Rose Wilder Lane

 

The removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s book award reminds me again of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an interesting writer and political thinker. Born in 1886 in the Dakota Territory, Rose 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This man’s insight prefigures Hayek’s writing about the role of knowledge in society, not to be published until 1944.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 (PDF). 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. This included 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 Muslims 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.”

and

“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.

This was originally posted at Chicago Boyz, where the original discussion thread can be found here.

See also Obamacare, The Wisdom of Rose Wilder Lane, and Why Nancy Pelosi was sort of right.

Don’t miss Rose’s description of her encounters with European bureaucracies while driving her Model T Ford from Paris to Albania.

There are 23 comments.

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  1. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    David Foster: The removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s book award reminds me again of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an interesting writer and political thinker.

    Putting her name down the memory-hole and airbrushing her off the the award are shameful acts.

    1984 is supposed to be a cautionary tale, but the left treats it as a how-to manual.

    Same with “The Giver”.

    • #1
  2. TheSockMonkey Coolidge
    TheSockMonkey
    @TheSockMonkey

    Great post.

    • #2
  3. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Thanks. Our daughter is reading the Little House books by her mother right now. She’s on Banks of Plum Creek. I will direct her toward Rose Wilder Lane as well. 

    • #3
  4. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Thank you, David, for the links and the extended introduction to what sound like interesting books and essays.   The Paris to Albania essay is just brilliant.  Sadly prescient, I’m afraid.

    • #4
  5. KiminWI Inactive
    KiminWI
    @KiminWI

    Hartman, it is generally believed that if you are reading the books by her mother, you are actually reading Rose.  Laura kept journals and recorded her memories but Rose polished them for publication.

    I live in Wisconsin, about an hour north of Little House in the Big Woods and grew up in South Dakota about an hour east of Little House on the Prairie.  The De Smet, South Dakota site is well developed and worth a stop if you find yourself in eastern South Dakota. 

    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    A long article on Laura and Rose in the New Yorker, written (surprise!) in a rather debunking tone.

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/wilder-women

    • #6
  7. KiminWI Inactive
    KiminWI
    @KiminWI

    “These Happy Golden Years” is what made me suspect that the rumors of help from Rose were true.  

    If you enjoy Laura’s stories,  the other pioneer girl story from Wisconsin is way more fun!  “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink tells the story of another family, east of here a bit and just a bit later than the Ingalls family. Caddie had brothers. 

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    KiminWI (View Comment):

    Hartman, it is generally believed that if you are reading the books by her mother, you are actually reading Rose. Laura kept journals and recorded her memories but Rose polished them for publication.

    I live in Wisconsin, about an hour north of Little House in the Big Woods and grew up in South Dakota about an hour east of Little House on the Prairie. The De Smet, South Dakota site is well developed and worth a stop if you find yourself in eastern South Dakota.

    We’ve visited the De Smet site 2-3 times. IIRC, the house Pa and Ma Ingalls lived in after moving to town has some Rose Wilder Lane exhibits in it.  We’ve visited the Plum Creek site and the Mansfield MO site, but somehow have never gotten around to visiting the Wisconsin site.

    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    • #8
  9. AltarGirl Member
    AltarGirl
    @CM

    When I was a kid, I read all the LIW books and the Ozark books (plus more) – those centered on Rose’s childhood.

    Then I read Rose’s biography. I must have been too young for it, because I got the impression she had a rather rough adjustment to city life and I was a bit disappointed and gave up on it… it appears too soon.

    I guess I’ll have to go back.

    • #9
  10. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.
    @KimK

    My sister has recommended to me a book called A Wilder Rose, which is a biography of Rose Wilder Lane. I haven’t read it – yet – but she says it smashes a few of the assumptions one may have of the Little House women.

     

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    The only thing I remember about this book is that almost every other page describes them twisting wheat into something to burn. But my memory may be deceiving me.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kim K. (View Comment):

    My sister has recommended to me a book called A Wilder Rose, which is a biography of Rose Wilder Lane. I haven’t read it – yet – but she says it smashes a few of the assumptions one may have of the Little House women.

     

    Thanks for the book reference. 

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    The only thing I remember about this book is that almost every other page describes them twisting wheat into something to burn. But my memory may be deceiving me.

    There was a lot of that. Also grinding wheat in coffee grinders to make a coarse flour. In actual history, both of these things kept a lot of people going through that winter in the great plains states; a lot of people had been caught in the same situation.  And Laura’s future husband never did fully recover from the trip he made to get wheat from a rural settler south of De Smet, as told in the book.  A lot of that was true to life. 

