Today's Boston Globe column examines libertarianism as an alternative to conservatism and liberalism. The sad occasion is the death of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne.
HARRY BROWNE, once a successful author and later an unsuccessful presidential candidate, died last week at 72 from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was a man for whom I never voted, but sometimes wish I had -- though only as long as I could be sure he wasn't going to win.
Browne ran for president twice on the Libertarian Party ticket and was probably its best-known nominee (because of his books on investment). He got about half of 1 percent of the vote in 1996, and even fewer in 2000. Yet he represented something important in American political culture, something increasingly disappearing from its mainstream: the Jeffersonian belief in a small government that intervenes minimally in people's lives.
''Democratic and Republican politicians believe Americans are dysfunctional children who need government to act as their parents," Browne wrote on his website. ''Both parties seek to impose their values and recognize no limits on their authority."
It's hard to argue against this description. The Republican Party has long claimed to be the party of small government, and in the 1980s Ronald Reagan made strides in lessening the tax burden on Americans and deregulating the economy. But Reagan's Republican coalition included social conservatives whose agenda was to regulate personal morality.
The congressional Republicans who came to power in 1994 likewise talked about getting the government off our backs, but most of them also wanted it in our bedrooms -- sometimes even to the extent of supporting antisodomy laws.
Meanwhile, most Democrats who support choice on abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to manage their retirement or their children's daycare and schooling. They support not only greater government reach into the economy but their own version of government-imposed morality (through workplace diversity measures, for example).
Under President Bush, the Republican Party seems to be losing its connections to small-government ideals. Republicans now control all three branches of the federal government, yet spending still skyrockets. Bush openly embraces the use of big government to further conservative goals -- including the promotion of faith and marriage. As much as I dislike the hysterical cries that Bush is presiding over a fascist state, the open defense of encroachments on privacy and liberty in the name of security is deeply troubling.
The Republican slide from small government to nanny state makes me look back rather fondly on the Libertarians, and wish I could change my 2000 vote for Bush to a symbolic one for Browne.
Symbolic only, of course. Browne's vision of minimal government allowed for no state role in environmental protection, health and safety regulations, or building and maintaining highways. His platform included immediate repeal of the federal income tax and dismantling of Social Security. In a 1996 article in Reason, editor Nick Gillespie criticized Browne, noting that his vision of a radical transformation of society from above involved the same arrogance for which classical, limited-government liberals such as Friedrich A. Hayek had assailed big-government liberals.
In its own way, purist libertarianism is no less utopian than communism, and no less naïve in its apparent faith in the fairness of markets and the goodness of humankind. This is particularly evident in foreign policy, where Libertarian doctrine boils down to the isolationist belief that we would face no dangers abroad if we just stopped meddling. Browne's recent writings illustrate this naïveté. Much of his criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq rings depressingly true; yet he also saw fit to downplay Saddam Hussein's atrocities and declared the war on terrorism a ''War on Strawmen."
It's unlikely that Browne's radical philosophy could have attracted the support of more than 2 or 3 percent of Americans. A true alternative to the twin leviathans of the two-party system would have required a more moderate and realistic libertarianism. Nonetheless, it's often the radicals who pave the way for moderates. And in our day and age, Browne's warnings about expansionist government and the loss of personal freedoms seem more relevant than ever.
An embarrassing revelation: I may have voted for Harry Browne in the 1996 presidential race, but I don't remember for sure. A friend tells me that at the time I told him that I had, or that I was going to. I know I was considering it at the time, since I wasn't going to vote for Clinton and I didn't find Dole particularly appealing. Of course, I live in New Jersey, where the Democrats have a lock on the presidential race anyway and it is safe to throw away a vote. I know I was still thinking about it on my way to the polling station. But what happened after that curtain was drawn is a complete black hole.
If I did vote for Browne, I am not embarrassed about it, vehemently though I may disagree with many of his position. Browne was a rebel with a cause; and we need more of those, in the dreary landscape of today's American politics.
Browne's website is here; his last article, "Why You Are a Libertarian" -- dated December 18 -- has an eerie feel to it, since its summary says, "In the final analysis, your reasons are very simple, and they apply to almost everyone in the world." I wonder if the very ill Browne meant it as his legacy. I don't, incidentally, find the article particularly convincing; it requires a logical leap "almost everyone in the world" is not willing to make -- the assumption that some degree of coercion by a democratically elected government (e.g. requiring people to pay taxes to support common social projects) is absolutely no different from violent coercion by individuals or groups of individuals. Nonetheless, it is at the very least a point worth pondering, at a time when so many of us uncritically accept a definition of "compassion" as "spending other people's money to help the needy."
This is the article I cited in my column, in which Browne downplays Hussein's atrocities (and, for good measure, repeats the "no mass graves found in Kosovo" canard with a citation to a 1999 article -- when, in fact, a number of mass graves have been found since then). This piece is actually a good illustration of the complex figure that was Browne; in this same article, he makes what I increasingly believe is an eminently sensible prescription:
Iraq should really be three different nations — Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish. Instead, the three should-be nations have been joined at the hip and are expected to operate a British-style parliament.
Sadly, he also renders his own case irrelevant with needless (and disturbing) attempts to minimize the evil that was the Hussein regime. He also seems to take the position, rather odd for a libertarian, that loss of life as the price of the overthrow of a tyrannical regime can never be worthwhile. Like quite a few libertarians, Browne was led down some strange paths by his vehement opposition to American policy.
More about Browne can be found in this post at Reason's Hit & Run (lots of links).