Friday, April 15, 2011


by James Craig Green

Part 7 - Rose Wilder Lane


The Discovery of Freedom

Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) was a remarkable woman. Because of her time spent in hardship both in the United States and abroad, she, better than most, understood the threat to liberty from the unchecked power of government and blind obedience to it by those who should know better.

Born the daughter of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose was actually credited as her mother’s editor or co-writer for many, if not all, of these famous stories about Laura’s frontier childhood and rugged American individualism. But prior to this, Lane traveled the world extensively, spending time as a Red Cross publicist in post-World War I Europe, then later in the Balkans, the Middle East, and finally, as a Vietnam War correspondent. But by far, the most impressionable of these experiences was working as a young writer in the newly-formed Soviet Union. After flirting with communism during her time there, she quickly became disillusioned with it and later became one of the most important influences in the modern libertarian movement.

In 1943, Lane wrote an insightful book called The Discovery of Freedom. In it, she wrote that individuals have always had control over their freedom from living authorities, but most choose not to exercise it. She said:

Every human being, by his nature, is free; he controls himself. But in the Old World, men believe that some authority controls them. They cannot make their energy work by any such belief; because the belief is false…The history of every group of men who ever obeyed a living authority is a history of revolts against all forms of that Government.

Lane then described three historical attempts to establish societies based on individual choice and responsibility, rejecting kings, priests, and other human authority figures. First was Abraham, who led ancient Hebrews by saying a man controls himself and is free to do good or evil. The Muslims came second by bringing their science and art to Europe during the Middle Ages, creating universities where each individual decided what he wanted to learn (like Jesus, Muhammad rejected clerics who set themselves up as intermediaries between God and man). Third, according to Lane, was the American Revolution, where individual rights were asserted by a group of rebellious colonists in the Declaration of Independence and later codified in the Bill of Rights.

She wrote on the subject,

The Revolution is a struggle of knowledge against blind superstition; it is the American revolutionary recognition of the fact that individuals are free; pitted against the ancient pagan superstition that Authority controls individuals.

However, the principles established by Abraham, Muhammad, and the founders of the American republic did not survive long. Their teachings—that men should reject the false promises of human authority—became corrupted by supposed followers, who stole the concepts to further their own political ambitions. Lane soundly rejected such intellectual theft, writing on to explain that individuals must not allow themselves to be controlled by others, particularly by governments; instead, they must learn to control themselves:

The control of human energy is individual control... Since every individual is self-controlling, he acts in accordance with the standard of values in which he believes.

Put another way, Lane believed each person is responsible for his own life and actions. Only he can know what is best for himself. It is up to him to adhere to his own values, to control himself, not to let himself become a slave to what the Dutch philosopher Spinoza called passions. Today we call these addictions.

This commitment to self-control and individual freedom formed the foundation of Lane’s political beliefs. As such, she opposed all forms of social and political control, whether by a mob or king. She was as skeptical of democracies as monarchies. To her, both political systems involved surrendering one’s self-control to a ruling authority. Both required viewing government as the ultimate benefactor: in the former, by sacrificing yourself to the irrational will of the mob; in the latter, to the will of a despot:

If men believe that Government is responsible for their welfare, the increasing poverty increases their demand that men in public office control the individual’s affairs. This demand increases the use of force against productive energy. This use of force must progressively destroy all the protections of an American citizen’s natural human rights, and eventually—if at last he protests—his life.

This theme of self-control versus state control dominates The Discovery of Freedom, which became a libertarian classic and made Rose Wilder Lane, along with the prominent twentieth-century authors Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson, one of three founding mothers of today’s libertarian movement.

Our last builder brought an elegant simplicity to the understanding of economics applied to public policy, picking up where our earlier heroes left off. Unchain the Builders concludes next with Henry Hazlitt and his brilliant, seminal book, Economics in One Lesson.

Freedom is self-control, nothing more, nothing less - Rose Wilder Lane


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NEXT - Henry Hazlitt

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