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The Discovery of Freedom
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What an American original was Rose Wilder Lane! What a treasure! She lived from 1886 until 1968, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and widely considered a silent collaborator on the Little House series. Regardless, she was a great intellectual, writer, and editor in her own right, and was even one of the highest paid writers in the US during her days as a journalist, war correspondent, and novelist. This is her non-fiction book (1943), one that had a huge impact on American libertarian thought in the 20th century. In fact, Robert LeFevre called it "one of the most influential books of the 20th century." When Arno Press asked Murray Rothbard to pick out a library for reprinting, he included The Discovery of Freedom in it. It's no wonder: here we have an eloquent hymn to human energy and its creative power. She sought to highlight the difference it made in America that the individual was permitted freedom from government authority. The Americans broke from the idea that dominated all over human history that they must depend on some overarching authority in government to grant them well being, and thus when good happens, we owe ever more to the powers that be. The one idea that this is not the case, that human beings have within themselves the capacity to make their own way, she wrote, created the most glorious civilization in world history. Her passion was to help others see the cause: not authority but individual initiative and action. She traced out this idea to provide sketches of history from the ancient world to the mid-20th century, believing that she had discovered the answer to what transformed the world from a dark, miserable, sickly, and dangerous place to one where humans thrive and create. She further condemned all political trends of her time from Fascism, to Communism, to the New Deal, and blasted war as the most destructive action of all. Her prose is stark and strong.
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Part One (The Old World) contains discussions of antiquity when life was viewed as cyclical and authority was absolute; Plato's dictatorship of the intellectuals & Spengler's theory of the rise & fall of civilizations; Communism, including the early collectivist experiments in the American colonies, and planned economies. The author points out that many revolutions just represent the turning of a wheel around a motionless center; a new gang replaces the old but individual freedom never materializes. Enormous waste occurs when authority is enforced in the production & distribution of material goods.
Part Two (The Old World) explores the steps that led to a free society in the USA. First there was Abraham who embraced the concept that God created human beings as free agents. Later there was Moses, the Ten Commandments and Israel under the Judges which was a libertarian society. Lane emphasizes the significance of Samuel's warning to the Israelites when they demanded a king. Her observations on antisemitism ring true and are confirmed by history: the Old World is alarmed at Israel and the hatred derives from the fear of freedom. It is always the tyrant that leads the attack on the Jewish people who have faithfully preserved their scriptures that proclaim the individual to be free.
Lane considers the second attempt to be the Islamic expansion which in its tolerant, golden age made lasting contributions in the spread & development of e.g. astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Unfortunately she quotes only a small, nice sentence from this religion's foundational document while ignoring Dhimmitude and the eventual decline and regression of this civilization. Britain became the next setting where freedom unfolded, in a type of benevolent feudal system. The Magna Carta was a charter of liberties within an entrenched social order. This however, was a grant of liberty, not the recognition of individual liberty. Despite not recognizing freedom as the inherent state of the human being, the British system did promote the concept of human rights for many centuries.
America represents the third attempt, the one that succeeded. Lane explores early American history and the radical new concept of individual freedom that developed amongst the colonists. She shows that the American Revolution had no single leader but erupted spontaneously amongst many. Self-sufficiency had undermined the Old World concept of authority. The colonists were traders who learnt about human nature, creation, wars, adventures, intrigues and family life from the Bible. They defied British laws restricting trade, smuggled to their hearts' content and chose to fight rather than conform & submit. Ten years before Lexington, American rebellion was in full swing. Finally, creativity won the battle against control.
For the first time, the individual was seen as the shaper of life & society. There was no conflict between religion & science as opposed to Europe where the French Enlightenment made a god of science. The American view as articulated by Thomas Paine considered the pursuit of science as the divine study of the works of God in creation. From the beginning, there was a profound difference between the Enlightenment of the Anglosphere and that of Continental Europe. Rose Wilder Lane cherished the mind that knows the individual is free as the most valuable thing in the world.
This section includes chapters on property rights, the Constitution, the right to vote, democracy, republicanism and the industrial revolution that gave birth to innumerable inventions and unimaginable wealth. The free use of energy is the quickest way to a better life, but minds take longer to change than actions. The revolutions of the 19th & 20th centuries in South America & Europe are covered in interesting detail. Lane believed the counter-revolution came from Germany because that country had never experienced Roman Law nor the proper application of the feudal concept of human rights. Anti-modernist ideologies like Fascism, Communism & Socialism all derive from Marx. Napoleon served as model for Bismarck and this strongman concept eventually inflicted Hitler, Mussolini & Stalin on the world. Lane could not have known that it would spread to much of Africa, the Islamic World & large parts of Asia, leaving mass murder & misery in its wake.
In discussing Germany, she observes that the USA borrowed its idea of compulsory state education. She laments the fact that free and private education in America was abandoned. This is where she was perhaps unintentionally prophetic. The German model resulted in the sorry state of US education today, in both its failure to educate and the fact that academia - the humanities in particular - has become a lair of collectivist utopian thinking with a disastrous effect on society. Today its toxic infusions into the culture include irrational & evil philosophies like postmodernism & multiculturalism. Hatched in the universities, they are spread by the mass media.
Lane's optimistic vision of the future is of a living network linking all human beings in a dynamic interplay of free creative energies. In 2009 the prospects may not look rosy, but the her explanation remains convincing. Freedom being the human being's natural state, once the concept has spread around the globe it can never be eradicated. The enemies of liberty fight back with The deception but the only way they can win is by obliterating knowledge. The forces of sinisterism have caused much bloodshed in their struggle against freedom and will do so again. Ultimately, however, freedom will triumph around the globe. Human energy is variable & creative and the spark of individual liberty can never be extinguished.
This is such a fabulous book. A bit slow at times, but reading about the times back then (as someone is living it) is incredible. It's especially important since so much history is being revised to fit modern political narratives.
This book will make you thirsty for more history!