IT CAME as a jolt to learn that Harry Browne — scholar, gentleman, apostle of freedom, and two-time Libertarian Party candidate for president — had died on March 1 of Lou Gehrig's disease. It came as an even greater jolt to discover that his last published words were apparently a criticism of . . . me.
The final post on "Harry Browne's Journal," his online blog, was about a column of mine arguing that Supreme Court nominees should be compelled to give substantive answers to questions asked during their Senate confirmation hearings. Those hearings, I had written, should be used to remind the justices that they are not lords and masters but "public servants who must answer, however indirectly, to the people."
Harry didn't quote that line. Instead he quoted my description of the Supreme Court's immense reach: "From the power of presidents to hold terror suspects indefinitely to the power of Congress to override state law, from the execution of murderers to the recognition of same-sex marriage, from affirmative action to abortion, [John] Roberts and his fellow justices will shape national policy for years to come."
Then came Harry's scolding: "Not one of the items mentioned is listed in the Constitution as a function of the federal government . . . Roberts's job is awesome, no question about it. The only problem is that the politicians and pundits have a different job description than that given in the Constitution."
I wish he had sent me an e-mail with that criticism. I would have reassured him that on this issue, we didn't differ in the least — I was describing the judiciary as it has become, not as the Founders intended it to be. But by the time I saw Harry's objection, it was too late to reply.
Notes from Harry weren't uncommon, and they were unfailingly polite, even when he was distressed by a stand I had taken. He knew I was a fan of his, if not quite as dogmatically antigovernment or as willing to treat unfettered individual autonomy as the highest of all values.
Twice I had voted for him for president — a distinction, I once told him, he shared with Ronald Reagan. The first time was in 1996, when I wouldn't vote to reelect Bill Clinton and couldn't bring myself to support either of his two leading opponents, the feckless Bob Dole or the bizarre Ross Perot. Instead, I pulled the lever for the distinguished-looking Libertarian who spoke with such refreshing bluntness about the maddening inability of the state to get things right. Of Dole's proposal that year to use the military for drug interdiction, Harry had said, "Government can't keep drugs out of the country; it can't even keep drugs out of its own prisons." Social Security he defined as "a fraudulent scheme in which the government collects money from you for your retirement — and immediately spends the money on something else."
Four years later, unwilling to back the younger George Bush when the elder Bush had been such a disappointment, I voted Libertarian again.
But then came 9/11 and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like many hard-and-fast Libertarians Harry was an antiwar isolationist, convinced that America would have few problems in the world if it stayed home and minded its own business. Al Qaeda's terror attacks, he insisted, were caused by US foreign policy, not Islamist extremism; he compared Republicans who supported Bush to Germans who supported Hitler.
I disagreed vehemently, as I generally disagree with Libertarians on foreign policy, and Harry's notes to me became more impassioned. "God only knows what the results of Bush's idealism will be," he wrote last year, "but it won't be a democratic Middle East, an end to terrorism, or peace in the world." When I said it was "perverse" not to acknowledge the good that had been accomplished by Saddam's ouster — "the mass graves are being exhumed, not added to; the prison rape rooms are shut down; Saddam and his thugs are going on trial" — he replied by writing an article that questioned whether the atrocities of Saddam's regime had ever actually taken place. It saddened me that a man so attuned to the loss of liberty at home could be so cavalier about the horrors of dictatorship elsewhere.
Looking back at Harry Browne's record, though, what stands out are not the infelicities but the intensity of his American dream. Let Americans live freely, he insisted, and the results would be harmony, tolerance, responsibility, and success. "That is the America we should have," he once wrote. "The beacon of liberty, providing light and hope and inspiration for the entire world."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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