Interview
with Harry Browne, the 1996 Libertarian presidential nominee
How a Political Drop-Out Ended Up Running for President
Harry Browne spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on July 2, 1998 during the Libertarian National Convention in Washington, DC.  His wife Pamela joined him mid-way through the interview.
Browne | News
  • QUESTION What is your first political memory? 

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  • QUESTION Describe a defining moment in your life. Is there something that set you on the path to where you are today? 

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  • QUESTION What did it take in those two years, '92 to '94 to get you to move?

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  • QUESTION Are there one or two people who have really influenced the way you think about politics?

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  • QUESTION You became interested in investing when you were about 34? 

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  • QUESTION The 1996 campaign, what were for you a couple of highlights…?

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  • QUESTION In the 1996 campaign was there a major disappointment or low point?

  •  
  • QUESTION Five hundred broadcast interviews in the course of that effort. Was there one question that was asked too much or that was not asked?

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  • QUESTION Touching on your current activities, you're writing one more financial book; how's that coming?

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  • QUESTION Could you outline briefly your formula for thinking about the role of the federal government?

What is your first political memory?

BROWNE: I remember the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt and Wilkie. I especially remember the '44 campaign because my parents let me sit up at night and keep a scorecard, listening to it on the radio--there was no television--listening to the returns. In '48 I was rabid for Truman, and so I remember that even much more so; I was still in high school at the time. And then in '52 I was still to young to vote. '56 was the only year that I ever voted for president before 1996, because I voted for Eisenhower. But by the time the next one came around I was already so disenchanted with politics that I went into political hibernation for 30 years.
 

 


Describe a defining moment in your life. Is there something that set you on the path to where you are today?

BROWNE: I don't believe so. I think generally speaking things don't happen that way. I see my life as a disorganized series of things that really do have a thread through them. I think that from my earliest memory I was an individualist, in the sense that I did not accept everything I heard. I may have publicly gone along with it if I was in the 5th grade or 8th grade or whatever, but I had my doubts andwondered about it. And this just evolved. Life is a process of growing up; and for me growing up meant trying to be more honest with myself and to be more honest with other people about who I am and what I believe.

There is one moment that really did change my life considerably, and that was in 1992 when my wife and I were watching some politician on television saying some series of idiotic things--and it must have been either a presidential candidate or President Bush himself--because I said something and my wife said well why don't you be president. I thought it was a ridiculous statement; I thought she was kidding at first, then I realized she was serious. Then it became apparent that she did think I ought to run for president, and over the next two years we talked about it and finally made the decision in August of '94. I have to say that that has changed my life. I could not conceive in 1991 of being where I am now, being with the people I'm with and being involved in the things I'm in.

    There is one moment that really did change my life considerably, and that was in 1992 when my wife and I were watching some politician on television saying some series of idiotic things...


 


What did it take in those two years, '92 to '94 to get you to move?

BROWNE: Well it's an interesting thing. It shows what they call cognitive dissonance, where on one track of your mind you see this thing and on the other track you're seeing something entirely opposite and it never dawns on you to notice the contradiction between the two. I was aware that things had changed drastically in America. I was writing a newsletter which was for investments but I would write about political things--I didn't support candidates or anything--but I was writing about what was going on in Washington, and I was telling people that the country has changed that people are no longer falling over for the government and saying oh yeah you want this, we'll give it to you whatever it is, that now people distrusted government, that people realized that government wasn't working, they were realizing all these things. And yet at the same time I had dropped out politics because I could see no way in the world that this thing would ever be changed. Back in the early '60s I could just see this whole thing evolving into a giant behemoth in Washington. And it happened that way.

What I wasn't recognizing as I was talking about the fact that the mood of the country was changing was that maybe there was a place for politics now where there hadn't been thirty years ago. And during those two years of talking about it with my wife off and on, I began to realize that, well, maybe I could actually make a difference if I did this. Whether or not I actually succeeded in the election--and I think every candidate starts out thinking he's got some secret weapon that he's possibly going to win--but even if I didn't, that maybe I actually could effect some kind of change, have some kind of impact that would force the other parties to do things differently from what they were do. So all these things were discussed and I would say that by the beginning of 1994 it became apparent to both of us that this is what we wanted to do. But we then had to go through a process of finding out what's involved with it.

