Archive for March, 2006

In Memory of Harry Browne

March 3, 2006

Like many, I came to the libertarian philosophy through Ayn Rand and Objectivism. What Rand made possible, Harry Browne made real.

The first presidential election for which I had the franchise was 1992. As a twenty-one year old with high ideals, I voted for Bill Clinton. This became an object lesson in being careful what I wished for in case I got it. By 1996, I was fed up with the two largest parties and ready to give up on the political process all together.

I first heard of Harry Browne via e-mail. Like hundreds of thousands would after me, my first exposure to libertarianism and the Libertarian Party had been via the Internet (more specifically Usenet in my case.) But, the notion was still abstract and improbable to me. The LP had immediate appeal, but I dismissed it, thinking that a third party could never make a difference in this country.

Harry Browne changed all of that. Using terms that everyone could understand, he explained the problems and the dangers of big government. When he spoke, he was eloquent, charming, and even funny. He used the national campaign trail as a lever to appeal directly to the freedom loving people who had never heard of the Libertarian Party or who, like me, had heard of it, but never seriously considered joining.

And people listened. Membership in the Libertarian Party quadrupled between 1995 and the end of his 2000 campaign. More than that, for every person who joined the party, ten voted for Harry on election day. In spite of all the effort made by the Republicans and Democrats to convince people that voting for a third party was throwing your vote away, hundreds of thousands turned out to do just that.

Harry Browne was not the most pragmatic of libertarians, but he wasn’t a wild-eyed idealist either. He understood that, to sell the vision of libertarianism to the masses, you had to focus on small pieces of it that people could understand, not start out by talking about why we need to get rid of the FDA and sell off the public roadways.

For years, Harry Browne was the center of the Libertarian party and the driving force in its growth. The party and the movement are poorer for his loss. We’ll miss you, Harry. There may never be another like you.

What is a pragmatic libertarian?

March 2, 2006

There are enough people who, upon hearing the phrase “pragmatic libertarian” immediately categorize it with such phrases as “jumbo shrimp” or “authentic replica” and that’s a somewhat fair response.

Libertarianism and the Libertarian Party have always been focused on idealism, often to the point where “pragmatic” sounds like an insult. After all, pragmatism is what led to the current win-at-any-cost, don’t-do-anything-that-might-lose-a-vote mentality that defines modern American politics for the two largest parties.

The problem with this perspective is that it’s neither idealism nor pragmatism that is to blame for the current, sorry state of affairs, but the lack of balance between the two. The Democrats haven’t come up with a new idea, good or bad, since before they let the word “liberal” become a profanity. There are still a few Republicans who keep the balance, but the majority of the party leadership have spent the last twenty years confusing moralizing with morality.

The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, gave up all pretext of trying to influence the election or the electorate when they nominated Michael Badnarik to run for president in 2004. What little exposure he got as a candidate focused not on the libertarian ideals of smaller government and more personal freedom, but on his opposition to drivers’ licenses and ZIP codes.

As a pragmatic libertarian, I believe in the libertarian ideal that the government which governs least governs best. From there, I look at the way the world is and throw my support behind political causes that move us in that direction and actually have enough popular support that they might one day become a reality.

A typical example of this is school vouchers. Democrats were against school vouchers because they would weaken public schools and put government funding in the hands of church-run organizations. Republicans were for vouchers because they would allow parents to choose what sort of education their children got.

The strictly idealistic libertarian response to school vouchers was, “Hell, no. The government should be getting out of the education racket all together.”

As a libertarian, I agree that funding and regulating education isn’t an appropriate role for government. As a pragmatist, I know that no one is going to shut public schools on my say-so.

The net result of libertarians staying on the sideline, sticking to our ideological guns, is that we had no say at all.

The pragmatic choice was to support school vouchers, not because the government should be in the education business, but because a nation with school vouchers is freer than a nation with little school choice and a national curriculum. If libertarians want to see the end of the bloated Leviathan that is American public education, letting it die gradually of natural causes under the glow of market-based competitors is a far more effective means of reaching our goals than waiting for someone to hand us the big, red button that lets us do it by fiat.

Just a quick wave as I roll up my sleeves

March 1, 2006

I’m just doing a quick clean-up of the defaults that WordPress sets up with the blog. The Pragmatic Libertarian is a project I’ve been kicking around for a couple of years now. It’s time to push it out of the nest and see if it flies.