Is ‘Little House on the Prairie’ a libertarian parable?

August 15, 2013
Folksy! (NBC)
A Nozickian mutual-protection association. (NBC)

Christine Woodside's piece in the Boston Globe on the influence of Rose Wilder Lane on her mother — Laura Ingalls Wilder — and the creation of the Little House on the Prairie series of books is absolutely fascinating.

It turns out that Lane was a huge libertarian; Roger MacBride, her heir and "adopted grandson" was the Libertarian nominee in 1976 and cast an electoral college vote for the Libertarian ticket in 1972. He credits Lane — who once compared Social Security to Nazism — as an even bigger influence on the party than Ayn Rand (who Lane admired but thought was "elitist and irrational.")

Lane was the one who took Wilder's memoirs and shaped them into novels for publication. In doing so, she not-so-subtly made them little libertarian parables. Here's a taste:

In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.

Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. 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 next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property....Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.”

Read the whole thing. Imagine if Lane had instead been, say, a devout Marxist. A parable of class struggle and peasant revolt on the prairie would have been really something.

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Timothy B. Lee | August 15, 2013