I actually paid a political consultant to spend a weekend with us and explain everything that would be involved and so forth. I called libertarians that I knew who were in the party to find out have they already got a candidate for '96, all this kind of thing, I didn't know anything about that. So we went through this and there were certain places along the way where it just seemed like, oh my God, this is not what I want to do. I want to go out and tell the world that you have the chance to be free here, but I don't want to get involved in internal politics of the party and things like that. And this is what I was finding out. That well you've got to make sure you've got these bases covered, you've got to do this and that; you can campaign for two years, get to the convention and somebody rigs the rules committee and you're out. Some things like this, and it was very discouraging. But then I met somebody in the party through referral who said yes, yes, all those things can happen, but they're not going to, because we'll see to it that they don't. Don't worry, we'll take care of it, we'll set up your committee, we'll do this and that, and you do what you do best. It was a great sigh of relief, and after a week of that, of looking into that that closely, then we talked about it and said alright let's do it. I've never regretted it.
 

 


Are there one or two people who have really influenced the way you think about politics?

BROWNE: Not really. The thing is that there are people who definitely I have admired and who have opened my eyes about certain things. But the process of the overall, just seems to be that natural thread, that through all the chaos and disorganization in my life I just kept moving in one direction, and never changed. I mean I went to government schools so I came out of it thinking the UN's a great place, and I'm a good Democrat and so forth. And the next thing I know I'm a Republican, the next thing I know I'm a conservative Republican, the next thing I know I'm no Republican. And it's all just sort of going in a straight line towards absolute freedom. 

But along the way I remember reading Henry Haslett's (sp) book What You Should Know About Inflation, around 1960, and he convinced me that inflation did not come from unions raising wages, something that I, like most people, had believed for many years. I remember reading Robert LeFave's (sp) editorials in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph about government. He took a full no-government-was-needed position, and I learned many things in reading that that helped my development. But there's been no one person that suddenly gave me a blinding flash of inspiration.
 

 


You became interested in investing when you were about 34?

BROWNE: Yes, at 34, in 1967. A very strange thing; I would never have expected to ever in my life be involved in that. I never went to college; I have no kind of background in that whatsoever. I just had an interest in economics but not in investments. I had worked up an economics course that I had given for two years, in the free market, just giving presentations. People would come for free; if they liked it then they would sign up for an eight-week course for $65. I mean it was dirt cheap. And a fellow took the course and liked it very, very much and in 1967 he got in touch with me and said I am involved in this investment thing, and my partner and I just split and I need somebody who can speak like you can and understands economics to give the presentation on this. Would you do so? And I said yes, and I got involved in it, and got very involved in it, and the next thing you know I was completely involved in it.

And it was only two years after that, less than two years, that I sat down and wrote a book on the whole business as I saw it in 1969. The book came out in 1970. I never expected the book to even get a publisher; I figured it was so out of the way. But I found a publisher who was very enthusiastic about it and the book got on the best seller list and sold something like 125,000 copies of it in hardcover--maybe 3 or 4 percent of the books that are ever published ever have something like that. And the whole thing just absolutely amazed me; I couldn't believe it. And so then I started writing more books.

And then in 1974 started writing a newsletter. I never did get into stock selection and that sort of thing. It was more a case of the philosophy of how you should approach this. If you want to be absolutely safe, this is what you have to do; if you're willing to take risks, this is what you can do. This sort of thing. Because I never made predictions, I never made forecasts or anything like that, it was always an uphill battle. I had a fairly loyal audience, but it began to diminish in the 1980s. It became more and more work for less and less return, and so finally in 1997, last year in July, I finally closed it down. I actually kept it going during the campaign, but fortunately it was not a monthly schedule; people paid for so many issues as they came out, but they were few and far between during the campaign.

What did you do from high school to when you were 34?

