Politics & Policy

Harry Browne, R.I.P.

Looking back at the Libertarian presidential candidate.

EDITOR’S NOTE:The Libertarian party’s presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000 (garnering 485,798 and 384,516 votes respectively) died yesterday. Here’s an article/interview NR’s Karina Rollins conducted with Browne in 1996 (it ran in the September 16 issue that year).

At a glance it is a normal political convention. The delegates wave signs and banners, cheer madly. Boasting traditional symbols–flags, red-white-and-blue ribbons–they rejoice in trashing “Depublicans” and “Remocrats,” hissing at “Bill Dole” and “Bob Clinton.” The Wisconsin delegates, weighed down under large cheese-wedge hats, add that extra little Conventional touch. But is this really a serious political occasion?

Well, maybe. It is the Libertarian Party on the July 4th weekend, assembled in “the belly of the beast” to nominate 63-year-old investment expert Harry Browne as the party’s presidential candidate. Both candidate and party, of course, are known to despise the entire process of nominations, elections, and indeed governing afterwards. But, hey, you never know.

I put this apparent inconsistency to Mr. Browne; he was unfazed:

Harry Browne: “I never objected to [joining the political process] on moral grounds, it was . . . the simple futility of changing the system. I didn’t choose between Goldwater and LBJ, because either way government would expand; Nixon – Humphrey, same thing. But now, after thirty years of anti-government revolution building up, there really is a chance . . .”

KR: “So ‘Libertarian politics’ is not an oxymoron?”

HB: “No. Give us a chance for four years, let’s see what happens this year and in ‘98 and 2000 and . . . if we don’t make a dent, then I’ll have to reconsider the process again.”

No doubts haunt the delegates. They chant “Harry, Harry” as Browne accepts the nomination. A tall, silver-haired, Tennessee gentleman, looking a decade younger than his years, Browne is a polished speaker. His libertarianism comes across as traditional Americanism; little in his speech would offend conservatives. Invoking images of Waco and Ruby Ridge, he delivers a passionate plea for “individual freedom, personal responsibility, and freedom from government on all issues at all times.”

The immediate goal of his campaign is to garner 10 per cent support in the polls–and thus a ticket to the presidential debates. Winning the Presidency is a “long shot,” but he firmly believes that his party can overcome the “hurdle of irrelevancy” to become a legitimate third party.

KR: “What should the function of a third party be?”

HB: “To win elections. We should be working to be one of the three major parties in the country, and eventually one of the two major parties. I believe . . . that the most likely outcome over the next five to ten years is that the Republican Party will disappear.”

KR: “And the Democrats?”

HB: “There will always be a market for a party that meddles in other people’s business because 30 per cent of the American people like to do that. But there will not always be a party whose only claim to fame is ‘we are not the Democrats. ‘ “

Ross Perot’s Reform Party isn’t a true third party, says Browne, since Perot and Richard Lamm only want “to manage government better,” which makes them half-hearted Democrats. Browne, whose mantra is “Government doesn’t work,” has no wish to manage and reform; he wants to slash and burn–and then go home to enjoy life in Tennessee. He would abolish the NEA, EPA, HUD, FBI, DEA, IRS, and BATF (these last two the most-booed agencies at the convention) –and just about every other government agency you can think of. He would end Social Security, welfare, and any federal role in education or law enforcement, and abolish the federal income tax (eat your heart out, Steve Forbes). And on his first day in office, he would pardon all non-violent drug offenders and income-tax violators.

Abortion and gay marriage, says Browne, are “none of my business.” They would be unrestricted by his Administration. As for defense –the one thing that many Libertarians concede is the government’s responsibility–Browne wants to establish a missile shield, but “bring all troops home” immediately and scrap all offensive weapons.

Browne’s vice-presidential running-mate is a divorced mother of two, 39-year-old Jo Jorgenson, who targeted the Generation X crowd with campaign buttons that read “Just say Jo!” Attractive and popular, she wows the six hundred delegates with a signature speech on how Republicans “give us the equivalent of 1-900 phone sex. They tell us how much they want us and how good it’s going to be. . . . They tease and tempt but they don’t deliver.” It’s a “Republican tax-cut fantasy line.”

But do Libertarians have anything more realistic to offer disillusioned Republicans? Could religious and social conservatives ever feel at home among people who greet ACLU president Nadine Strossen with a standing ovation?

Libertarians say yes, claiming that their party is more open to religion as the influence of militant atheist Ayn Rand diminishes and as religious people, harassed by the Feds, join. “Bumper” Hornberger, the keynote speaker, is born-again. A side-lecture explains “Why Christians MUST be Libertarians.” Salvation, says the speaker, can come only from God, not from the state. And even Joe Sobran, no atheist, gives a lunchtime address.

Yet nagging questions remain.

KR: “Self-described ‘pro-life’ Libertarians are hesitant to see abortion outlawed and favor ‘persuasion,’ which is a pro-choice position.”

HB: “Libertarians are pro-choice, even if they oppose abortion. But it applies to everything.”

KR: “Would that apply to murder?”

HB: “You have a 99 per cent consensus in the country that murder is wrong. You don’t have that consensus with drugs, prostitution, abortion, so trying to have the government enforce something that is so contentious, that is going to lead to trouble.”

KR: “Surely you would agree that murder is wrong not only because of a 99 per cent consensus. Or are there no objective truths–is it just what the majority of people believe?”

HB: “No–It’s a pretend game for us to discuss what is morally right and wrong and then assume that government can enforce it–”

KR: “Government cannot enforce anything?”

HB: “Right. Government doesn’t work. That isn’t the way the world works. Government is force and I want to minimize the use of force in solving social and political problems. . . . and we’re not going to solve them by discussing philosophy.”

Seeing no pressing need to answer such questions, he returns to his “why government doesn’t work” spiel. At the convention, he even offered a Q&A session on how Libertarians should talk to the media on tough issues. On how to respond to “What about private ownership of nuclear arms?” one of Browne’s associates suggests: “Depends on how tough the neighborhood is.”

Browne reaches many conclusions that conservatives can accept –that the human spirit withers under over-regulation, that charity cannot be forced, and that the government cannot ensure wealth and happiness. But there is another aspect of “how the world works.” Browne seems to believe that people are basically good, or at least smart, and that in a free society everything will work out for the best. Asked about how a society without government would deal with crimes like murder, he veers into Utopia: “People will realize that there is a market for all kinds of things, and people much more able than I are . . . going to come forward and say ‘we just developed this new plan whereby you’re safe’ . . . why should we even be saying now ‘how should we do this or that.’ It’s really a waste of our time.”

Really? Surely brilliance can be as innovative in doing evil as in doing good. No matter how smart the people of the future that Browne idealizes may be, there is unlikely to be a plan so innovative as to make laws against murder unnecessary. But does that make Browne an anarchist, or merely an upbeat American techno-optimist?

A little of both perhaps, ideally suited to sound-bite politics. The only thing government can do, says Browne, is “crippl[e] you, giv[e] you crutches,” and then make you believe you depend on it. (Conservative cheers.)

And there are more subtle political signs than philosophical opinions. Harry Browne’s favorite pastime is Viennese operetta, and his wife sat through interviews, doing needlework. She never once mentioned health care.


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