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Tuesday, December 1, 1998

How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World

How to Avoid and Outwit the Authoritarians

There always have been and probably always will be a great many human beings who just won’t leave others alone. History is full of them—famous tyrants and conquerors—and no doubt you know people who, on a lesser scale, insist on bossing others around. The ones who do the most damage in the United States (and other “free” countries) are the people Adam Smith described as “men of system,” always brimming over with schemes for making the world more just, safe, moral, orderly, or whatever. They are certain that their schemes will “work” provided that everyone can be compelled to go along. Their visions ensnare us all.

Given the lamentable fact that those people abound, what is the person who just wants to live according to his own desires to do? Some give themselves ulcers by complaining about the way the world is. Others take action, trying to obtain greater freedom than the “men of system” deign to give them. They work to get freedom-restricting laws repealed, taxes reduced, bad officials replaced, and even governments overthrown. Occasionally, these efforts succeed. Often, they fail. In either case, fighting the battle for freedom has costs: time and property are given up; lives may be lost.

But there is a third option: action to seek freedom without confronting the oppressors. That is the message-in-chief of Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. First published in 1973, now reissued with a new foreword and afterword, this book is an argument in favor of finding freedom by avoiding and outwitting the authoritarians. Browne makes an interesting case.

In the tradition of Ayn Rand, Harry Browne, financial writer and, ironically, 1996 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, holds that people should strive to live their lives happily. They need not and should not sacrifice themselves for the supposed good of abstractions like “society” or “the nation.” Nor should they sacrifice themselves in obedience to clichés like, “You must not be selfish.” Everyone is selfish, the author notes, and the anti-selfishness injunction is merely a means some people use to pressure others to “subordinate their desires to those of the “unselfish.”

Returning to the fight versus flight debate, Browne suggests that most people will find more happiness if they adopt the latter strategy. The government’s functionaries are not as knowledgeable or motivated as they are generally assumed to be, he maintains, and therefore individuals who want to be left alone can find freedom by steering clear of the state.

As an example, he tells about a business he once ran, where payroll taxes were becoming unbearable. Browne was contacted by an organization that wanted his financial assistance so it could wage a political fight against such taxes. Instead, Browne dissolved the business and reformulated it as a group of independent contractors cooperating for mutual gain. The effort against the payroll tax went nowhere, but Browne and associates were better off than ever.

Do you get hot under the collar because government does things that violate your rights? Browne advises you to forget about the concept of rights: “You’re in the Rights Trap whenever you count on anything other than an individual’s self-interest to cause him to give you what you want.” People who are violating your rights aren’t going to stop just because you claim to have rights against their actions. You’re probably better off taking evasive action rather than unleashing a torrent of righteous rhetoric, Browne says.

But what if everyone adopted the Browneian philosophy and huddled in the shrinking domains of freedom, which might just alert the statists to them and lead to further crackdowns? Don’t worry about that, our author replies. What you do won’t affect others. Try to squeeze as much happiness as you can out of life, and if you conclude that doing so requires ducking the mailed fist of the state, go ahead.

Fair enough, but suppose that instead of armed revolt against the King, the colonists in 1775 had increased their disobedience of British laws? Browne would answer that if the people had maximized their opportunities for freedom instead of taking up arms, in time the spread between what it cost to control the colonies and what they yielded in taxes would have caused the King to abandon them in disgust. Maybe so. Or maybe the havens of freedom would have been exterminated one by one and today we would be saddled with a terribly invasive megastate. Which is where we are anyway.

A useful, thought-provoking book.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.