BROWNE: I was involved various things, mostly revolving around either writing or selling. I worked for advertising agencies, I was in sales and in 1962, just by another happenstance, I suddenly became the manager and part owner of a very small newspaper feature service that sold columns and cartoons and editorials to small newspapers around the country. That's when I really began writing in earnest, on a regular basis turning out columns every week and things like that. And it was all political, again not choosing candidates or parties, but just railing against the government.
 

 


The 1996 campaign, what were for you a couple of highlights…?

BROWNE: Well there were different kinds of highlights. One very emotional one was speaking in Faneuil Hall in Boston [in September or October 1996], which is an old Revolutionary War auditorium. Gene Burns [talk show host] preceded me and gave a very inspiring speech and then I gave a speech to a full house there; it was really very exciting. Of course another huge highlight was giving the acceptance speech here at the convention. That really was an exciting experience.

It was just one thing after another for two years. It started slowly; we'd have a speaking engagement here and one there and then maybe occasionally a radio broadcast, and then they got more and more frequent through 1995, and then by the beginning of 1996 we were just on the road almost constantly. Then once the convention was over, and the party joined in in booking me in places, in addition to what we were doing on our own, it got to be eight or ten radio shows in a day on the telephone and then a speech some place in the evening. Moving to a different city it seemed like almost every day. It sounds horrendous, but it's such a exciting experience… It's work, but it's good work, it's good, honest sweat.
 

 


In the 1996 campaign was there a major disappointment or low point?

BROWNE: I don't think there was any such thing. I think overall you have to adjust to reality as you go along, so that there's a certain amount of disappointment… I mean I didn't expect to get into the debates although it was a wonderful issue for us to pound on. So when I didn't get into the debates I wasn't crestfallen.
 

 


Five hundred broadcast interviews in the course of that effort. Was there one question that was asked too much or that was not asked?

BROWNE: Well there probably were… But one of the interesting things that we both noticed in interviews--of course when I was on the phone in a hotel room she knew what the subject was by what I was saying at my end, and then of course when I was in the studio she was with me--but we both seemed to get the same impression, that at the beginning of the campaign, when the war on drugs came up, somebody would be hysterical, I mean even the host might be hysterical about it, about what I was suggesting, that we re-legalize drugs. Or somebody would call in, and just say my God, there are going to be heroin machines in the restrooms and kids'll be shooting up in school, going on on this. But by the end of the campaign people would say, well, I understand what you're saying. I don't agree with you, but I do understand what you're saying. And nobody's voice would move up to a higher level except once in a great while. I think partly that may be due to my learning how to present it in a better, less threatening way. But I really think that it has much more to do with the mood of the country changing.

That's backed up now by the fact that in the last three months I have seen so much of the drug warriors focusing their attention on us, instead of on the Clinton administration being too soft on drugs or something like that. And I've heard the word "legalizers," we've got to watch out for the legalizers, these people are trying to get their nose in the tent and they want to legal all drugs…I've heard this more times in the last three months than I heard it in the last thirty years.

And so what I think is happening is this shift that's been going on over the years, and I saw it during the two years of the campaign, and it's continued on in the two years since then, and it's going to continue on the two years since this. Who knows? In the 2000 campaign, the legalization of drugs may be a major issue, one that Democrats and Republicans will have to talk about it even if we don't get to the point where we can force their hand on it.
 

 


Touching on your current activities, you're writing one more financial book; how's that coming?

BROWNE: I may be. I've started on it; I'm just having trouble getting to it. But I'm definitely writing a political book that'll come out late next year.

How will that differ from Why Government Doesn't Work?

It will be more a question of how we're going to get from here to there and what we need to do to sell liberty.

I'm helping to build the party as fast as we can. I have an exploratory committee to see if it's feasible to run again and whether the support is sufficient that we could run a major party campaign. I'm doing a little bit of investment work, but not very much. I'm a senior editor at Liberty magazine, where I write a lot of editorials, and I've got an article coming up in the next issue.
 

 


Could you outline briefly your formula for thinking about the role of the federal government?

BROWNE: Well I think the first important step is to limit it, so that people know it will not step over a certain bound. And the obvious limitation is the Constitution; that's what it was set up to do. And when we do achieve that then people can decide whether that's too much power for government or too little power for government and amend it accordingly.
 

 

Copyright 1998  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action

 
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