The New Epicureans


How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne, New York: Macmillan, 1973, 374 pp., $7.95.

Epicurus, the ancient Roman philosopher, set forth a plan of life which had great appeal to his contemporaries. You can't depend on the outside world, he said, if you try to change it, you will inevitably fail. You can't even depend on other people very much. So, if you want your happiness to be secure, live your life in such a way that your happiness doesn't depend on people or things in the outside world. Your happiness should never depend on anything that is not within your control—this was Epicurus' basic precept. You can enjoy the pleasures of good food, good companionship, and even love and passion, if you don't get so hooked on these things that you can't do without them, but never if doing without them causes you grief. The sources of your happiness should not be vulnerable to actions of others.

No one could live this completely, of course. Even if you take great precautions with your health, pain will sometimes come; and in the midst of a severe toothache it's difficult or impossible to be really happy. And it's hard not to want to love someone enough so that you would feel devastated if the loved one died or left you. Still, the Epicurean ethic was appealing, as it always is, in a time of social instability, when you can't count on much in the world around you, and so in self-defense you draw in your horns and try to be entirely sufficient unto yourself. Then the misfortunes that devastate others won't affect youyou can be serenely independent of them.

Harry Browne is in many ways a modern-day Epicurean. "You can't change the fate of a nation," he says (p. 106), "but you can do a great deal to make sure you're not affected adversely by it. What you have to do is simply part of the price you pay to get what you want in life. And it's always a far less expensive price than you'd have to pay to undertake a social change of any kind." These are sentiments that could have been right out of Epicurus. If you try to change the world, says Browne, you'll just butt your head against a stone wall. Don't try to change the government, says Browne, like Epicurus before him, or even try to replace bad office-holders with good ones (such as yourself); people are going to keep on doing their thing, not your thing, just as you will keep on doing yours, not theirs; and it's virtually impossible single-handedly to change any institutions, so don't frustrate yourself by trying. Get married if you must, but be aware of the dangers. Epicurus had said this too: by loving you are sticking your neck into a noose which someone else may pull, so don't do it, or if you must, always be detached enough to pull out when you smell danger.

Like Epicurus, Browne's view has many features dear to libertarians: a deep and abiding distrust of government; a detachment from most social institutions; a rigorous dedication to honesty in one's dealing with others; an emphasis on self-reliance rather than relying upon others; an ethics of enlightened self-interest; a rugged individualism, and the fundamental conviction that each person is the sovereign ruler of his own life.

Epicurus had a point, but it is doubtful that he was entirely right. Perhaps most people are happier in the long run getting out on a limb, in spite of all the risks, than never taking risks at all: perhaps 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Perhaps Epicurus' recommended way of life just cut him off from people more than most human natures can bear. And it is possiblesometimesto change institutions; at least some people, such as Lenin, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in doing just that. Institutions do change with time, and what brings these changes about if not the actions of human beings? (And if good people don't try to bring the changes about, then bad people surely will.)

At any rate, Harry Browne appears to make some mistakes that Epicurus didn't. For example:

• He assumes throughout, without arguing the case, that psychological egoism is true. Psychological egoism is the view that every person always acts for his own self-interest (either long-term or short-term)at least what he thinks will be to his interest at the time he does it. People will always do what they think is best for them, Browne saysand by "best for them" he means "will make them happiest."

But most modern philosophers and psychologists haven't found this to be true: some people, at least some of the time, don't act that way; some people act in such a way as to make themselves miserable, even knowing pretty well at the time that what they are doing will have this effect; they do it either through force of habit or because they are psychic masochists (they act as if they want a kick in the teeth every day, and if the outside world doesn't administer the kick, they will, unconsciously, administer it to themselves). Or again, altruists serve the interests (real or apparent) of other people, even when this means that they themselves will be unhappy, sick, or dead as a result; for example, the missionary ministers to a sick native even knowing when he does it that it's likely that he himself will catch the fatal disease and die. In fact, there wouldn't be any point in advising other people to adopt a policy of following their own interest if it were psychologically impossible for them to do anything else. If you should act in a certain way, the "should" has no force unless it is possible not to act in that way.

