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Jewish World Review
March 9, 2006
/ 9 Adar, 5766
Notes from Harry Browne
It came as a jolt to learn that Harry Browne — scholar, gentleman, apostle of freedom, and two-time Libertarian Party
candidate for president — had died on March 1 of Lou Gehrig's disease. It came as an even greater jolt to discover that his
last published words were apparently a criticism of . . . me.
The final post on "Harry Browne's Journal," his online blog at HarryBrowne.org, was dated Dec. 19, 2005, and titled,
wearily, "To this we've come." It was about a column of mine arguing that Supreme Court nominees should be compelled to
give substantive answers to questions asked during their Senate confirmation hearings. Those hearings, I had written, should be
used to remind the justices that they are not lords and masters but "public servants who must answer, however indirectly, to the
Harry didn't quote that line. Instead he quoted my description of the Supreme Court's immense reach: "From the power of
presidents to hold terror suspects indefinitely to the power of Congress to override state law, from the execution of murderers
to the recognition of same-sex marriage, from affirmative action to abortion, [John] Roberts and his fellow justices will shape
national policy for years to come."
Then came Harry's scolding: "Not one of the items mentioned is listed in the Constitution as a function of the federal
government. . . . Roberts' job is awesome, no question about it. The only problem is that the politicians and pundits have a
different job description than that given in the Constitution."
I wish he had sent me an e-mail with that criticism. I would have reassured him that on this issue, we didn't differ in the least
— I was describing the judiciary as it has become, not as the Founders intended it to be. Indeed, in a column a few months
earlier I had made that very point. ("Federal courts today exercise powers the Framers never gave them. They overturn laws
passed by legislators, constitutionalize rights not enumerated in the Constitution, even determine the outcome of a presidential
election.") But there was no e-mail, and by the time I saw Harry's objection, it was too late to reply.
Notes from Harry weren't uncommon, and they were unfailingly polite, even when he was distressed by a stand I had taken.
He knew I was a fan of his, if not quite as dogmatically anti-government, or as willing to treat unfettered individual autonomy as
the highest of all values, or as opposed to the idea that the needs of society sometimes impinge legitimately on personal liberty.
Twice I had voted for him for president — a distinction, I once told him, he shared with Ronald Reagan. The first time was in
1996, when I wouldn't vote to re-elect Bill Clinton and couldn't bring myself to support either of his two leading opponents, the
feckless Bob Dole or the egotistical Ross Perot. Instead, I pulled the lever for the distinguished-looking Libertarian and
bestselling author who wanted to repeal the Internal Revenue Code and abolish most federal agencies, and who spoke with
such refreshing bluntness about the maddening inability of the state to get things right. Of Dole's proposal that year to use the
military for drug interdiction, Harry had said, "Government can't keep drugs out of the country; it can't even keep drugs out of
its own prisons." Social Security he defined as "a fraudulent scheme in which the government collects money from you for your
retirement — and immediately spends the money on something else."
Four years later, not liking Al Gore and unwilling to back the younger George Bush when his father had been such a
disappointment, I voted Libertarian again. Harry predicted that a victory by either Bush or Gore would mean an increase in the
size, expense, and intrusiveness of government, and sure enough, the new Bush administration was soon spending tax dollars
and enlarging federal authority at a rate unseen since the 1960s.
But then came 9/11 and the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like many hard-and-fast libertarians, Harry was an
antiwar isolationist, convinced that America would have few problems in the world if it just stayed home and minded its own
business. Al Qaeda's terror attacks, he insisted, were caused by US foreign policy, not Islamist extremism; he compared
Republicans who supported Bush to Germans who supported Hitler.
I disagreed vehemently, the way I generally disagree with libertarians on foreign policy, and Harry's notes to me became
more impassioned. "God only knows what the results of Bush's idealism will be," he wrote last year, "but it won't be a
democratic Middle East, an end to terrorism, or peace in the world." When I said it was "perverse" not to acknowledge the
good that had been accomplished by Saddam's ouster — "the mass graves are being exhumed, not added to; the prison rape
rooms are shut down; Saddam and his thugs are going on trial" — he replied by writing an article that questioned whether the
atrocities of Saddam's regime had ever actually taken place. It saddened me that a man so attuned to the loss of liberty at
home could be so cavalier about the horrors of dictatorship elsewhere.
Looking back at Harry Browne's public record, though, what stands out are not the infelicities but the intensity of his
American dream. Let Americans live freely, he insisted time and again, and the results would be harmony, tolerance,
responsibility, and success. "That is the America we *should* have," he wrote. "The beacon of liberty, providing light and
hope and inspiration for the entire world."
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