Harry Browne — Have You Forgotten?: "The Lesser of Two Evils is
by Carl Watner
Number 85 - Apr 1997
Opening a recent Laissez Faire Book catalog, I found two diametrically opposed
headlines on face-to-face book reviews: "Ridicules the mystique of government,"
and "A libertarian manifesto for political action." The first book
surveyed was the revised, second edition of Sy Leon's None of the Above, originally
subtitled "The Lesser of Two Evils ... Is Evil," (and now with a new
subtitle - "Why Non-Voters Are America's Political Majority"). The
call to electoral politics was Harry Browne's Why Government Doesn't Work. Until
a year or two ago, Harry Browne had counted himself among the anti-political
libertarians refusing to associate themselves with electoral politics. In fact,
he had written an introduction to the 1976 edition of None of the Above in which
[A] growing number of people ... [have] deliberately decided that the voting
process is the wrong approach to making social and economic decisions. These
are the people who believe that it's wrong for one person to exercise control
(through voting or otherwise) over someone else's life and property. [p. 8]
Now Harry Browne is campaigning for office, and trying to become President
of "society's dominant producer of coercion," the United States federal
Why the sudden change of heart, Harry?
His wife of ten years, Pamela, suggested in 1992 that he run for President.
Harry Browne says, "At first I thought the idea was absurd. But we talked
about it for two years and in August 1994 I decided I should run. I have only
one reason for running, a selfish motivation: I want to live in peace and freedom
for my remaining 20-40 years." [p. 214]
Oh, if Harry Browne had only heeded the advice in the new introduction to None
of the Above! The introduction was excerpted from John Pugsley's Open Letter,
"Harry, Please, Don't Run for President - An Argument In Defense of the
Invisible Hand." The letter was printed in No. 74 of The Voluntaryist
(June 1995) and also appeared earlier in LIBERTY
Let's look at some of the alternatives to "politics as usual" that
John Pugsley suggested in his Open Letter. Pugsley says we should distance ourselves
as far as possible from the State. The vast majority of his ideas focus on exercising
self-control, self-improvement, and relying on voluntary cooperation in our lives
in order to accomplish our objectives. Among Pugsley's constructive proposals
we find: "create parallel mechanisms to replace government functions,"
and "support private alternatives to government services." There are
also many activities that we can undertake to strip away the myth of government
legitimacy. He urges us to master the issues, expose the enemy among us, get
involved in campaigns to enlighten and enrage the public, engage in civil disobedience,
pamphleteer, and to write free market novels and produce free market movies.
Essentially what John Pugsley told Harry Browne is that he should continue
to honor the free market principles which he (Browne) has always preached and,
until now, practiced. Harry Browne should well know that trying to achieve liberty
by way of political action is like allowing the government to print money in
order to achieve prosperity. It won't work; and it's not right to try. Not only
are the means not adapted to the end (in the practical sense) but the morality
of such an undertaking is dubious, to say the least. Not only is democratic majority
rule a myth that our political rulers wish to sustain, but it depends upon the
implicit use of force to impose the policies of the winners on the losers.
The primary reason why The Voluntaryist was begun was to offer support
to the alternatives to electoral politics and to provide a counterpoint to libertarians
who urged us to "get out and vote to support 'our' candidates." Those
arguments (moral, practical, and theoretical) have found a continuous home in
our pages, and rather than repeat them, I have compiled a list of a number of
articles that support the anti-electoral position. Neither Bullets Nor Ballots
was published in late 1983, and contains the following essays: Party Dialogue
by George Smith; "Demystifying the State" by Wendy McElroy; and Voluntaryism
in the Libertarian Tradition, A Voluntaryist Bibliography, Annotated, and Voluntaryism
in the European Anarchist Tradition, by Carl Watner. Other pertinent articles
published in The Voluntaryist are "The Ethics of Voting,"
Parts I, II, and III [ * ] (Nos. 1, 2, & 4); "Book Review of Benjamin
Ginsberg, The Consequences of Consent" (No. 9); "Button Pushing
or Abdication: Which?"(No. 17); "Legitimacy and Elections" (No.
19); "The Voluntaryist Insight: The Political Thought of Etienne de la Boetie"
(No. 26); "The Power of Non-Violent Resistance"
(No. 27); "Some Critical Considerations on the United States Constitution"
(No. 30); "Does Freedom Need to Be Organized?"
(No. 34); "The Myth of Political Freedom" (No. 35); "Cultivate
Your Own Garden: No Truck With Politics" (No. 40); "The Illegality,
Immorality, and Violence of All Political Action" (No. 60); and "The
Tragedy of Political Government" (No. 79). Of course, Wendy McElroy's
"Why I Would Not Vote Against Hitler," appearing
in this issue and Sy Leon's book, None of the Above, need to be added to this
Although None of the Above is being offered for sale through The
Voluntaryist ($ 14.00 post paid to US adresses, $18 elsewhere), I have one major criticism of the book.
It suggests that the option, None of the Above, be added to the ballot,
so that those citizens who currently refuse to vote have a place to register
their dissent. There are many problems with this proposal, and perhaps this is
why it has never been adopted. Non-voters already have a way of demonstrating
their disgust with the system: Stay Away from the Polls - Rather than involving
non-voters in the system, Leon would have been closer to home to have suggested
organizing a "League of Non-Voters." As a general rule, the political
system doesn't care why you vote or - who you vote for; it is the act of voting
that counts and helps legitimize the State.