The statement "Everyone always acts to further his own interest," and the similar statement "Everyone always does what he really wants" (which doesn't mean the samethe actions that will promote your interest in the long run, such as getting rid of your alcoholism, may not be what you want to do), can be rendered immune from falsification only by adopting an old semantic trick: turning it into a tautology, and thus making it trivial. If the sole criterion for determining what you want is what you do, then you can say "X is what he did, therefore X is what he really wanted to do." But if that's all you mean by wanting to do something, the statement "People always do what they want" reduces to the tautology "People always do what they do"which, while true, is utterly trivial and uninformative. In the ordinary everyday sense of "want," we all do lots of things we don't want; I don't want to wash the dishes, but I do it anyway. To say that everything you do is what you really want to do, is simply false in the ordinary sense, and one can make it true only by switching meaningsa semantic trick that is familiar to every student of elementary logic.

• It's true, of course, that an individual can't usually change other people's motivations and ways of reacting to things, except negligibly; those who go into marriage with missionary zeal, to change the partner, emerge from the experience disappointed and embittered. Even less can one person change whole masses of people, society. But a person needn't always act alone. An individual can band together with like-minded individuals and often accomplish a great deal that he could never accomplish alone. He alone can't put the corrupt politician out of office, but if lots of inflamed voters get together, they canit's been done. He alone can't solve the pollution problem, but lots of people working toward its solution while practicing nonpollution themselves as far as they are able, can make a lot of difference. Browne doesn't explicitly deny this, but he doesn't appear to take it into consideration either: when he says that you should limit yourself to what you can do, the "you" seems never to be plural. Yet the fact is that lots of changes, even of long-established institutions, can be made by combined voluntary efforts. To say that you should go your own way and ignore them without ever trying to change them is the counsel of despair (as it was in the case of Epicurus); the result of practicing this on a wide scale is that changes for the better that might have been made will not be made.

• Nobody else can decide for you what is moral, says Browne: "Right is what will bring you happiness. And wrong is what will cause you unhappiness. The same definitions apply to the words good and bad" (p. 43). The words "right" and "wrong" primarily apply to actions, whereas "good" and "bad" apply to lots of other things: good intentions, good motives, good ends, good persons (not right persons). But apart from this terminological point, Browne's definition has some curious consequences. If safecracking is the only thing that really makes me happy, if I am simply bored by everything else but fascinated by that, well then it would be right (for me) to do it; and I suppose that if the thing that makes me happier than anything else is axe-murdering, then that too would be right for me to do. In drawing that conclusion I'm simply using Browne's definition, exactly as he states it. He doesn't add any such qualifications as "unless what makes you happy violates the rights of others"; he just says flat out that whatever makes you happy is right, period. (Of course he might then try to prove that nobody can ever be happy by coercing others or otherwise violating their rights: but to prove that this holds true of all people all of the time, would be, in THE NEW YORKER's phrase, the "neatest trick of the week," and, in any case, Browne never tries to prove it.)

At the same time, he doesn't seem to be consistent at all points with his own definition. When he is discussing the importance of being completely honest with everyone you deal with, he cites the example of the girlfriend who used a device to cheat the telephone company (pp. 271-72), and Browne concludes that this is dishonesty on her part, and accordingly condemns her for doing it. But according to his own definition, it would be right for her to do it as long as it made her happy (or happier than doing the alternative acts open to her), in spite of his believing that it is wrong. (Browne's definition of "good" is somewhat reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's: "What's good is what I feel good after and what's bad is what I feel bad after.")

• Among the many other points which I'd like to mention if I had space, this one is, I think, the most important: it concerns his definition of freedom. "Freedom," he says again and again, "is the opportunity to live your life as you want to live it." But he later observes (p. 151) that "the opportunity has always been thereyou just haven't taken advantage of it," so he drops the word "opportunity" from the definition, and says simply, "Freedom is living your life as you want to live it."

Now, this is not the way "freedom" is usually defined; ordinarily, freedom means the absence of coercion. Being free, in ordinary discourse, means the opposite of being forced. The slave is not free; the citizen living under the lash of a tyrant is not free; but the hermit in the woods may well be freehe may not have some of the things he wants, but nobody is forcing him, and he's living according to his chosen life style.

It isn't a mistakemerely confusing, if one isn't aware of what the author is doingto use a word differently from the way most other people use it. So let's take his definition. Freedom, he says, means living your life as you want to live it. And one judges from the whole tenor of the book that he thinks this is possible for everyone: his book is supposed to be a recipe for doing just that. Now let's remember that he also says that one shouldn't concern oneself with what isn't within one's own powerthat trying to change other people or society is hopeless and you should rely on what you (singly) can do. But now what if living your life as you want to live it involves something that isn't within your power? Well then, it would seem, you can't be free, and then in those cases the recipe of the book won't work. Let's say that you want to spend the money you've earned as you see fit, not as the officials of government see fit; you don't want to shell out 70% of your income to the state; but under present conditions, if you don't do it you risk fine and imprisonment. (Browne believes there are always ways around this, but this is a dubious pointlots of people would like to know how! And "always" is a big word.) This situation has not been created by you: you are the victim of it. And yet if you want more than anything else to live by your own decisions, and the government increasingly keeps you from being able to do thismost of all if you're a Jew in Nazi Germany or a political dissident in Soviet Russiawell then you can't be free, not even by a policy of total self-reliance.

