essays

Apr 1, 1978

Rose Wilder Lane

“Her finest work, excelling even The Discovery of Freedom, was never written for publication; yet it…has influenced many thousands of people.”

She was a Western Union telegrapher, one of the first female real estate agents in California, a reporter for the long-defunct San Francisco Bulletin, a novelist, storyteller, polemecist—and, at the age of 79, a correspondent in Vietnam for Women’s Day. But above all, Rose Wilder Lane was a vigorous, vital, compelling champion of liberty. As Robert LeFevre writes in his introduction to the recent republication of her 1936 opus, Give Me Liberty, “With a passion that always reminded me of the obsession of Joan of Arc, Rose loved liberty. It was a thing in itself, a goddess to be adored, a lodestar to pull together the diverse threads of existence.”

She was born in De Smet in the Dakota Territory on December 5, 1886; her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder was the author of many children’s stories, which have retained their popularity through these many years. The individualism and liberty inherent in Rose Wilder Lane’s early pioneer years—often accompanied by poverty, and always accompanied by ever-greater effort and achievement—shaped her entire life. Later, she would draw on her early experiences for numerous novels of pioneer life, the most famous of which was Let the Hurricane Roar (1933). Give Me Liberty, which was first published as “Credo” in the Saturday Evening Post, exerted a strong influence during the Great Depression. It spelled out in detail the threats of an American socialist state—threats the author had seen as realities at work in Eastern Europe in the early 1920s. Mrs. Lane had become a socialist herself for a time, until her experiences while living under socialist regimes brought her back to a belief in individual freedom and the unhampered market. She describes these experiences, and her rediscovery of America, in Give Me Liberty.

The Discovery of Freedom

The major work that Mrs. Lane published during her lifetime was The Discovery of Freedom (1943). It is one long paean of praise of the tradition of liberty in America. It is full of little-known historical facts, and of incisive comments on contemporary American life, especially during the Great Depression—which, along with a small minority of writers at the time, she blames on government intervention and especially Roosevelt’s policies.

Since her prose style is both trenchant and elegant, always striking the jugular and yet combining incisveness with grace and charm, I shall for the most part quote her own words: On every issue she discusses, she is indeed the most quotable writer I know, at one time irresistibly focusing the reader’s attention on an issue with slashing sentences of powerful yet chiseled prose, at another time bristling with righteous indignation that is highly infectious, and at yet other times relating incidents that capture the essence of an issue or a period of history, with such elemental power as to make one cheer before reading on. Who, for example, has ever discussed human rights more definitively in a dozen lines than she does in the following passage?

“Anyone who says that economic security is a human right, has been too much babied. While he babbles, other men are risking and losing their lives to protect him. They are fighting the sea, fighting the land, fighting diseases and insects and weather and space and time, for him, while he chatters that all men have a right to security and that The State’ must give it to him. Let the fighting men stop fighting this inhuman earth for one hour and he will learn how much security there is.

“Let him get out on the front lines. Let him bring one slow freight through a snowstorm in the Rockies. Let him drive one rivet to hold his apartment roof over his head. Let him keep his own electric light burning through one quiet cozy winter evening when the mist is freezing to the wires. Let him make, from seed to table, just one slice of bread, and we will hear no more about the human right to security.

“No man’s security is greater than his own self-reliance. If every man and woman worth living did not stand up to the job of living, did not take risk and danger and exhaustion beyond exhaustion and go on fighting for one thin hope of victory in the certainty of death, there would not be a human being alive today.” (p. 60)

There are hundreds of passages in The Discovery of Freedom to match this one; to say that it makes heady reading is rather an understatement. The book opens with an eloquent essay on the use of the various sources of energy in nature for the enhancement of man’s life; but since these first few pages, with certain changes, constitute the opening of Henry Weaver’s book The Mainspring of Human Energy and are already familiar to millions of readers, I shall not quote them here. (Weaver gives no recognition to Mrs. Lane, though the pages were apparently placed in Weaver’s book with her permission.) Instead, here is one short paragraph from her long and revealing section on life in early America:

“A little more than a century ago, here in this country, American women still cooked over open fires, as women had cooked since history began, and as more than two-thirds of the women on this earth are still doing. A century ago, in New York State, every woman made her household’s soap and candles. Oil was always in this earth; men discovered it when Babylon was young; Romans knew it and saw it burning; no European had ever made kerosene. American women still spun thread and wove cloth, with the spindle and the loom that were older than Egypt. Older than Egypt were the water-wheel and the millstones that still ground the grain that American farmers still cut with the knife and threshed with the flail.”

