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A Libertarian legacy
By Cathy Young | March 6, 2006
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,
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
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.