March 1, 2006 was a sad day for the cause of liberty. Sad because a true ethical giant of our time, Harry Browne, passed away. Browne was the Libertarian Party candidate in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. His calm, logical way of expressing libertarian beliefs earned him the respect of many big-name interviewers on national television.
Harry and I were not close friends by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, in interesting and quiet ways, our paths crossed at the beginning of his career, in the middle, and near the end. I have always credited Harry with being one of my earliest and most influential teachers, primarily through his writings. My introduction to his philosophy came in 1971 with his then-shocking book How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation.
Circumstances propelled the book to bestseller status overnight, thanks mostly to Richard Nixon. Shortly before the book came out, Nixon made his now infamous announcement that the U.S. would never devalue the dollar. Browne, however, wasn’t fooled by Tricky Dick’s political rhetoric. He was too learned in economics and the workings of the marketplace to be taken in by a presidential sound bite.
As a result, in How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation, he was unequivocal in his belief that the U.S. would have no choice but to devalue the dollar in the near future. In effect, this young nobody was taking on the president of the United States!
Sure enough, shortly after Browne’s book was published, President Nixon separated the dollar from its gold backing, which officially made paper money a fiat currency. Little did Nixon know that by playing a key role in making Harry Browne into an economic prophet, he was helping to lay the foundation for him to someday run for the very office that Nixon himself held at the time.
But it was Browne’s 1974 classic, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, that had the greatest impact on my thinking. I recall reading the book from start to finish in a single day, then rereading it again a couple of days later. I had never read anything that conveyed such clear-headed insights into life. While I didn’t agree with everything Browne said in his book, the essence of his philosophy so impressed me that it later served as the foundation for my own No. 1 bestseller, Looking Out for #1.
At the time, many people were very critical of How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, because it was thought to be a “selfish” philosophy. The mere mention of the word “selfishness” sends many holier-than-thou do-gooders into fits of hysteria, which is probably why the book never became a blockbuster bestseller. I have discussed at length the subject of selfishness in many articles and books, so I won’t sidetrack myself here trying to explain how and why it is a word that is so misunderstood by so many people.
What I will say, however, is that it appeared obvious to me that Harry Browne softened over the years and amended a good deal of his philosophy for the better. (Some of this change may have been expressed in his updated twenty-fifth anniversary edition of How I Found Freedom, but I’m sorry to say that I have not read that newer edition.)
A good example of how Harry’s philosophy evolved over the years concerns marriage. In How I Found Freedom, he argued that there is no logical reason for a person to get married. His position was that since no one can predict the future with certainty, promising to love someone “until death do us part” is foolish and unrealistic. Nevertheless, in 1985 he married Pamela Lanier Wolfe. It astonished me when I heard about it, but, from what I understand, they had a close and loving relationship during the last twenty-plus years of his life.
An even more glaring example of Harry’s philosophical evolution, and one that was very disturbing to many anarchistic libertarians, is when he changed his stance on running for public office. In his earlier writings, he made it clear that becoming involved in the political process was not only a waste of time, but lent credence to an inherently corrupt system.
Thus, when he first ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1996, many of Harry’s most loyal supporters were deeply disappointed. Though I, too, was surprised by his change in attitude, in retrospect I believe that he made a great contribution to the cause of liberty by educating millions of Americans through media exposure that he would not otherwise have received.
My “middle” encounter with Harry came in the early eighties, when I was publishing other authors’ books. Having spoken to him only a couple of times over the years, I was taken by complete surprise when he unexpectedly called me one day. I was even more surprised when he asked if I would be interested in republishing How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World — the very book that had made such a dramatic impact on my own understanding of how the world works. Unfortunately, it came at a time when I had already made the decision to leave the publishing business, so I politely declined.
Finally, more than twenty years later, I had occasion to chat with Harry for a few minutes at the Advocates for Self-Government 20th Anniversary Celebration in Atlanta. It afforded me an almost eerie opportunity to tell him how much his work had impacted my thinking over the years. He thanked me and, in return, offered some gracious comments about my own accomplishments.
A couple of weeks after the event, I received an e-mail from Harry that again took me by surprise. I want to share that e-mail with you, because I believe it sums up so well just how much he had evolved as a kind and gracious human being over the years.
I was sorry to miss your banquet speech at the Advocates Conference. I’m still at the point where I need a tremendous amount of sleep, and so I thought it wise to go to bed early Saturday night so I’d have sufficient energy for my own speech Sunday morning. However, on Sunday I heard nothing but good things about your presentation, and Sharon is sending me a CD of your talk — which I look forward to hearing. Thanks for all your kind words. It was a pleasure to see you again after twenty-five years.
With best wishes,
The Harry Browne I knew in the late seventies would never have taken the trouble to write such a note. He was a truly great teacher back then, but it was clear to me that he had since also evolved into a truly great human being.
So, what can we learn from the life and accomplishments of Harry Browne? The list is far too long to elaborate on here, but following are four things that come immediately to mind.
- No matter how brilliant you may be, no matter how firmly entrenched your ideas, you can, and should, continually evolve and grow as a person. I don’t believe that Harry Browne ever abandoned his basic principles, but he clearly allowed himself to amend, refine, and expand his philosophy of life.
- Harry demonstrated the enormous power of the written and spoken word. I rank him as perhaps the greatest writer/speaker of our time. He was living proof that there is no replacement for knowledge and wisdom when it comes to changing the hearts and minds of people.
- As I have written and spoken about so many times through the years, the power of the understatement is enormous. Harry was the ultimate role model in this respect. Unlike so many famous screaming scoundrels who pop up on our television screens day after day, he never raised his voice, never exaggerated, and never engaged in personal attacks. Calm, clear communication was his trademark.
- Finally, and the realization that most fascinates me as a social observer, is that so many giants have come and gone over the centuries without the general public even knowing who they were.
But that’s only one half of the sociological puzzle. The other half is that so many charlatans are applauded, even revered, by the masses. While millions of sleepwalking individuals sing the praises of fools like Jimmy Carter, clowns like Al Sharpton, shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson, and all-around scoundrels like Clinton & Clinton, the average person has never even heard of such intellectual and moral giants as Eric Hoffer, Will Durant, and Ayn Rand, let alone Harry Browne.
Sadly, giants such as these come and go virtually unnoticed by brain-dead TV addicts, while the names of celebrity buffoons are known to all. It is, indeed, an unfair world.
I think we would all do well to use the passing of Harry Browne, a true giant in the cause of liberty and rational thinking, to reflect on the people we most admire and the reasons we admire them. Is it because of their good looks? Their glibness? Their cleverness? Their athletic ability? Their money? Their outrageous behavior? Their notoriety?
As any sane person can surely see, we live in an insane world. I try, in my own small way, to be a voice of sanity that reaches out to those who recognize that the world has been knocked off its rational and moral axis. But many more voices than mine are needed. Hopefully, you, too, are a voice of sanity. All it takes is a commitment to truth, which carries with it a commitment to ignore most of the popular rhetoric of the day — both from those around you and from “the people of the lie” who flood our television screens.
Thanks, Harry, for setting me on the path to rational thinking and motivating me in my quest for truth. I still trip up in these areas from time to time, but your life has been an inspiration to me to pick myself up, brush myself off, and keep on trying. May you rest in well-deserved peace.