The Discovery of Freedom
A look at Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, one of the three books that launched the modern American libertarian movement.
There is a double meaning, and a double aptness, in the title of The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority. The first “discovery of freedom” is humanity’s, the story told in the book of the historical emergence of property rights, civil liberties, and representative government. The second discovery is that of the reader, who through Lane’s vibrant prose sees a political tradition familiar enough to be taken for granted suddenly charged with new life. As so many over the last six decades have found, a first exposure to Lane’s book realizes that passage from Little Gidding, where T.S. Eliot writes that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Lane begins with an old observation that, from her pen, becomes fresh and arresting: for most of human history, the vast majority of mankind lived in total squalor, with only marginal improvements over millennia of civilization. The unprecedented wealth created in the last few centuries, the historically luxurious standard of living enjoyed by even the badly off in the developed world, suddenly seems nothing short of miraculous. The rest of the book seeks to account for the miracle.
The first several chapters lay out in abstract the conflict Lane proceeds to trace through human history: the conflict between individual freedom and authority. Lane associates the belief that external authority must control human social life with the primitive anthropomorphization of the natural world—the idea that some conscious intent, in the form of spirits or gods, stands behind all natural phenomena.
The explosion of innovation in the West, and in particular in America, was the result of the repudiation of this idea, according to Lane. Although when she wrote, the “planned economy” was being advanced as a novelty, a sign of scientific progress, Lane shows that attempts by rulers to control economic life have been the norm. These attempts kept human powers chained because, as she explains, “economic progress is a change in the use of men’s productive energies. Only individuals who act against the majority opinion of their time will try to make such a change.” Humanity’s greatest benefactors, she notes, have typically been regarded as fools; both expert opinion and conventional wisdom held that railroads, telephones, antibiotics, aviation, mass produced automobiles, and a long list of other developments were impossible pipe dreams. The same year Discovery of Freedom was published, IBM head Thomas Watson said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Only when risky, uncontrolled, wasteful individual initiative was allowed to drive economies did people see the enormous creative potential of the human species begin to be realized.
Part of the appeal of The Discovery of Freedom is that Lane occasionally trades her historian’s seersucker for the journalist’s trenchcoat, peppering her account with anecdotes from her own extensive travels. To illustrate the burden of European economic regulations, for example, she describes the Rube Goldberg-like process of attempting to purchase a car in Paris.
Even when writing in her strictly historical mode, Lane brings a journalist’s eye and style to her narrative. Accounts of events whose principals are a thousand years dead take on the urgency of a breaking news story. Lane finds early individualist sentiment in the laws and customs of the ancient Israelites, and notes that the Bible has them establishing the first king only over God’s strong objections.
Perhaps most interesting to contemporary readers is Lane’s chapter on the golden age of Islamic civilization. The Muslim world, she writes flourished under pluralistic norms. Trade was brisk, and the best mathematical and scientific ideas of the ancient world were imported, preserved, and improved upon by Muslim scholars. She attributes the decline from that high point to a turn towards greater fatalism and rejection of the idea that individual striving was a key virtue.
Leaping forward, Lane briefly summarizes the emergence of common law freedoms in Britain and the imposition on King John of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta. That tradition of individual rights, however, fully blossomed in the United States. Lane gives a brief but gripping account of the struggle for independence, and shows how the Industrial Revolution was in many ways a consequence of the American Revolution and the separation of industry from state control.
Although the original print run of The Discovery of Freedom was a mere 1,000 copies, its effect was impressive. Once out of print, the few copies in existence circulated for years, read and reread as an underground cult classic. By the time it saw a second printing, in 1971, those few copies had helped to create a burgeoning movement comprising many who had discovered freedom through Rose Wilder Lane.
Ironically, Lane herself was one of the few people who didn’t care for her most enduring work. Robert LeFevre described an attempt to secure rights to reprint the book from Lane as follows:
I began by saying something to the effect that I had just finished reading her great book, Discovery of Freedom. I extended my congratulations on producing a truly marvelous work.
“It’s a very bad book,” Rose said.
I shook my head. “I must have a poor connection,” I apologized. “It sounded as though you said it was a bad book.”
“It is. That’s what I said.”
“Don’t talk that way about that book!” I said. “It’s a very good book. I ought to know. I just read it.”
“It’s a very bad book. I ought to know. I wrote it.”
Lane’s reluctance to reprint the book stemmed in part from a few minor factual errors, inevitable when one considers that it was written quite rapidly and without reference materials, and in part from a more important conceptual error: Lane regretted characterizing property rights as “civil rights,” which originate with and require the state. Nevertheless, Albert Jay Nock was surely correct when he observed that, while she might sometimes err on the details, “when it comes to anything fundamental, Mrs. Lane never makes a mistake. She is always right.”
Like Rand, Lane’s special talent was to emphasize the positive, optimistic aspects of the libertarian vision. Proponents of limited government often focus both thought and rhetoric on the ways in which we are unfree, on the unjust or unwise restrictions governments impose. If this is necessary, it is also draining. Little surprise, then, that friends of liberty find solace in turning to Lane’s Discovery, where she wrote:
The revolution is only beginning. When all living men know that men are born free, the nergy of twenty-two hundred million human beings will be released upon this earth.
A hundred million have made America. What will twenty-two hundred millions do?
In a more populous, more interconnected world, Lane’s book has left many still eager to find out.