The libertarian life

I found out two things from this article on the Little House books: it was written in collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane; it was rewritten to emphasize self-reliance because Rose Wilder Lane was a libertarian. On the other hand, the idea of rewriting history to make it look like the libertarian lifestyle was good doesn’t surprise me:

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a farm girl born and bred who believed a farm was the one place where a man and woman could work in equal partnership. But her daughter, Rose, abandoned that life. She left the land at 17, found work as a telegrapher, then become a reporter in San Francisco. Eventually she traveled to Europe, writing for the American Red Cross. During the roaring 1920s, growing ever more successful as a writer of magazine fiction, she lived the high life and even had a big house and servants in Albania for a time. She made enough money to renovate the Wilders’ old farmhouse in Missouri—where she then returned to live—and built her parents a retirement cottage nearby. In the farmhouse, she entertained cadres of writers from New York who arrived by steam train. She hired a cook, housekeeper, and farm hands.

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.

MacBride eventually went on to help form the Libertarian Party, and he ran on its presidential ticket in 1976. Lane’s thinking on limited government had from the beginning influenced a relatively small group of people; most writers of the era called Ayn Rand the “mother of the Libertarian Party.” But MacBride believed that Lane was more important. In 1984 he wrote in an introduction that Lane’s political opus, “The Discovery of Freedom,” was “the seminal force creating the current wide trend toward individualistic views in America.”


MacBride failed as a politician, but he succeeded at managing Lane’s estate. Lane had been divorced since 1918; her only child had died at birth. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s will had specified that when her daughter died, the valuable book rights should go to the tiny public library in Mansfield, Mo. Lane, however, instead left the Little House rights to MacBride, whose daughter still owns them today.

MacBride began systematically renewing copyrights to the Little House books in the 1960s, and sold the rights to television—turning it into the series that aired in the 1970s. Although the TV show departed in a saccharine way from the Little House books, it entranced another generation of fans.

Libertarians decry the government … unless it’s for them. And they certainly have no problem with getting something for nothing–one of the founder’s of the Libertarian made much of his money from the Little House franchise that was explicitly meant for a library. And his mentor believed in a peasant class. This is your Libertarian party.

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