RERUN–Author Appreciation: Rose Wilder Lane

(Originally posted in February 2012. I don’t usually rerun posts that are this recent, but RWL’s thoughts are relevant to the recent posts by Jonathan and myself, and more broadly, to the issues of freedom versus control which dominate our current political debates.)

Rose Wilder Lane, born in 1886 in the Dakota Territory, was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Lane is best known for her writings on political philosophy and has been referred to as a “Founding Mother” of libertarianism; she was also a novelist and the author of several biographies.

In her article Credo, published in 1936, she describes her political journey, beginning with the words:

In 1919 I was a communist.

She was impressed with the idealism of the individual Communists she met, and found their economic logic convincing. But when she visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, she became disillusioned. And, unlike many visitors to the USSR, she did not conclude that Communism was still a great idea but had just been carried out poorly; rather, she began to grasp the structural flaws with the whole thing.

In Russian Georgia, the villager who was her host complained about the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work, and predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow. At first she saw his attitude as merely “the opposition of the peasant mind to new ideas,” and undertook to convince him of the benefits of central planning. He shook his head sadly.

It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.”

This man’s insight prefigures Hayek’s writing about the role of knowledge in society, not to be published until 1944. His comments, her other observations while in the Soviet Union, and her own thinking about the way that economies actually work convinced her that:

Centralized economic control over multitudes of human beings must therefore be continuous and perhaps superhumanly flexible, and it must be autocratic. It must be government by a swift flow of edicts issued in haste to catch up with events receding into the past before they can be reported, arranged, analyzed and considered, and it will be compelled to use compulsion. In the effort to succeed, it must become such minute and rigorous control of details of individual life as no people will accept without compulsion. It cannot be subject to the intermittent checks, reversals, and removals of men in power which majorities cause in republics.

Her political and economic ideas are summarized in her 1943 book The Discovery of Freedom. This work draws on her analysis of history and her personal experiences while traveling and living in Europe. She was particularly impressed, in a negative way, by the wastefulness of the French government bureaucracy she encountered while living in that country, which included the necessity for officialdom to become involved in the purchase of a single spool of thread in a department store and the vastly complicated process involved in importing an ordinary Ford car and getting permission to operate it…including the requirement to provide 12 photos of the car–a process that might have made some slight sense when cars were individually crafted, but had lost any point at all now that cars were mass-produced.

A few excerpts…

The costs of bureaucracy:

In modern Europe, some years of every young man’s life are consumed in training for war. But a far greater loss of productive energy is in the attempt to control productive energy. All their lives, all workers pour an enormous amount of energy into producing food, clothes, shelter, light, heat, transportation, all the necessities and comforts, and mountains of paper, pens, ink, stamps, filing cases, and acres of beautiful buildings, all to be used by men in Government who produce nothing whatever.

Contrasting the differing colonial strategies of France and Spain, on the one hand, and Britain, on the other:

The Governments gave them (in the case of the French and Spanish colonies–ed) carefully detailed instructions for clearing and fencing the land, caring for the fence and the gate, and plowing and planting, cultivating, harvesting, and dividing the crops…The English Kings were never so efficient. They gave the land to traders. A few gentlemen, who had political pull enough to get a grant, organized a trading company; their agents collected a ship-load or two of settlers and made an agreement with them which was usually broken on both sides…To the scandalized French, the people in the English colonies seemed like undisciplined children, wild, rude, wretched subjects of bad rulers.

How central planning demands the categorization of people:

Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes. But these classes do not exist. No two persons are alike. No two are in the same circumstances; no two have the same abilities; beyond getting the barest necessities of life, no two have the same desires.Therefore the men who try to enforce, in real life, a planned economy that is their theory, come up against the infinite diversity of human beings. The most slavish multitude of men that was ever called “demos” or “labor” or “capital” or”agriculture” or “the masses,” actually are men; they are not sheep. Naturally, by their human nature, they escape in all directions from regulations applying to non-existent classes. It is necessary to increase the number of men who supervise their actions. Then (for officials are human, too) it is necessary that more men supervise the supervisors.