    Seventy years later there were again a couple of winters in which trains couldn’t get through. I was too young to remember those, but my mother’s diary tells about my father and grandfather going out in the snow and tramping the village name “Kongsberg” in the snow so that planes that were airdropping food supplies could see that here was a place where some were needed, and also to give them an idea where they were.  I don’t know how necessary it was, but that’s what they did.

    • #11
  12. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    I find it fascinating that Rose Wilder Lane caught on to the problems with the Soviet Union far earlier than did Paul Robeson. With his towering intellect, he was unfortunately duped…falling tremendously hard for the dog and pony show presented to him.  Rose was smart.

    The next time I see one of the “banned book” displays, I plan on culling every Little House book and adding them.  “Mommy, is Nellie Oleson a Stalinist?”

    • #12
  13. Nanda Pajama-Tantrum Member
    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum
    @

    Instugator (View Comment):

    David Foster: The removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s book award reminds me again of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an interesting writer and political thinker.

    Putting her name down the memory-hole and airbrushing her off the the award are shameful acts.

    1984 is supposed to be a cautionary tale, but the left treats it as a how-to manual.

    Same with “The Giver”.

    Agree…She (and Rose) *chronicled* the realities of the era in which she grew up…Chronicling requires truth-telling.  I loved and have shared that series – with nieces and great-nieces – who marveled at frontier/rural life (and learned about where their food really might’ve come from).  Yes, one needs to be age-appropriate, but…Yikes!

    • #13
  14. Jon1979 Lincoln
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    I find it fascinating that Rose Wilder Lane caught on to the problems with the Soviet Union far earlier than did Paul Robeson. With his towering intellect, he was unfortunately duped…falling tremendously hard for the dog and pony show presented to him. Rose was smart.

    The next time I see one of the “banned book” displays, I plan on culling every Little House book and adding them. “Mommy, is Nellie Oleson a Stalinist?”

    Once you get locked into an ideology — especially if you happen to be a public figure — it’s really hard to reverse direction and tell the public everything you had been saying in the past was wrong.

    And as far as seeing through the faults of the Soviet Union, people with intellect and egos often fall victim to the latter, and end up short on common sense when it comes to understanding they’re not the Masters of the Universe and cannot smoothly run a planned economy. As the peasant told Lane, “It is too big … At the top, it is too small. It will not work,”  but those who let their egos get the best of them think they can tell everyone how to live their lives and have it turn out perfect. Then when it doesn’t, they often lash out and attempt to eliminate those sabotaging their plans, with the net cast wider and wider as more people are eliminated and the plans continue not to work.

    • #14
  15. Israel P. Inactive
    Israel P.
    @IsraelP

    David Foster: 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.

    She must be banned. Driven from the public square.

    “Men?” What about women?

    • #15
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Jon1979 (View Comment):
    As the peasant told Lane, “It is too big … At the top, it is too small. It will not work,” but those who let their egos get the best of them think they can tell everyone how to live their lives and have it turn out perfect.

    See also the memoirs of Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, who worked as Deputy Manager of a Stalin-Era Soviet factory.  The most difficult problems faced by this factory involved the acquisition of supplies.  The plant was entirely dependent on the supply of raw lumber, and allocation decisions were arbitrary and very political. Gennady, whose father had been in the lumber trade before the revolution, was contemptuous of the chaos into which the industry had been reduced by the Soviets:

    The free and “unplanned” and therefore ostensibly chaotic character of lumber production before the revolution in reality possessed a definite order. As the season approached, hundreds of thousands of forest workers gathered in small artels of loggers, rafters, and floaters, hired themselves out to entrepreneurs through their foremen, and got all the work done. The Bolsheviks, concerned with “putting order” into life and organizing it according to their single scheme, destroyed that order and introduced their own–and arrived at complete chaos in lumbering.

    As Gennady says:

    Such in the immutable law. The forceful subordination of life’s variety into a single mold will be avenged by that variety’s becoming nothing but chaos and disorder.

    https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/31715.html

    • #16
  17. Jon1979 Lincoln
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Jon1979 (View Comment):
    As the peasant told Lane, “It is too big … At the top, it is too small. It will not work,” but those who let their egos get the best of them think they can tell everyone how to live their lives and have it turn out perfect.

