Subversive as All Hell
The "Counter-Cultural" Roots of the Liberty Movement
It was the spring of 1943, and Rose Wilder Lane was weeding her front yard when the police car drove up.
Weeks before, Lane—a best-selling author and journalist, who had just published the eighth and final installment of the Little House on the Prairie novels that she was secretly co-writing with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder—had sent an angry postcard to her local radio station, responding to a broadcast about Social Security. “All these ‘Social Security’ laws are German,” she wrote, “instituted by Bismarck and expanded by Hitler.” It seemed senseless to her that the United States would battle Germany abroad while adopting its policies at home. “Americans believe in freedom,” she concluded, “not in being taxed for their own good and bossed by bureaucrats.”
In another age, Lane’s cantankerous comments might have been shrugged off—but this was the America of World War II and the New Deal, and when her local postmaster saw her card, he reported it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which dispatched the police to check the matter out.
As Lane later told the story, the officers began by asking if she had written the card. “Yes,” she answered, but “what have the State Police to do with any opinion that an American citizen want to express?”
“I do not like your attitude,” the officer replied.
“You do not like my attitude!” she shot back. “I am an American citizen…. I do not like your attitude. What is this—the Gestapo?”
The officer tried soothing her, but Lane would have none of it. “You know perfectly well that your uniform and your tone would frighten a great many Americans,” she continued. “You know, or should know, that any investigation of opinions by the American police is outrageous!” When the cop tried again—explaining that he had only wanted to know if she wrote the postcard—Lane demanded, “Is that a subversive activity?”
“Yes,” the officer said.
“Then I’m subversive as all hell!” she cried. “And I’m going to keep right on doing it ’til you put me in jail.”
It was all in character for Rose Wilder Lane. The 57-year-old loathed the regulation and taxation of the New Deal, and decided in the late 1930s to go “off the grid,” rather than submit to rationing and the income tax. “The only freedom is to be found within the slavery of self-discipline,” she thought—so she strove to provide for herself, so that nobody could tell her what to do. As one newspaper article carefully preserved in her FBI file attests, she began growing her own food, raising chickens and pigs, and churning her own butter. “Would you like to see my wealth?” she asked a reporter, before pointing to shelves of home-canned goods. “Corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, pickles, green peppers, beets, berries, all raised in my own garden,” she said. “That’s genuine social security.”
A Room of Her Own
In Lane’s eyes, the American Dream did not mean a chance to strike it rich. It meant self-reliance. Her objection to the New Deal was not that it sought to help the poor—on the contrary, she thought it failed to do that, and actually worsened the Depression.
Rather, the New Deal troubled her on a deeper level. It seemed to contemplate human beings as economic instruments; as devices for producing wealth for society’s benefit, rather than as autonomous beings with the right to direct their own lives. Franklin Roosevelt’s armies of bureaucrats “say for instance, that ‘farming does not pay’ and must be made to pay,” she wrote. But the point of farming had never been to “pay”: it had been to “provide a good farmer with a living.” She thought New Dealers nourished a vulgar and fallacious conception of the individual, as a resource or an instrument that political authorities must regiment into an economic “plan.” That was antithetical to the idea of liberty: that each person pursuing his or her own happiness will contribute more to the welfare of the whole than any central planner could imagine.
More than two decades after Lane’s confrontation with the police, young Americans would rise in protest against a vaguely defined notion they called “the Establishment” or “the power structure”—terms that, at least for many, described an amorphous cultural cocktail of thoughtless habit, obedience, and conformity which writer Theodore Roszak described in his 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture as “a veritable mystique.” Built upon “the demand for efficiency, for social security, for large-scale co-ordination of men and resources, for ever higher levels of affluence, and ever more impressive manifestations of collective human power,” Roszak wrote, this mystique allowed alleged technical experts to “assume authoritative influence over even the most seemingly personal aspects of life.”
While Lane would doubtless have rejected Roszak’s left-wing ideology, her own resistance to the growth of government in the Roosevelt era grew out of a similar longing for a freedom exempt from that kind of social pressure. She despised being controlled. If the term “counter culture” means, as Roszak put it, being “radically disaffiliated from the mainstream assumptions of our society,” then Rose Wilder Lane was counter-cultural before it was cool.