Even the way Leon structures the None of the Above option proves this point.
For example, on p. 25 he states that the candidate receiving the most votes (as
against all his opponents) will still take office, even if None of the Above
wins a plurality of the votes. The only thing None of the Above might do is to
demonstrate that elected officials do not necessarily have the support of a majority
of the voting citizenry. But this is possible, even now, if anyone cares to publicize
the figures. The problem is that Leon does not realize how the State has used
elections to shore up its foundations. "The right to vote" does not
exist "to give the people a choice," as Leon asserts on p. 27. The
right to vote is an illusion of choice created by the State to make people think
that they should pay their taxes and abide by the laws of the State because they
have had some part in the decision-making process which led to those rules. As
Theodore Lowi put it in The Voluntaryist, No. 79 (p. 4):
Participation is an instrument of conquest because it encourages people to
give their consent to being governed.... Deeply embedded in people's sense of
fair play is the principle that those who play the game must accept the outcome.
Those who participate in politics are similarly committed, even if they are consistently
on the losing side. Why do politicians plead with everyone to get out and vote?
Because voting is the simplest and easiest form of participation by masses of
people. Even though it is minimal participation, it is sufficient to commit all
voters to being governed, regardless of who wins.
In Chapter 3, "The Lesser of Two Evils," Leon claims that if None
of the Above be placed on the ballot, "Then those who disapprove of all
the candidates can still participate in the electoral process without having
to choose among degrees of evil." (p. 34) What Leon ignores or misses is
the fact that participating in elections - from the voluntaryist point of view
is wrong - period. It is an evil to vote, even if you vote for None of the Above,
or if your one vote could prevent some Hitlerian candidate from taking office.
And even if the State were to pass a law that made voting compulsory (as in some
countries, like Australia) it would still be wrong to vote. The point, as Leon
seems to forget, is: Voting (in the political context) is wrong regardless of
the options it offers you.
The most perceptive discussion of "The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still Evil"
that I have found occurs in a book by Milton Mayer titled They Thought They
Were Free (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955, pp. 176-181). Excerpts
were printed in The Voluntaryist, No. 31, under the title "The
Day The World Was Lost." A German chemical engineer describes how he succumbed
to the Nazi regime. Under the National Defense Law of 1935 he was required to
swear an oath of fidelity. Refusal to do so would have meant the loss of his
job. His initial opposition to the oath was overcome by his belief that if he
kept his job, he might be of help to his Jewish and dissident friends. So he
decided to swear - with mental reservations - allegiance to the Nazis. Years
later, the chemist admitted that his initial instincts were right: he should
have refused to take the oath, and he realized his mental reservations meant
nothing to the official who administered it. The oath was an immediate evil and
should have been opposed. Committing a positive evil in the hope of achieving
a future gain is erroneous thinking. At the time, the possibility of helping
his friends was still in the future, and there was no way of knowing whether
his apparent loyalty to the Nazi criminals would help save them.
The man eventually did assist a number of the government's opponents to safety,
but he felt that the world "ended" for Germany when he and other educated
Germans of the time violated their consciences and chose the lesser of two evils.
Had they all had the courage to oppose the regime, the greater evil of World
War II and the genocide would probably have been avoided. Even if it hadn't, there
was no justification for doing wrong in order that some greater good 'might'
come about in the future. At the very least, mass refusal to swear allegiance
tothe regime, and other acts of civil disobedience, would have demonstrated to
the world that far fewer Germans tacitly approved of the Nazis.
Aside from my
objection to the None of the Above electoral option, there are a number of gems
and libertarian insights to be found in Leon's book. I'll share my two favorites.
One is found on page 84:
[A]lthough some of the goods and services provided by government are essential,
it is not essential that they be provided by government.
As a corollary to this statement, we should continue to make clear to others
that just because we oppose the government provision of some service (such as
schools), this does not mean that we oppose the provision of that service by
the free market. Our antagonism to government schooling does not extend to schooling
per se, but is directed toward the government.
Near the end of Leon's book, we find him berating those who look upon his rejection
of political activity as a "do nothing" attitude. In the process he
makes some very voluntaryist statements on pages 183-184. There can be no better
close to this review than to quote him in full:
Why not support a candidate who shares my view? Because if a person shared
my views he could not be a candidate.... An anti-political politician is not
to be trusted since the best way to be against something is simply not to participate
Why can't the system be changed from within? Why not enter the political arena
with the expressed intent of changing it? Simply because good intentions are
Just as the way to lessen crime is not to join the ranks of criminals, so
the way to lessen the harmful effects of politicians is not to swell their ranks
by joining them. There may be more glory and fame in running for political office,
as contrasted with spreading one's ideas nonpolitically, but it is not glory
and fame that those concerned with human freedom are after... The public does,
and should, look with a jaundiced eye upon any self-proclaimed anti-politician
who uses political candidacy as a means of attracting attention.
Walking contradictions are not to be trusted - especially when they are asking
Harry Browne-are you listening?