But thanks to individual liberty and non-interference from government, the United States in the first half of the 19th century had the highest standard of living in the world. Through the use of energy to enhance human life, a whole new world was created. Rather than quote bits and pieces from various examples, I shall quote one single example in some detail and allow it to represent all the others:

“Some three thousand years ago, the Greeks knew the principle of the steam engine, but they lacked the technology to develop it. In 1704, a steamboat was running successfully on the river Elbe in Germany. It threatened technological unemployment of boatmen. The steamboat was burned; its inventor barely escaped with his life.

“Englishmen fortunately were not so well governed as that. When Washington was president here, some Englishmen were making steam engines. All these activities, of course, were more or less under government control. The British government protected, encouraged, subsidized and controlled the manufacture of steam engines.

“The British government did not want to have an English manufacturer sell a steam engine to Americans…. (Nevertheless, steam engines were built in America.) In 1807 the steamboat ran, at 4 miles an hour, from New York City to Clermont on the Hudson, and on to Albany. New Englanders immediately saw the stupendous possibilities of steamboats. They applied at once to their legislatures for protection. Fortunes and workingmen were in peril. Steamboats would ruin the river sloops, the packetlines, all New England’s sailing-ship industries. They would throw out of jobs all the rivermen, sailors, ships’ carpenters, ropemakers; they would wreck New England. So they sought protection against the newcomer, through government.

“Governments had always protected their subjects in this way. This is the only way in which government’s use of force can protect any man’s economic welfare—by preventing other men’s economic activities; that is, by stopping economic progress.

The American clipper ships were the final blow that brought down the British planned economy.

“But such laws could not be enforced in America. (After all, they were unconstitutional here.) And so, a dozen years after Fulton’s Clermont steamed up the Hudson, steamboats were scaring Indians in distant Nebraska, and the first steamship crossed the Atlantic—from the New World to Europe.

“The unprotected sailing-ship men fought tooth and nail for their fortunes and their jobs, but they were doomed. There were no laws to stop progress, and Americans wanted speed. Steamboats soon had the rivers and the Great Lakes, the coastwise traffic, then the transatlantic traffic. The American ships took the world’s sea trade.

“It was not only that the clipper ships were faster, the British ships now second-rate and slow; the Yankee captains were quicker in a bargain. They had no rules and regulations, no red tape. Every Yankee captain sized up a situation, figured in his head, made his price, and loaded the cargo.

“Men stood up in Parliament and pointed to all this. What had created the clipper ships? Not the American government. Not protection—lack of protection. What made the British marine second-rate? Safety, shelter, protection under the British Navigation Acts. And now the American clipper ships had run away with the trade.

“It was the American clipper ships that opened the British ports to free trade. Half a century of American smuggling and rebellion and costly ineffectual blockades could not break down the British planned economy. Seven years of war in America and the loss of the thirteen colonies did not do it. All the sound and sensible arguments of English economists did not do it. The American clipper ships did it.

“They were the final blow that brought down the British planned economy. The great English reform movement of the nineteenth century consisted wholly in repealing laws. It was a destruction of government’s interference in human affairs, a destruction of the so-called protection that is actually a restriction of the exercise of natural human rights.

“In that mid-nineteenth-century period of the greatest individual freedom that Englishmen have ever known, they made the prosperity and power of the British empire during Victoria’s long and peaceful reign. And to that freedom and prosperity and power and peace, the American clipper ship contributed more than any other one thing.” (pp. 237-9.)

The Lady and the Tycoon

From 1938 on Mrs. Lane lived alone on a farm she had bought near Danbury, Connecticut. Though her books still enjoyed great popularity, after The Discovery of Freedom she stopped writing for publication in order to emphasize her opposition to income tax, social security, and other New Deal programs. A libertarian before her time, she came to be the chief influence on the life of another prominent libertarian, Roger Lea MacBride, who became her chief protege and intellectual heir. And it is thanks to him that we have still another book from Mrs. Lane’s pen, which he edited from her letters after her death in 1968. This book is The Lady and the Tycoon published in 1973 by Caxton Press and kept in print by this company.

Some 400 pages long, this work is an exchange of letters from 1946 to 1968 between Mrs. Lane and Jasper Crane of the duPont Corporation. These letters were never intended for publication (all the noteworthy letters in the exchange are Mrs. Lane’s), but luckily they were kept by Mr. Crane, but for which we would not have the benefit of them now. Her letters expatiate on a great variety of issues— philosophical, historical, political, and economic, as well as on her reactions to domestic and international events of the day as they occurred. Both as literature and as ideas they are as beautiful and insightful as anything she ever wrote.