    See also the memoirs of Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, who worked as Deputy Manager of a Stalin-Era Soviet factory. The most difficult problems faced by this factory involved the acquisition of supplies. The plant was entirely dependent on the supply of raw lumber, and allocation decisions were arbitrary and very political. Gennady, whose father had been in the lumber trade before the revolution, was contemptuous of the chaos into which the industry had been reduced by the Soviets:

    The free and “unplanned” and therefore ostensibly chaotic character of lumber production before the revolution in reality possessed a definite order. As the season approached, hundreds of thousands of forest workers gathered in small artels of loggers, rafters, and floaters, hired themselves out to entrepreneurs through their foremen, and got all the work done. The Bolsheviks, concerned with “putting order” into life and organizing it according to their single scheme, destroyed that order and introduced their own–and arrived at complete chaos in lumbering.

    As Gennady says:

    Such in the immutable law. The forceful subordination of life’s variety into a single mold will be avenged by that variety’s becoming nothing but chaos and disorder.

    https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/31715.html

    It’s also why it will be interesting going forward to see how much autonomy China’s increasingly autocratic leadership is willing to give their people. Right now, they have a production market economy at the margins, in that deals are made to produce goods for other nations, and monies then are used for things like building up the nation’s defense systems. But it’s still a top-down managed economy, where people are expected to do what the state orders them to do, and innovation outside of the planned economy is frowned upon.

    • #17
  18. TheSockMonkey Coolidge
    TheSockMonkey
    @TheSockMonkey

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    I haven’t read the books in about 30 years, but in watching the TV show a few years ago, I was struck by the work ethic, and “boot-straps” mentality on display. Ma always had a basket of eggs to take in to the Mercantile, but mainly it was the men on the show. They were constantly taking loads of such-and-such to Mankato, even if it half-killed them, or repairing someone’s busted wagon wheel, or putting on a new roof, after a hard day at the saw-mill.

    I also noticed that Michael Landon was the Matthew McConaughey of his day, in terms of toplessness. What political lesson I was to take from that, I don’t know.

    • #18
  19. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Kim K. (View Comment):

    My sister has recommended to me a book called A Wilder Rose, which is a biography of Rose Wilder Lane. I haven’t read it – yet – but she says it smashes a few of the assumptions one may have of the Little House women.

     

    A Wilder Rose is a novelized biography of Rose Wilder by Susan Wittig Albert. I heard the narrator of the audio version, Mary Robinette Kowal, say that it was essentially done the way the Little House books chronicled her mother’s life. It was a fascinating introduction to Rose Wilder (who I only knew as Laura’s daughter). It is certainly worth the time and effort to delve into it. 

     

    • #19
  20. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    TheSockMonkey (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    I haven’t read the books in about 30 years, but in watching the TV show a few years ago, I was struck by the work ethic, and “boot-straps” mentality on display. Ma always had a basket of eggs to take in to the Mercantile, but mainly it was the men on the show. They were constantly taking loads of such-and-such to Mankato, even if it half-killed them, or repairing someone’s busted wagon wheel, or putting on a new roof, after a hard day at the saw-mill.

    I also noticed that Michael Landon was the Matthew McConnogaughey of his day, in terms of toplessness. What political lesson I was to take from that, I don’t know.

    I’m grateful that Laura and Rose wrote the books, but one of the things I used to weary of hearing myself say was:  If we’re going to have censorship of television, the first thing to ban should be Little House on the Prairie. I did watch parts of a few episodes, or I wouldn’t have said that. 

    • #20
  21. Sash Member
    Sash
    @Sash

    I did not know this, and I’ve read quite a lot about Laura.

    I haven’t read the books since childhood, but they were what taught me to read.  A good story does that.

    I can’t figure out how the rugged individual raised child could ever produce a Communist child.  Sad actually.  But she got over it I guess.  I guess it sounded compassionate.

    I hate what’s happened to America.  Wilder, at least one, should be required reading for understanding our history.  

    • #21
  22. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Sash (View Comment):
    I can’t figure out how the rugged individual raised child could ever produce a Communist child. Sad actually. But she got over it I guess. I guess it sounded compassionate.

    Rose got over it a lot more quickly than most American and European Communists, even brilliant one such as Arthur Koestler.

    • #22
  23. Goddess of Discord Member
    Goddess of Discord
    @GoddessofDiscord

    Kim K. (View Comment):

    My sister has recommended to me a book called A Wilder Rose, which is a biography of Rose Wilder Lane. I haven’t read it – yet – but she says it smashes a few of the assumptions one may have of the Little House women.

     

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I may not be up to date on this topic, but I’ve read that The Long Winter, especially, has a lot of Rose Wilder Lane and her libertarianism in it.

    The only thing I remember about this book is that almost every other page describes them twisting wheat into something to burn. But my memory may be deceiving me.

    I read it several years ago. She is a fascinating woman.

     

    • #23

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