Or suppose that the way you want most of all to live is the way the Indians lived, roaming the plains, hunting buffalo, going hundreds of miles without encountering other human beings. Freedom is living your life as you want to live it, and that's the way you want to live it. But you can't; it's more than a hundred years too late for that. So what follows? You can't be free. Fine, one might say; such a person indeed cannot be free. But then what happened to the thesis of Browne's recipe-book for freedom, that one can always have freedom in an unfree world?

The next move one might make is to say that one shouldn't want to live in such a way, especially knowing that it's now impossible. If reality thwarts your desires, don't try to change reality, just pare down your desires. That's what Epicurus advised. But some desires, especially if they are very strong and very long-lasting, are difficult or impossible to get rid of; and then, by Browne's definition of freedom, you still wouldn't be free. And even if you can get rid of them to some degree, what you have to settle for may be a pale tenth-bestand are you free then? Epicurus was at least consistent (though perhaps unduly optimistic about people's abilities to change their natures) in saying that freedom consists of being released from the treadmill of desires. But this option is not open to Browne, who says that freedom consists in fulfilling one's desire, that is, living your life as you want to live it. If you're stuck with that definition, it's tough for your freedom if what you want most is something that isn't within your own power to achieve. And can anyone doubt that for many people this is exactly the situation in which they find themselves?

The moral here is that it is better to stick to the time-honored definition of freedom as noncoercion. You can still be free though unhappy, you can still be free with your fundamental desires unfulfilled; to be free means only that one main source of unhappiness, the coercive acts of others, is not present. Freedom is not all good things, it is only one good thing. And one should keep it clearly distinct from something as broad and general as satisfying one's desires, or living life as one wants to live it. These are great goals, but they are not identical with freedom; freedom is not those things, but a necessary condition for the achievement of those things.

The semantic trap into which Browne has fallen here is, ironically, the same one that the socialists fell into in talking about freedom. Freedom, they said, is not the absence of coercion (under limited government and laissez faire); no, freedom is having what you want, and if you want new cars and television sets and haven't the money to buy them, then you should get that money from the state: the state can insure your freedom, because the money given you by the state can get you what you want. What the socialists did was to scrap the old definition of freedom as noncoercion and substitute a new one, freedom as power or ability. And this led millions of people to agitate for a guaranteed income, having been told that if they didn't get what they wanted they weren't free.

Browne is the opposite of a socialist, and yet his argument appears to be tarred with that same brush. Freedom as noncoercion is a thousand light-years away from freedom as power or ability. "It is true," says F.A. Hayek in his CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY (p. 18), "that to be free may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run mortal risks. In the sense in which we use the term, the penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvization is indeed freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative comfort. But if liberty may therefore not always seem preferable to other goods, it is a distinctive good that needs a distinctive name." Accordingly, Hayek concludes "it is questionable whether the use of the word 'liberty' in the sense of 'power' should be tolerated."

* * *

My remarks, I fear, have been primarily of a negative character. They had to be so, if the slipshod arguments and outright mistakes in the book were to be exposed. Yet there is much in the book that is valuable to the general reader and to the libertarian in particular. There is, of course, a sound and healthy concern with one's own long-range interests, which immediately sets the book apart from those other recipe-books which would immolate the reader on the sacrificial altar of altruism. There is also a good deal of sound antigovernment talk about how various problems can best be solved without the interference of the state; and this, while familiar enough to libertarians, should hit the general reader squarely between the eyes if he really pays careful attention to what Browne sayshopefully these short sections of the book will awaken statist readers from their dogmatic slumbers. And best of all, the tone of the book is upbeat, positive, and exhilarating, like a strong fresh breeze from the ocean on a hot, muggy day. It will help to carry any reader who is style-conscious through many a discouraging experience, such as reading the daily headlines. The pity is that such a positive prolife attitude, manifested in a writing style of such verve and vigor, occurs in a book which is so heavily marred by dubious points and fallacious arguments.