When Mr. Crane discourses to her aba “the beauties of our country,” she writes to him, almost sharply:

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“I do not go into rhapsodies about ‘my country,’ its rocks and rills, its superhighways and wooded hills … This whole world is almost unbearably beautiful; why should I love Oak Creek Canyon or California’s beaches … any more than the Bocca di Cattaro or Delphi or the Bos-phorous? Because I, me, the Great RWL, was born in Dakota Territory? The logic seems weak, somehow, don’t you feel?

“My attachment to these United States is wholly, entirely, absolutely The Revolution, the real world Revolution, which men began here and which has, so to speak, a foothold on earth here. If reactionaries succeed in destroying the revolutionary structure of social and political human life here, I care no more about this continent than about any other. If I lived long enough I would find and join the revival of the Revolution wherever it might be, in Africa or Asia or Europe, the Arctic or Antarctic—and let this country go with all the other regimes that collectivism has wrecked and eliminated since history began. So much for patriotism, mine.” (p. 267)

The greatness of America lies in the independence of the people from the government:

“Human minds always are logical; the fallacy always is in the premise, the basic unquestioned assumption, upon which the process of reasoning is based. So in logical return for The Government’s benefits, we are supposed to ‘owe a duty’ to It. The custom of taxation is a remnant of the Incarnate God’s ownership of ‘his people.’ Why do you owe money to Mr. Kennedy? If you need to guard your property, you hire and pay guards, nightwatchmen; if you are a banker you buy and pay for armored cars and hire guards to transport the bank’s gold; if you manage an insurance company you hire and pay detectives to investigate claims against your company. If a foreign power attacks your country, you defend it; you man the tanks, fly the bombers, fire the guns. Is there a need, in reason, to compel persons—by force—to defend their property and themselves? Is there a reason why ‘people cannot do for themselves’ in a free market, everything that The Government is supposed to be doing for them?

“‘The people’ have in fact done everything that is done; they built the houses and roads and railroads and telephones and planes, they organized world-wide cooperative institutions—the oil companies, the banks—and the postal services, and the militia companies, and the schools—what didn’t ‘the people’ do? What happens is that, after they do it, The Government takes it. The Government takes the roads, the postal service, the systems of communication, the banks, the markets, the stock exchanges, the insurance companies, the schools, the militia, the building trades, the telegraph and telephones, the radios, after ‘the people’ have done all these things for themselves.” (pp. 332-3)

But the United States has changed greatly since the New Deal, and Mrs. Lane never loses an opportunity to describe vividly the nature of this change, often from her own personal experience. Her descriptions cannot help raising one’s blood pressure. Here, for example, is her description of one of her experiences in the early years of the New Deal:

“American farmers fought the ‘protective tariff’ from 1800 to 1896 … Even as late as 1933, when Garet Garrett and I drove all over the Midwest, the farmers in general were not wanting AAA or any other federal interference. In Kansas I met a rabble-rousing New Dealer from Washington who took me to a farmers’ meeting where he spoke with real conviction and eloquence. The audience listened absolutely noncommittal, until he worked up to an incandescent peroration: ‘We went down there to Washington and got you all a Ford. Now we’re going to get you a Cadillac!’ The temperature suddenly fell below freezing; the silent antagonism was colder than zero. That ended the speech; the whole audience rose and went out. The orator later said to me, ‘Those damned numbskulls! The only thing to use on them is a club!’

“Some time later, in a hotel lobby in Branson, Missouri, I met a young man almost in tears, totally woebegone and despairing. He had spent seventy days in Stone County, working day and night, he said, house to house, up hill and down, over those horrible roads; he’d gone to every house, he’d used every persuasion he could think of, talked himself hoarse, and he had not got evenone man to take a $2,500 loan from the government; and those wretched people needed everything; why, their children were barefoot, some of them lived in log cabins—could I believe it? Theyneeded to be rehabilitated; I had no idea what rural slums they lived in; and here he offered them a loan from the Government—amortized, 25 years to pay it, more time if they wanted it; he offered them horses, and tools, even a car, anything almost and they just wouldn’t take it. They didn’t talk or act like such fools either. He couldn’t understand it. He had to get some of them to take Government help or he’d lose his job. What was wrong with them? could I tell him? could I help him?

