Can Harry Browne Be Found in a Libertarian Movement?


John Hospers, in a discriminatingly ambivalent review of Harry Browne's HOW I FOUND FREEDOM IN AN UNFREE WORLD (REASON, March 1974) has raised some fundamental questions for libertarianism. These questions center upon the issue of morality. In his book Browne advises us to adopt an amoral attitude, to take self-interest as our guiding principle. A guiding principle need not be a moral principle; we need not legislate for all mankind. We need not universalize this principle or universalize any of the maxims of our actions for that matter. To be concerned with others as a matter of principle would be to fall into Browne's morality trap, to impose unnecessary fetters upon our freedom of judgment and action.

We can call the position Browne advises us to take amoral egoism. It appears at first glance to be very much like what Hospers has termed personal ethical egoism. According to this view the only good is the realization of the egoist's self-interest. If we ought to do what is right, then it follows that we all ought serve the individual egoist's self-interest. This view runs into trouble when there is more than one personal ethical egoist. What's the good and what ought to be done, under these circumstances? All answers are embarrassing. This, however, is not Browne's view, for this view has consequences for the behavior of others. It makes claims upon the behavior of others; it states what they ought to do.

Browne works outside the framework of right and ought. Good for him is not really a moral notion at all. Good is happiness. The good for you is your own happiness. You are permitted to be mum on what is good for others. What is right is what contributes to your own happiness. So we really have only good-for-you, and right-for-you, and not good and right simpliciter. There are, of course, problems with this view too. Hospers, in his review, shows it is too bald to be correct. Some philosophers (e.g. G.E. Moore) have even considered such a view self-contradictory. It would be self-contradictory if it were a "moral view," but it is emphatically not so intended. In general, people who speak of good-for-me, and right-for-me, are not playing the moral game poorly; they are not playing it at all. (If all this has been too straightforward, the reader can ask himself whether Browne practices what he preaches. In advising us to be amoral, is Browne adopting a moral attitude himself? Is he unwittingly adopting a variant of universal or impersonal ethical egoism, the view that each person should attempt to realize his own [enlightened] self-interest?)[1]

Browne's lack of philosophical sophistication is accidental, his amoral, or as Hospers felicitously puts it, Epicurean, brand of libertarianism is essential. Browne like Epicurus counsels expediency. Even justice, for Epicurus, was an "expression of expediency, to prevent one man from harming another or being harmed by another" (PRINCIPAL DOCTRINES). Browne forces us to raise the "Why be moral" question—or more specifically, "Why should the libertarian be moral" question. One might first ask, "Why be a libertarian?" One answer might be that it is the only moral position. This is a moralist answer. An Epicurean answer would be because it is the best (only) path to happiness—my happiness. I have to be free (in Hospers' rather than Browne's sense) to pursue my goals. Morality is to be judged by its effectiveness in providing me with this freedom.

Browne's view of freedom deviates from the usual libertarian line. Hospers takes him to task for this, but he attempts no salvage operation. Browne could have titled his book somewhat less paradoxically, "How I Found Happiness in an Unfree World." As it is, Browne equivocates on the word "freedom." An unfree world is a world with coercion, or with more than minimal necessary coercion. If all could be free in such a world (and Browne is advising all of us), there would not be coercion, and hence it would not be an unfree world. You (all) can't find freedom in an unfree world. Browne's position here is quite like that of Epicurus. You can be happy in an unfree world, because you can be free-enough. Free-enough is something which is in your power to be. It is a matter of self-discipline, of self-mastery. Coercion is often in the mind of the beholder. We thus have another title for Browne's book: "How I Found Enough Freedom in an Unfree World." So for Browne, the crucial question is "Do I have enough freedom?" Need I be concerned with the freedom of others, to secure my own freedom?

Two answers to this question have been widely offered.

(1) It is moral to—I ought to—be so concerned. This is a moralist, a Kantian, answer.

(2) I can only be secure in my own freedom if others are secure.

Some form of compact or general agreement is among all of us. In a state of nature one is not secure. This is the social-contract response. It is an attempt to justify morality on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. But it is important to see that I am allowed to appeal to enlightened self-interest only insofar as I am bogged down in a state of nature where ex hypothesi a compact is required, is expedient. The amoralist raises the crucial question as to whether I here and now—Boston, Mass., America, Summer 1974 need to be moral, e.g. need (agree to) recognize the freedom (right to be free) of others. Put another way, I want (need) a modicum of freedom for myself. If I had to participate in a compact, I had to enter into an agreement, I surely would. This is simply expediency. But Browne argues, or perhaps would argue, that expedience here and now does not require this at all. We don't want to fall into the morality trap. I am reasonably secure in my freedom, or better, free enough. To the extent I need more freedom I would do what is necessary—I will cooperate just to this extent. (As Hospers points out, Browne's own attitude toward personal morality is somewhat unclear.)

Interestingly enough, this amoralist/moralist tension arises also in David Friedman's THE MACHINERY OF FREEDOM. Although, as Eric Mack effectively points out, there are consistency difficulties with Friedman's position, on the whole he wishes to treat freedom (liberty) amorally. [2] It is just another good for the market to provide. If I have to bargain for freedom, make a deal for a certain kind of legal code, then I will. If I want a new car I will make a deal, I will give something up in order to make the desired exchange. But if, on the other hand, I am presented with a new car as a gift by a rich relative, I don't have to worry about bargaining. Well Browne, I suggest, views freedom and other moral goods as gifts which a reasonably free society has bestowed. He doesn't need to be moral or just, or to (always) act morally or justly, because conditions are such that his own freedom doesn't require it. (No need to worry about morality or at least social morality, political justice!) The task is to get on with making oneself happy. This is not to say that moral behavior isn't sometimes or even, on the whole, expedient. Still the justification of moral behavior is always in terms of expediency in the context of the given "existential" situation.

The question is: Is there room for the amoralist within libertarianism? (There does seem to be in fact such a tradition [or traditions]. The Max Stirner brand of egoism seems to be both libertarian and amoral. Indeed Epicureanism itself can also be viewed as filling the bill.) Or even more generally, why not amorality? In spite of all the ink spilled by philosophers on the justification of the moral point of view, I don't think amorality has been dealt a decisive blow. Browne's book and Hospers' review (and Friedman's book and Mack's review) raise the question forcefully once more.

Paul Sagal is a professor of philosophy at Boston University.

[1] For a discussion of some modes of egoism, see John Hospers' discussion, "Rule-Egoism" in THE PERSONALIST, Autumn 1973.
[2] See Eric Mack's review, "The God of the Machinery," REASON, March 1974.