The temptations of power and the importance of the Constitution:

If he wants to do good (as he sees good) to the citizens, he needs more power. If he wants to be re-elected, he needs more power to use for his party. If he wants money, he needs more power; he can always sell it to some eager buyer. If he wants publicity, flattery, more self-importance, he needs more power, to satisfy clamoring reformers who can give him flattering publicity.

Lane offers an interesting analysis of Biblical/Jewish history, and argues that the Ten Commandments were a major advance specifically because of their negative nature, and that this attribute made them a particularly appropriate corrective for a people emerging from slavery. She sees the Jews as having been the historical carriers of the idea of individualism, and believes that anti-Semitism on the part of traditional European regimes was largely motivated by the connection of Jews to the idea of freedom.

This is an interesting, thoughtful, and well-argued book that contains a lot of historical references. The history can’t always be accepted without further checking–for example, her assertion that Moslems invented the magnetic compass is probably incorrect, although they may have served as intermediaries in the diffusion of this technology. There are other examples of questionable or incorrect historical assertions. Also, Lane’s dislike of Europe (surely not uncommon in a midwesterner of her era) is so palpably strong that is inhibits a balanced view of the contributions of that continent to civilization. These criticisms aside, The Discovery of Freedom is very much worth reading.

In addition to her political writing, Lane was a very successful journalist and in the late 1920s was reputed to be one of the highest-paid female writers in America. In 1965, at the age of 78, she was reporting from Vietnam for Woman’s Day magazine. She was also a novelist–I’ve read her 1919 book Diverging Roads. It is partly autobiographical–the protagonist, Helen, like Lane herself, begins her working life as a telegrapher, and, also like Lane herself, marries a real-estate developer and works with him closely on land sales. (Neither the fictional marriage nor the real one was successful.) Some excerpts…

The opening of the book, in Helen’s home town:

THERE is a peculiar quality in the somnolence of an old town in which little has occurred for many years. It is the unease of relaxation without repose, the unease of one who lies too late in bed, aware that he should be getting up. The men who lounge aimlessly about the street corners cannot be wholly idle. Their hands, at least, must be busy. The scarred posts and notched edges of the board sidewalks show it; the paint on the little stations is sanded shoulder-high to prevent their whittling there. Energy struggles feebly under the weight of the slow, uneventful days; but its pressure is always there, an urge that becomes an irritation in young blood.

Helen, falling for her Bad-Boy real-estate developer, who has just described the immense project he is planning:

He was full of radiant energy and power. Her imagination leaped to grasp the bigness of this project. Thousands of lives altered, thousands of families migrating, cities, villages, railroads built. She felt his kiss on her lips, and that old, inexplicable, magnetic attraction. The throbbing music beat in her veins Like the voice of it. He smiled at her, holding out his arms, and she went into them with recklessness and longing.

And, a few years later, some of Helen’s intellectual friends in San Francisco talking about the shortage of good men:

Dodo sat up, sweeping her long, fine hair backward over her shoulders.

“Of course not. Jim ‘s all right to play around with—” But when it comes to marrying him — exactly. There are only two kinds of men, strong and weak. You despise the weak ones, and you won’t marry the strong ones.”


“Willetta ‘s right, just the same,” Dodo declared through their laughter. “It ‘s the money that’s at the root of it. You don’t want to marry a man you’ll have to support — not that you’d mind doing it, but his self-respect would go all to pieces if you did.And yet you can’t find a man who makes as much money as you do, who cares about music and poetry and things. I’m putting money in the bank and reading Masefield. I don’t see why a man can’t. But somehow I’ve never run across a man who does.”

Not a great novel, but a good one, set in an American in which the horse is still a vital part of the transportation system but with a surprisingly modern view of the relationship between the sexes–indeed, the above scene could have been lifted from a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, or perhaps from a more intellectual version of Sex and the City, not that I’ve ever actually watched it.

Overall, Rose Wilder Lane is a writer definitely worth rediscovering.

A nice picture of her at the National Cowgirl Museum.

Original CB discussion thread here