Ironically, she started as a socialist. Born in Dakota Territory in 1886, literally in a little house on the prairie, she loathed small-town America, which she saw as a nest of philistines, cowards, and gossips. In the writings of Eugene Debs and Jack London, socialism was presented not as a system of restriction and obedience, but as a modern, forward-looking—and, most importantly, feminist—alternative to dreary Victorian-era conventionality. And she loved it.
She was not alone. In My Àntonia (1913), her contemporary, Willa Cather, described her own frontier hometown as a collection of “flimsy shelters” whose inhabitants led lives of “jealousy and envy and unhappiness…evasions and negations…devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark.” Lane would have emphatically agreed.
The situation was especially bad for women: Rural America expected them to obey, conform, and make homes for men—all while being surveilled by busybody neighbors who enforced their Victorian sensibilities through ostracism and shunning. Socialism promised a drastic cultural overhaul that would erase paternalistic traditions and liberate individuals to do as they pleased.
Cather’s novel helped spark a literary movement protesting against such small-town conformity and authoritarianism—a movement called “The Revolt from the Village.” In the opening years of the twentieth century, young Americans began moving to cities in big numbers, and “revolt” novels gave voice to this rebellious new generation, as technological innovations such as the automobile and the radio made the wider world more accessible than it had ever been to their grandmothers. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time, more Americans lived off farms than on them, and that same year, the most important “revolt” novel was published: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Characterizing the spirit of American towns as “dullness made God,” Lewis’s book portrayed the efforts of a young woman named Carol Kennicott to escape the combination of Puritanism, philistinism, and placidity she calls “the village virus.” Carol longs for a life of significance and meaning, only to have every effort quashed by her dull neighbors. When she tries to organize a community theater production, the villagers object that it’s no fun. “I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautiful thing,” she begs, “and the holiness.”
The Rising Sun
That resonated with Lane. As a young woman, when a relative told her the legend of the “Wandering Jew”—cursed to roam the world after taunting the crucified Jesus—she answered that she wished she could be cursed the same way: She wanted to travel and to pursue her own path. Socialism seemed to offer that chance. As soon as she was old enough, she got work as a telegraph operator, then as a reporter, and traveled to Europe partly to see for herself the futuristic world now opening up under communism. “The sun is rising in Russia,” she thought, under a social system that would liberate the poor from poverty and free women from the monotony of housework.
The cruelties she witnessed in Albania, Armenia, and Georgia, however—where Bolsheviks seized crops and enslaved local citizens—horrified her so much that she abandoned her socialist views. She encountered Albanian tribesmen who denied that women could own private property at all and Soviet commissars who confiscated grain from Armenian farmers, saying, “We intend to redistribute it to the neediest. We will see that they are the most needy by making them work for it.” Shocked and exhausted, Lane returned to America in 1928 and began studying economics and history. She soon emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken free-market writers.
Her mentor in these studies was the New York journalist Isabel Paterson. One of the nation’s foremost literary critics, with a weekly column in the New York Herald-Tribune, Paterson was a rebellious character—she proudly claimed to be the first American journalist to call for the legalization of prostitution, for example—and she sympathized to an extent with the “Revolt from the Village.” Like Lane, she had been born on the frontier in 1886 and had fled the suffocating traditionalism of the small town to become a reporter and novelist. The America of her youth was a land of adventure and entrepreneurialism, best represented by the Wright Brothers. Paterson was 17 when they first flew at Kitty Hawk, and she would forever after refer to her contemporaries as “the airplane generation.” At the age of 26, she even set a world altitude record herself, riding with pioneer aviator Harry Bingham Brown to the height of 5,300 feet.
But Paterson also saw much good in small-town America. After all, there was nothing wrong with modest middle-class dreams. Worse, she sensed a Puritanical element in the village rebels themselves—a tendency to boss people around for their own good—to “liberate” them from “bourgeois” values that were perfectly legitimate. Sneering at rural America seemed a cheap and easy masquerade for an attitude of bullying and control far worse than the conformity the village rebels despised. “Respectability [and] the domestic virtues are genuine accomplishments,” Paterson thought, and although small towns may be “gossipy, petty, and busy,” their residents are also “very decent people” who are content with “a neat house in the suburbs, with shrubbery and two cars and three children.” For intellectuals to ridicule them and pressure them “into believing they’ve got to drink too much and change partners” in order to have meaningful lives was a kind of authoritarianism just as bad as the “village virus.” Far better to let people alone, to pursue their own lives.
