Harry Browne — Have You Forgotten?: “The Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil”


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 he stated:

[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 government.

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 Magazine.

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 list.

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 in it.

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 not enough….

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 for power.

Harry Browne-are you listening?

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