A Libertarian House on the Prairie

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  Economics Literature
  August 17, 2012A Libertarian House on the Prairieby Judith ThurmanShortly after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, four years ago,a journalist asked her sister Heather Bruce what books Sarah had read as a child. Only one came to mind: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” the third in a cycle of eight novels on pioneer life, which have sold some sixty million copies. (In 1974, when Palin was ten, the “Little House” saga was adapted as a television series that ran for nine seasons. It was Ronald Reagan’s favorite program.) In September, the Library of America will publish Wilder’s collected fiction ina two-volume boxed set, edited and annotated by Caroline Fraser, with a glossypicture of amber fields of grain on the cover. It’s a great gift for values voters—Paul Ryan should take note.The youthful reading habits of our new Republican Vice-Presidential candidate have also been fodder for the news cycle. Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” was so influential to Ryan’s career, and to his view of ethics and society, he said some yearsago, that he gave it to his staffers as a Christmas present. In the last few days, however, Ryan has had to shrug Rand off—she’s his Jeremiah Wright. A Soviet-bornJewish intellectual (née Rosenbaum), who emigrated to America in the nineteen-twenties and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter before turning to fiction, Randwas a pro-choice, antiwar atheist and Benzedrine user with a scandalous domesticlife, vehemently opposed to drug laws, sodomy laws, and any other state interference in the lifestyle choices of citizens. (Ryan now says that his favorite writer is Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Catholic saint.)At first glance, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the daughter of pioneers whose hardscrabble life as a farmer redefines frugality, and Ayn Rand, the flamboyant cosmopolite and champion of privilege who lived in a ménage à quatre in New York City, hobnobbing with the élite, do not have much in common beyond, perhaps, the fervor that their work inspires. There is a connection, however.Wilder’s books were written in collaboration with her only child, Rose Wilder Lane, a best-selling author in her own right. The extent of that collaboration is disputed—some critics have called Rose Laura’s “ghostwriter.” The evidence suggests that,at the least, Lane edited and shaped the manuscripts considerably, and thought of her mother as an amateur. (I wrote about Laura, Rose, and the Little House books for the magazine in 2009.)Lane was a compelling, and in many senses, a tragic figure. She was a woman of tremendous enterprise and passion who suffered from suicidal depressions that shediagnosed as a “mental illness.” Born on the frontier, in 1886, and raised in direpoverty, she rode a mule to the village school, where she was mocked for her rags. After high school, she became a telegraph operator, and eventually moved to San Francisco, where she married a feckless adventurer who fathered her only child. The baby died in infancy; Lane’s thwarted maternal instincts would thereafter be channelled into intense relationships with a string of protégés.After her divorce, Lane made a career in journalism and as a popular biographer—ofHenry Ford, Herbert Hoover, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. But Chaplin wasso appalled by the inaccuracies of his portrait that he sued her. Factuality wasnever Lane’s forte. She preferred a “corking” story.Lane also wrote novels, and enjoyed some commercial success, though not the kindof literary acclaim that she yearned for. Her prose was purple and simplistic,if not trashy. But an eclectic and discriminating circle of friends (Dorothy Tho  mpson, Floyd Dell, who was the co-editor of The Masses, and Hoover) prized her for the wit of her letters and conversation. She transformed herself from a barefoot farm girl into a woman of the world who lived the life of a bohemian in Greenwich Village, and of an expatriate in Weimar Berlin and Jazz Age Paris, and filed dispatches from exotic places like Albania, where she befriended the leader of its ephemeral revolution, the future King Zog.In the late nineteen-twenties, however, crippled by depression, Lane returned toher parents’ farm in Missouri. She was tortured by bad teeth—the product of childhood malnutrition; she lost her savings in the Depression; the state of the worldincreasingly embittered her. And the left-wing idealism of her youth took a hardturn to the right. When Roosevelt was elected, she noted in her diary, “America has a dictator.” She prayed for his assassination, and considered doing the job herself.In 1936, the Saturday Evening Post published an essay that Lane called her “Credo,”and which announced a new phase of her career: as a right-wing polemicist. “I am now a fundamentalist American,” she declared. Her vision was of a frontier democracy—a Republic of the Fittest—with no handouts or entitlements, and minimal taxation.She may have been the first writer to use the term “libertarian” as the label for anascent revolt against state authority. (Lane’s heir and adopted son, Roger MacBride, was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President in 1976.)Lane, who died in 1968 (the Wilders were a long-lived family) spent her later years in a Connecticut farmhouse on several acres, protesting Social Security as a“Ponzi scheme” (the F.B.I. took note) and raising her own food. A determined individualist, in her view, should be resourceful enough to live off the grid. Her goal was to reduce her income to the point at which she wouldn’t have to file federaltaxes. Old friends were dismayed by her increasingly erratic militance. One ofthem described her as “floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates.”Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, and Isabel Paterson, a journalist, critic, and novelist who wrote the political treatise “The God of the Machine,” have been called “the founding mothers” of Libertarianism. (In a liberal chat room, a wag redubbed them “The Three Witches.” Paterson, like Lane, it’s worth mentioning, came from an impoverished farming background; Rand’s family lost all they had in the Russian Revolutionof 1917.) Theirs, however, was a triumvirate of rivals (they would quarrel—about Rand’s atheism, among other things—and part ways), and compared to her co-parents ofthe movement that Paul Ryan now leads, Lane was the softie. As Rand’s biographer Jennifer Burns recounts, Paterson was infuriated by Lane’s emotionality. Their cause could only be served by cold reason, she believed; anything less surgical wastreasonous. Rand, like all propagandists, was adept at manipulation, which is tosay, mythification, but she found Lane’s politics too “holistic.”Lane and Rand exchanged collegial letters for a while in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties. But when Lane invoked the Biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and protested that “without some form of mutual coöperation, it is literally impossible for one person on this planet to survive,” Rand “tore apart [her] logic” and denounced it as collectivist heresy. That sort of impulse, she concluded (to help your neighbor save his burning house, for example) ledinexorably “to the New Deal.”Rand’s ruthless supremacism, however—her stark division of humankind into “makers andtakers”—leads inexorably to a society like the one that staged “The Hunger Games.” And it’s to Lane’s credit that, for all her zealotry, she couldn’t quite transcend the instinct to give succor. Should Paul Ryan decide to revisit the “Little House” books, hewill certainly hear the congenial echo of Lane’s polemics in them, though tempered by something more humane. They exalt rugged self-reliance, but as Lane suggested rather plaintively in her argument with Rand, the pioneers would have perished (in greater numbers than they did) had they embraced the philosophy of every m  an for himself.http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/08/rose-wilder-lane-ayn-rand-and-americas-libertarian-literature.html-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Posted 8/20/2012, 5:34:19pm by NewYorkerWebEditI need to point out an inaccuracy in this article. The first Libertarian candidate for president was not Roger McBride in 1976 but John Hospers in 1972. He evenreceived one electoral vote. Hospers was a close friend of Ayn Rand for many years, a professor at USC and the author of Libertarianism, the first textbook on the subject. I know all this because Hospers was an alumnus of Central Collegein Pella, Iowa, for whom I am the editor of the alumni magazine. I wrote aboutHospers in our most recent issue. I only point this out because I trust and respect The New Yorker   s fact-checking so much. I hope you will fix the error.Posted 8/19/2012, 9:44:27pm by Rachelquinn88OMG, Rand had bad teeth too. Now there   s a coincidence.Posted 8/19/2012, 5:42:56pm by fraughtThe Little House series consistently advocated sharing with your neighbors and the equal status of women. It also advocated sex education. I wonder how well that went over with Ronnie.Posted 8/19/2012, 4:42:07pm by captcrisis@MARJOR: Of note, it is not libertarianism   s view of makers and takers thatresults in a society like that in Hunger Games but one that is excessively centralized, intrusive, coercive, and commanded by distant elites. Isn   t it obvious that in The Hunger Games , those distant elites ARE the takers ? They extract the product and wealth from the populace and provide only repression in return.Posted 8/19/2012, 1:32:33pm by Designer_RantsThe TV show was as shallow as could be so I   m not surprised that Reagan would have liked it. Landon had a house built out on the Hollister Ranch near Santa Barbara, Ca that was one of the few homes which wasn   t a macmansion out on a point.This place had 30 knot winds every night so his house was actually well-thoughtout. I never saw him there though but an attorney-neighbor who may have been onhis pay lived nearby. This lawyer   s son was later caught after kidnapping, sodomizing, and otherwise beating his victim(s) in some need to dominate others. He lived in one of the macmansions that probably swayed in the winds. He stole a lotof cars as well and they were recovered from the families Hope Ranch home. I guess these folks may have represented randianisms. They had some of the worst judgement I   ve ever seen and one morning the attorney and his son were seen crossing the swollen creek on the way out of the Ranch. The vehicle entered into the water when it was up to the windows and the driver killed the engine in the water.They came very near to being pushed out to see in a violent way in muddy, dangerous waters that had logs floating in them. Then they killed the engine again byaccelerating too quickly but had managed to get across. This place should havebeen called the Hostile Ranch as everybody there hated everybody else, or nearly so. The only people more extreme are the current republicans.Posted 8/18/2012, 5:23:15pm by squidboyFunny about Lane and Roosevelt. Rand, not a lover of alcohol, voted for him because he promised to repeal prohibition. She knew that having a good time with a drink or two was consistent with the pursuit of happiness.  Posted 8/18/2012, 7:44:21am by JackDoitCrawfordThe purpose Little House books serve here is political, not literary. It   s meant to associate Paul Ryan with a wild-eyed form of mentally deficient libertarianism. If the literary status of Little House has to be shortchanged to make that association, so be it. Of note, itis not libertarianism   s view of makers and takers that results in a society like that in Hunger Games but one that is excessively centralized, intrusive, coercive, and commanded by distant elites.Posted 8/17/2012, 11:27:05pm by marjorRe: HALSF...You   re trolling us right? This is the New Yorker   s version of all caps comments on YouTube? If not, I hope you were able to piece together the monocle that shattered after you said ghastly, quasi and crypto in the same sentence.It   s like you hit the DB piñata! CONGRATS.Posted 8/17/2012, 9:14:13pm by NYCNRWhat so many critics of Rand so adeptly overlook is that capitalism requires voluntary cooperation and interaction. It is absolutely false to say free markets is an on your own philosophy as the president so often says. A baker can   t sellbread if no one wants to buy it, etc. The primary difference is the word *voluntary,* which most would agree is critically important, but so often much in ourlives is prescript government policy predicated on fines and ultimately force. Once we recognize that societal cooperation and interaction should require as little force as possible, this should in turn shape public policies that limit government, the monopoly proprietor of legitimized force in society.http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/08/rose-wilder-lane-ayn-rand-and-americas-libertarian-literature.html#ixzz25uAILKMZ
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