Liberty A-Z: Adroit to Zestful

A Book Review
by Bill Winter*


Liberty A-Z: 872 Libertarian Soundbites You Can Use Right Now, by Harry Browne. Trade paperback, 192 pages. Price: $13.95. Published by the Advocates for Self-Government.

Questions? Sure, every libertarian gets asked questions about the freedom philosophy. But few libertarians have been asked as many questions, by as many people, as many times, in as many forums, as Harry Browne.

During his 1996 and 2000 Libertarian Party presidential campaigns, Harry participated in over 1,000 radio and TV interviews. He attended countless press conferences, editorial board meetings, and debates. At all those events, he was peppered and strafed with questions. He was quizzed and interrogated. He was verbally grilled and sautéed.

Remarkably, Harry rarely seemed to be at a loss for words. No matter how tough, hostile, or offbeat the question, he had a smooth, well-thought-out, persuasive answer. Now we know the reason why.

Liberty A-Z, by Harry Brown

In his new book, Liberty A-Z: 872 Libertarian Soundbites You Can Use Right Now, Harry shares his personal file of arguments and answers to almost every question that any libertarian will ever be asked. As he explains in the introduction, Harry compiled these soundbites during his two presidential campaigns. Answers would pop into his head during interviews, and he would later write them down, tweak them, improve them -- and then memorize them, to be used again and again. (Harry didn't stop after the campaign; there are also soundbites about topics as recent as 9/11 and the war in Iraq.)

The title, Liberty A-Z, is no misnomer. The book literally starts with A (Abortion) and ends with Z (Zero, flat tax rate of). In between, Harry addresses a Balanced Budget, Campaign Finance, Defense and the Military, Education, Federal Spending, Gun Control, Health Care, Immigration, Jobs, Libertarianism, Morality, National Interest, Oil, Pornography, Quotas, Republicans, Social Security, Terrorism, Utopian Thinking, Victimless Crimes, Welfare, Young People -- and hundreds of other issues. If Harry missed a major topic (other than the letter X), I didn't notice it.

Harry's persuasion techniques are as varied as his topics. For some issues, he uses facts to convince. For others, metaphors. Or historic parallels. Or aphorisms. Or questions. Or humor. (For example, when asked how big government should be, Harry says: "I want a government small enough to fit inside the Constitution.") Philosophically, a majority of the answers are permeated by Harry's futilitarianism -- the idea that government doesn't work, and that turning to politicians for solutions will never be as effective as relying on individuals, charities, non-profits, and communities.

In Liberty A-Z, Harry doesn't confine himself just to specific issues. One of the most useful sections of the book discusses what he calls Fall-Back Positions. In it, he offers "all-purpose" answers to give if you are asked a question about a topic you know little about, or if you are pressed about an apparently "successful" government program. One example of Harry's fall-back answers: "You may feel this program does something good. But does that justify forcing other people to pay for it? If the program is so wonderful, why couldn't you entice people to support it voluntarily?" Good stuff.

A confession: There are a handful of soundbites in the book that didn't impress me. In a few cases, I think Harry used weak arguments, or cited a flimsy set of facts, or recycled his "government doesn't work" argument once too often. But do you know what? It doesn't matter. For every soundbite I didn't like, there were a hundred I did. For example, here's Harry on the dangers of marijuana: "No one ever died from smoking marijuana, but millions of people have died by believing politicians. So why is marijuana outlawed while politicians are still legal?"

As this quick overview probably makes clear, there are dozens of good uses for Liberty A-Z. For a libertarian candidate, it's an indispensable reference tool, to be consulted before any interview. For libertarian spokesperson, it can furnish new arguments and ripostes. For libertarian writers, it's a brainstorming tool, to be used before penning an op-ed or letter to the editor. For a newcomer, it's a good general introduction to libertarianism. For an old-timer, it's a fast, comprehensive reminder of why you're already a libertarian.

Answers? Every libertarian has his or her personal answers about the freedom philosophy. But few libertarians have crafted as many ingenious, persuasive, and eloquent answers as Harry Browne has. Liberty A-Z is proof of that -- no question about it.

* About the reviewer: Bill Winter was the editor of LP News, the Libertarian Party's national newspaper, from 1997 to 2004.

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