By the time Paterson wrote those words, however, that live-and-let-live attitude was considered passé. Beginning with the Progressive Movement in the 1900s and climaxing with the New Deal three decades later, American intellectuals embraced instead an authoritarian attitude echoing the one that writers like Sinclair Lewis had satirized.
In fact, surprising as it may seem today, early 20th Century Progressives were conservative in the extreme, championing such causes as segregation, eugenics, immigration restrictions, English-only schooling, and the prohibition of alcohol—all in an effort to halt the drastic social changes capitalism had unleashed. As historian Michael McGerr puts it, they sought “to transform other Americans, to remake the nation’s feuding polyglot population in [Progressives’] own middle-class image”—a meddling effort at “improvement” wholly at odds with freedom of choice and constitutionally limited government. Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson thought democracy “rest[s] at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as community are supreme over men as individuals.” Republican Progressive Herbert Hoover agreed. “Private initiative,” he wrote, had “bred its own evils, and one of those evils is the lack of responsibility on the American individual to the people as a whole.” Progressives of all parties agreed that government should impose such responsibility by regulating everything from the bedroom to the classroom.
Their New Deal successors were not much different. Their efforts at economic planning were just as conservative in temperament as they were socialist in form, and the results were just as mindlessly conventional as the “village virus.” New Dealers even unironically adopted the title of Lewis’s novel, and devoted themselves to bolstering “Main Street” at the expense of would-be innovators. In 1934, the federal government’s Better Housing Program hired 750,000 unemployed workers to hand out leaflets in towns across the country on “selling Modernization to Main Street!” Nothing was accomplished beyond temporarily concealing a fraction of the nation’s unemployment numbers. Two years later, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, which made it illegal for businesses to charge low prices, in order to protect mom-and-pop stores that couldn’t compete economically. The Act, wrote journalist Dorothy Thompson (who was also Sinclair Lewis’s wife), was “an entirely reactionary measure” devised by people who, “for sentimental reasons” wanted to defend their “main street of shops…at the cost of all of us.”
Lane and Paterson thought the core fallacy of both Progressivism and New Dealing lay in their rejection of individualism, the true source of all innovation. By forcing each individual (in Hoover’s words) to bear “responsibility…to the people as a whole,” New Deal programs created a new “village virus,” subordinating the needs of would-be creators to the desires of those who chose not to create or innovate. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act, Motor Carrier Act, Civil Aeronautics Act, and other federal laws, Franklin Roosevelt’s bureaucracies were prohibiting entrepreneurs from devising new business plans or lowering their prices without first getting government permission. This benefitted incumbent firms by locking out potential newcomers. As Paterson observed in one column, it was fortunate that the Wright Brothers had built their airplane before the New Deal; otherwise, they would have been forced to join “a co-operative social group to study leadership” before the government would have let them fly.
New Dealers claimed they were trying to “help” and “protect” people. But that sounded eerily familiar to Lane and Paterson. After all, they had grown up in Victorian America; they were in their 30s before women got the right to vote. They knew well enough that being “protected” and “helped” was often a euphemism for being deprived of freedom. Women of the “airplane generation” had been freed at last to be responsible for themselves—and had chosen what jobs to take, and whether to marry, what to buy and sell—enjoying the rewards of their own wise choices, and willingly paying the price for their mistakes. Now, Progressive paternalism had returned in force to strip them of that liberty in the name of compassion.
Minding Everyone Else’s Business
While Lane and Paterson were publishing scathing criticisms of the New Deal, they were joined by a young Russian immigrant named Ayn Rand, who in 1936 published a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the communist tyranny she had escaped a decade before. Titled We the Living, it portrayed the Soviet Union not as a terrifying foreign giant, but as a land of smallness and conformity far worse than anything the “village rebels” could picture. In one passage, a drunk sailor tells his friends that foreigners might think Russia is a vast monster, but if they look closely, they’ll see it’s made up of millions of “little, glossy, brown cockroaches packed tight.” If Willa Cather thought the residents of American prairie towns lived like terrified mice “slipping over the surface of things in the dark,” she hadn’t seen anything yet.
