Rose Wilder Lane Ep. 002: Flashes of Liberty Series14 min read
Rose Wilder Lane
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Rose Wilder Lane was an American journalist who became enchanted with communism early in life. She looked to communist Europe and the Soviet Union as the ideal for civilization. But in 1920, while traveling with the Red Cross to Europe, she saw the real consequences of communism. Her paradigm was shattered! This led her to write on her experiences, earning her a place in history as one of the harbingers of modern libertarian philosophy.
Rose was born in 1886 in the Dakota territory. You’re probably familiar with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famed author of the Little House on the Prairie Series.
Her family moved several times during her early childhood. They struggled through crop failure, disease, and poverty. In 1904, she graduated from high school at the top of her class, but missed out on college because her family was poor. So instead, Rose worked as a telegrapher for five years until moving to San Francisco in 1909.
Rose was married for a brief time, endured the loss of a stillborn child and infertility, disillusionment with her career choice, divorce from her husband, which all led to failed attempt at suicide. This failure, however, gave her a renewed sense of purpose in life.
Being keenly aware of her lack of formal education, Rose pressed forward. She taught herself through prolific reading and learning multiple languages. She proved herself as experienced writer through an editorial position at the San Francisco Bulletin. This experience earned her an invitation to tour the relief efforts of post-WWI Europe.
Rose’s experience in writing first-hand accounts of people and their circumstances proved invaluable as she documented her European tour in “Credo,” later republished as “Give Me Liberty.” This tour gave her a unique glimpse at the communist life. She had envisioned it bringing justice, equality, and prosperity to everyone. Instead she left disenchanted, and no longer a communist, because her belief in personal freedom was so violated by communism. She found those living under it were utterly ignorant of their own potential. It never occurred to them that there might be life outside of state control.
Rose’s better known political work, The Discovery of Freedom, is best understood in light of “Give Me Liberty.” Rose contrasts planned economies with a freed market. She was careful to note that America’s wealth was not built on capitalism either. Capitalism, she explained, is a planned economy, and ultimately no better than communism. And the wealth of America had flourished in the absence of such planning; it was instead a freed market, a product of spontaneous order.
The following is an abridged excerpt from The Discovery of Freedom:
“A ‘planned economy’ is believed to be a Government’s control of the productive uses of human energy … The actual facts is that a ‘planned economy’ is an absolute monopoly… held by men in Government and maintained – so far as possible – by police and military force.
Everyone knows that Government is a monopoly of the use of force; it cannot permit individuals to use force against each other or against the Government … if it does, it ceases to be Government.
In the same way, a Government which is … a monopoly of the production, processing and sale of [a product or service] cannot permit a rival … company to compete with it; if it does, it ceases to be Government. When Government has a monopoly of all production and all distribution, … it cannot permit any economic activity that competes with it.
… a planned economy must prevent economic progress … For economic progress is a change in the use of men’s productive energy … [and] therefore, [planned economies are a] use of force to prevent the natural use of human energy. This explains the historic fact, at first surprising, that in all history the earnest, sincere, hardworking ruler has done the most harm to his own people.”
Today’s critics of the free market suppose it’s a cold-hearted, objectivist view from those who seek only greed and self-interest. It’s easy to think that planned economies prevent “chaos” from ensuing. Marx had theorized that an unplanned economy would siphon wealth to the elitists and away from the poor.
Rose’s contributions, however, come from a place of personal impoverishment and a desire for genuine community; those things that usually attract people to communism. But the prosperity and community she so desired were actually destroyed by the planned economic systems in Europe. Rather than preventing social and economic elitism, communism fueled it.
She realized it was the lack of central planning, an absence of government regulation, that leveled the playing field and virtually eliminated in America the class and caste systems that were seen in socialized Europe. The spontaneous order of the freed market; human action unencumbered by the state, was really freeing people from the poverty that she had sought to escape.
But without the state, won’t we fall into lawless chaos? In this episode, I discuss the concept of polycentric legal order with legal scholar, Gary Chartier
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