“In southern Illinois there was a Terror. The Government men went into that country and took no nonsense; they condemned the land—every farm; offered the owners $7 an acre, or nothing. This was a model project, tearing down houses, building new roads, surveying a Community Center all blueprinted. The people were frantic and furious; they hired lawyers, who told them they could do nothing; they tired to get the facts printed; no newspaper dared do it.

There is no honesty involved in paying taxes. Taxation is armed robbery; tax–collectors are armed robbers.

The county was listed as a rural slum, the land as eroded. When I asked to be shown erosion, the answer was, it is ’sheet erosion’ That is, the constant effect of rainfall on all earth. There was not an eroded ditch in the county. Every farm was well cared for, every house in repair, painted, cared for—simple frame houses, a few without electricity or plumbing, but many with both…. None of them wanted to be rehabilitated. None of them would speak to Garet or to me until we proved that we did not come from the Government. Garet was dumbfounded when men surrounded the car and demanded that proof; luckily he had it, by chance. And these are the people who are said to be demanding subsidies! That was a story—Communist Terror in Illinois. (The manager of the project was a Party member.) No editor would print it, of course. The truth about this country never does get into print.” (pp. 168-170)

There are dozens of incidents like this, recounted so vividly as to be emblazoned on one’s memory forever. So are her descriptions of her own entanglements with the new Leviathan, the federal government—of which this is one:

“Various authorities have been trying to force a Social Security number on me. They telephone and tell me I must have one; since I have none, they are giving me one. I tell them I won’t have it. I get forms, my humble request to be entitled to Social Security benefits; with command, Sign here and return to—-. I put them in the wastebasket. I get orders to appear at such an hour, such a date, at such an office, with all records and receipts to show cause—I reply that it is not convenient for me to appear—etc., etc. I even get an order to appear and support with documents my claim for refund of the tax-and-fine that I paid; I return this, writing across it, ‘I have made no such claim.’ The telephone rings, and I am informed that I am being given the necessary Social Security number; I say I have none and I shall not have one; I will have nothing to do with that Ponzi fraud because it is treason; it will wreck this country as it wrecked Germany; I won’t have it; you can’t make me….” (pp. 203-4)

She writes Mr. Crane in no uncertain terms that he is mistaken in believing that one owes the government something in return for services rendered; and she is equally eloquent against Robert LeFevre’s “no action” attitude toward government:

“Mr. LeFevre and I have engaged in heated, though amiable, controversy, about his attitude to Government. When the students in his Basic course (the one I attended) asked him, what should wedo? his reply was negative. He said: Do not depend on Government; do not ask Government for favors and subsidies and support. I think that a negative is not enough; I say that if they do not know the right action they are too apt to take a wrong one; I think that the thing to do is to resist any further extensions and encroachments and usurpations by the Federal Government, by every peaceful legal means while such means exist … .” (p. 213)

“I do not think that any honesty is involved in paying taxes. Taxation is plain armed robbery; tax-collectors are armed robbers. I will save my property from them in any way that I think I can get away with. If you wake in the night with a flashlight shining in your face and a masked man with a gun ordering you to tell him where your money is, do you feel that you’re morally obliged to tell him the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? I think you might. I don’t. I will try to get out of that predicament with as little loss as possible. In regard to taxes, this means taking advantage of every legality that any attorney can find in the tax ‘laws’ so called, and regulations. I have no scruples about this whatever, anything that I want to do with my money, and that I can in any way slip under any legality so that the robbers won’t find it and rob me of some of it, I do. They make the legalities, trying to be smart about who gets how much of my property; and to keep as much as possible of my own, I’ll outsmart them if I can….” (p. 263)

“I am ‘law-abiding’ purely for expediency, for self-defense, in the main against my conscientious principles, so at bottom I am ashamed of not being a conscientious objector practicing Ghandi’s or Thoreau’s civil disobedience. I did refuse to be rationed; I do absolutely refuse to be Social-Secured; but I should refuse to pay taxes and be in jail, only what would become of my little Maltese puppies? and my own little area of freedom? and my books and my friends and correspondents? I shall be reluctantly a martyr, only when backed into the last corner of the last resort. No heroine, alas.” (p. 269)

Yet she is surely one of the great heroines of the Libertarian Revolution. If libertarians want to find, not only quotable quotes, but incisive arguments for their position, and replies to objections often made to it, there are passages in this book that cannot be improved upon. When Mr. Crane suggests that courts should intervene when one business acts in “restraint of trade” by another, she lashes out:

