is, after all, our most important task.
When I discussed first Hornberger and later Smith as potentially good candidates, it was in tentative terms. Now I'm ready to throw my support solidly behind Harry Browne. Barring some dramatic revelation, I'll support Browne through the election. His flaws are minor and his virtues many. I'd be proud to call him my president.