Rand first met Paterson in person in early 1941 and became something of a protégée, sharing philosophical ideas during late-night discussions at their homes. Lane, who first met Paterson probably a decade earlier, moved to Connecticut in part to be near her mentor, where they could converse regularly about philosophy and literature. In 1943, all three women published books that would jump-start the modern libertarian movement: Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Rand’s The Fountainhead. These and their other writings offered an alternative to the conformity and regimentation around them: a vision that celebrated individualism, self-reliance, and personal integrity.
None of the trio—whom William F. Buckley would later call “the three furies of modern libertarianism”—would have called herself a feminist, or a “counterculture” figure, but they knew they were out of step with their times. The hero of The Fountainhead, architect Howard Roark, refuses to build the clichéd and banal structures society demands, even taking work jackhammering in a rock quarry, instead. Lane’s books, especially her bestseller Free Land, celebrated the work of pioneers who chose hard, often impoverished lives on the frontier because they valued providing for themselves more than getting rich in a dreary office job. Meanwhile, Paterson’s novels and columns were pervaded by a sense of indignation at a world where the spirit of independence was being replaced by a desire for government help. “There isn’t a man left in the country,” she grumbled to a friend. “They all want to be ‘saved,’ have their noses wiped for them by Mussolini, or Roosevelt, or somebody…. I will say flatly, that I think a man may still be a man even if he’s panhandling in the street, asking for handouts at kitchen doors, but not if he’s in a government ‘camp.’”
Nor would they have called themselves “conservatives.” They were radicals, just as opposed to the restrictive traditionalism that Lewis and other writers had assailed in the 1920s as they were to the socialism and fascism that dominated governments at home and abroad. In fact, when “fusionist” conservatives embraced free-market thinking in the 1960s (after Paterson’s 1961 death, and shortly before Lane’s passing in 1968), Rand denounced the move as a fraud. Capitalism, she argued, is premised on individualism—a principle totally incompatible with conservatism’s emphasis on the “custom, convention, and continuity” that such intellectuals as Russell Kirk preached. Of course, she was equally opposed to the “counter culture” of the hippies, which she viewed as a counterfeit individualism due to its anti-intellectual prioritization of emotion. Indeed, she thought the hippies were every bit as conformist as the “establishment” they condemned; rejecting the superficial respectability of their elders, they were as mindlessly tribalist as the worst of Sinclair Lewis’s characters. “They were taught that the merging of one’s self with a herd, a tribe, or a community is the noblest way for men to live,” she wrote. “Theirs is the mentality ready for a Führer.”
Yet there was a strand of the sixties youth movement that did echo the principles the three “furies” advocated. At least some members of the hippie generation saw the counterculture in terms of what historian David Farber calls “right livelihood”—that is, they sought not to tune, in, turn on, and drop out, but to find vocations that would mean something. Whether they pursued a “back to the land” ethic or started a business devoted to their social or aesthetic values, these self-disciplined people aimed their entrepreneurialism toward self-realization in a way many of their elders never did. To Paterson, Lane, and Rand, that kind of conscious effort offered the only genuinely counter-cultural path in a society dominated by irrationality, collectivism, and authoritarian controls. In a word, this was the path of individualism: a rational, logically consistent individualism which could vindicate the right of every person—male or female—to pursue happiness, instead of serving the needs of others. Yet all three would have observed that this was not really counter-cultural: for rational individualism is the only way to build a worthy culture.
That was an idea Lane articulated in her final book, The Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework (1963). Describing the history of textile arts, from crochet to rug-making, she argued that the individualism at the heart of American culture had influenced even such ordinary handcrafts. In other societies, textile designs and embroidery were rigidly segregated by traditional rules—such as the ancient Chinese taboo allowing only the emperor to wear a robe embroidered with a five-clawed dragon. American women, by contrast, had been free to innovate and blend traditional styles, and fashioned their own designs as they will. Thus even a hand-made rug reflected “the spirit of our revolutionary country, the spirit of individual human beings in freedom.” “So let us treasure as part of American culture the inexhaustible variety of patterns in old patchwork that record gallant lives,” she wrote, “and honor as culture bearers the thousands of women who are preserving and still enriching this heritage.”
In their own ways, all three of the “furies” preserved and enriched the heritage of American individualism.
Timothy Sandefur is vice president for legal affairs at the Goldwater Institute and the author of Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness.
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