“As to the restraint of trade by business, that is impossible; the notion that money is power is another lie. There is no possible means by which the duPont Company can stop me (if I have the brains, and not a penny) from starting an enterprise that will eventually totally destroy the duPont Company. I can be stopped only by violence, by physical force. The duPont Company, desiring to stop me, has two possible methods: (1) You can hire and pay a gunman to kill me or kidnap me, and gangsters to destroy my property; you cannot do this successfully if the State performs its proper function of protecting human rights (my right to life, liberty, and ownership of property). (2) Or, you can bribe enough Congressmen to pass an Act of Congress setting up a commission and requiring that anyone engaging in any enterprise in the field of duPont Company’s activities must first obtain a permit from the commission and thereafter be ‘regulated’ by the members of the commission. This act will be enforced by police force, which will as effectually prevent my competing with duPont as criminal force would do. You cannot use this second method, either, if the State is restricted to its proper function of protecting human rights (my right to life, liberty and ownership); for ‘government regulation’ is an infringement of my liberty and ownership.” (p. 2)

Or if someone asks, “How do you stop the concentration of wealth in this country?” one can invite him to read Mrs. Lane’s reply:

“Freedom of enterprise cannot ‘produce a society in which there is great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and considerable poverty among the many.’ Dr. Blake might as well ask, ‘What is our political and Christian duty when water runs uphill, when the earth turns from east to west, when air is heavier than lead?’ Doesn’t he know any facts at all? Does he never look at his country? How can he avoid seeing, if he ever glances at any city, town, highway, or farm, that the salient characteristic of this country is distribution, not concentration, of wealth? Doesn’t he know that even ownership of capital wealth is not concentrated?—that, for example, some 600,000 ‘among the many’ own General Electric? What free enterprise produces most unexpectedly, is a society in which great economic responsibility is concentrated and great wealth is distributed among the many.” (p. 81; written in 1952)

And if someone suggests that after all America has produced only material values, whereas other nations pursue nobler ideals, she has this to tell us:

“This scorn of ‘materialism’ seems to me either a shallow and thoughtless cliche, or an expression of frustration, despair, envy, hate … Nehru flaunts Indian ’spirituality.’ America, they say, has nothing but plumbing; how low, how vulgar, how contemptible, a country that values bathrooms while Europe loves art and India has a soul.

“Well, okay, I’ll raise right now the flag of the bathroom. What is a bathroom? It is cleanliness, health, and all other values of human life on this earth; leisure, learning, art, culture, because it releases human beings from life-wasting drudgery … Give me American bathrooms; give me the country where pumps and pipes are the working class, where ‘gadgets’ serve the values of human life, and human beings have a life-time to live….” (p. 131)

If someone asks, Might it not be necessary sometime to interfere in the “internal affairs” of another country, e.g. the Soviet Union, she answers:

“I don’t want to be misunderstood as ever suggesting, or approving, anyone’s saying to anyone else, ‘You do so-and-so, or I will do such-and-such to you.’ That is a threat, an attempt to invade another’s area of responsibility, to infringe human rights, to dictate another’s decisions and acts. DuPont did nothing of that kind when you all decided not to deal with the Soviet Union. What the company did then was to say, I do this.’ And if asked why, ‘Because, the Soviet Union being what it is, this company cannot deal with it.’ This is not trying to dictate to Stalin, nor to destroy his regime. It is simply acceptance of duPont’s responsibility for duPont’s decisions. If every American corporation’s directors did this, the Soviet Union would collapse. But that would not be the responsibility of the directors; it would be the responsibility of the men who created the Soviet Union so that it cannot survive if American corporation-directors act morally.” (p. 21)

One could go on and on—every page is laden with memorable passages. These were letters written to an audience of one, yet they deserve to be shouted from the housetops more than books that sell millions of copies. Did Mrs. Lane think she was influencing many people? Probably not; but she was an indefatigable letter-writer, especially in her later years when she had ceased writing for publication. And sometimes she was heeded:

“I heard a high school ‘debate’ among all pro-New Dealers on the radio, and wrote to each of them. One replied, with all the Welfare State collectivist notions that had been put in his head, but he didn’t seem wholly unintelligent, so I kept on writing to him for some months, apparently with no effect, finally getting no answer. Now he turns up as publisher….”

Her finest work, excelling even The Discovery of Freedom, was never written for publication; yet its publication has influenced many thousands of people. Ten years after her death, Rose Wilder Lane’s influence is again on the rise. While she lived she fought a very lonely battle. Were she alive today, she would be happy to know that battle is no longer as lonely as before, and that those who have made common cause with her are increasing in number, every day and every hour.

John Hospers is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and the author of the widely acclaimed work Libertarianism.