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The Soul of Reason
on April 15, 2001
I first heard Browne speak in the early 70s on NBC's Today Show, where he was promoting his book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. The book explains how to recognize and overcome common but false assumptions that unnecessarily restrict our freedom. I had never heard someone speak with such clarity, rationality, and insight about any subject. I was blown away, not by Browne's charisma (although he was charming), but by how reasonable his ideas sounded. At first opportunity I rushed out to buy the book and then devoured it.
The first thing that struck me about the book was the beautifully clear and simple prose. I don't know whether Browne or an editor should get the credit, but the book seems to follow many of Strunk and White's suggestions for strong, lucid writing. Browne avoids needless and overly sophisticated words. He uses short sentences and paragraphs. The writing style makes the book very easy to read. You never have to figure out what Harry Browne is saying; rather, his ideas seem to jump right off each page at you.
Anyone who writes about self-improvement or personal growth must make assumptions about human nature, and I think his assumptions are correct. Harry Browne makes his assumptions about human nature explicit in the very beginning of his book. He assumes that people believe that every conscious choice we make will help us attain happiness or avoid unhappiness. So why aren't we all exquisitely happy all the time?
The main reason is that, although we choose to act in ways that we believe will make us happy, our beliefs can be wrong. The first of the three major sections of this book covers fourteen traps, which are common but false beliefs about what we need to do to be happy. Many of the traps are so taken-for-granted that they appear to be truisms. Harry Browne exposes these errors of thinking and describes realistic alternatives that are more likely to lead you to happiness. In particular, I find his analyses of the Identity, Morality, and Unselfishness Traps so incisive and so liberating that I can barely restrain myself from sharing those valuable insights right here.
The second section of the book discusses specific entities that people often believe restrict their freedom: the government, social restrictions, bad relationships, jealousy, business problems, insecurity, and so forth. For each case, Browne explains why these things need not restrict us if we make the right choices.
The third major section contains the most ambitious and far-reaching ideas in the book. This section describes a technique that Browne calls Starting from Zero. Starting from Zero calls for sweeping away absolutely every aspect of your current life that does not correspond to your dream life. My guess is that many readers will find Starting from Zero too drastic for their liking. Browne does allow that the technique can be used on a smaller scale for addressing problems in any specific area of your life. Nevertheless, he warns us that he has seen many of his friends try to use forms of gradualism to improve their lives, but years later they are still stuck in the same ruts. "Freedom," asserts Browne, "requires bold action."
So, nearly 30 years after hearing Harry Browne speak, do I still find his ideas reasonable? Absolutely. His analysis of traps that limit our freedom is dead on. His techniques for increasing freedom work. I think that this book is so remarkable that I require students in my Personal Well-Being and Adjustment course to read, analyze, and react to Browne's ideas.
This is not to say that Browne's philosophy will appeal to everyone. In fact, to suggest that it would appeal to everyone would put us into what Browne calls The Identity Trap - the failure to recognize that each person is unique in his or her perceptions, beliefs, and values. This book will probably appeal the most to those who value freedom, autonomy, private ownership, and personal accountability over security, contractual commitments, communal property, and shared responsibility. To the extent that freedom and autonomy represent part of traditional masculinity, whereas security and commitment are part of traditional femininity, men may like this book more than women. Nonetheless, both women and men in my courses report finding many ideas in Browne's book personally valuable.
Age may also play a role in how one accepts Browne's ideas. During the year we lived together prior to getting married, my wife and I had separate checking accounts and pretty clear definitions of who owned what in our apartment. I think our only piece of joint property was an old, black-and-white TV set. I thought that Browne's notion of avoiding joint ownership was a great idea at the time. After we got married (something Browne advises against), however, issues of ownership became less and less important to me. Also, when I was in my 20s, I might have seriously entertained Browne's Starting from Zero plan, which involves liquidating all of your assets to begin a totally new life that better resembles your dream life. Today, I can't imagine trying to improve my life that way. Maybe later in life people are more willing to forfeit some freedom for security. Hey, even Harry Browne got married (although he states in an appendix to the 1997 edition that he still recommends that individuals maintain their sovereignty in a marriage relationship).
No matter whether you are young or old, male or female, married or single, I think How I Found Freedom in an Unfree Word will probably increase your understanding of how erroneous thinking causes us to restrict our own freedom. By increasing your awareness of erroneous thinking and offering you better alternatives, Harry Browne gives you a chance to make choices that will increase your freedom and happiness. Whether you want to make those choices is up to you.