Commentary

‘Little House on the Prairie’s’ Contribution to Freedom

“Not ‘Harry Potter’!” says Alice, age five. “I want ‘Little House’!”

It’s the age of negotiated bedtime reading. My husband and I oblige, and tonight we read from “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized autobiography. We take turns reading: Alice reads, then I do, then Scott does. Then Alice reads again. It’s never enough.

What draws her in? A lot of things. The characters are mostly female, young, and strong. Laura herself begins “Little House” at four, an age that wins our daughter’s ready empathy. Not unlike the first volume of “Harry Potter,” “Little House in the Big Woods” introduces an unknown world; done properly, that’s always exciting. As generations already know, the story is clean and earnest, without affectation or smarm. And it’s told in words that Alice can read all on her own—a great confidence builder.

It’s sometimes hard to fathom, though, just how different Laura’s life was from our own: churning butter, salting meat, boiling down maple syrup… Megan McArdle discussed all this in a recent piece for Bloomberg. The “Little House” books open up a lost world for today’s kids—and for today’s adults:

[A]s an adult… what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

We’re not just talking a different skill set, then. The skills came of necessity, and of hardships almost wholly unknown today: “Little House” contains the actual sentence, “They had never seen a machine before”—because, well, they hadn’t.

‘Little House’s’ Place in American History

I am no one’s idea of a nationalist, but the least harmful nationalism I know is the simple idea that nationhood comes from a group of people experiencing history together, and understanding it as a shared experience. “Little House” is one of those shared histories, and it’s one of the finest pieces of Americana that I know.

It’s also a story with a special connection for American libertarians: Wilder had only one surviving daughter, whose name was Rose Wilder Lane. Although less remembered today, Rose was a journalist and a successful author in her own right. Unlike her frontier mother, Rose lived an urbane and world-traveling lifestyle; she even separated from her husband, in an era when such things simply were not done. Scholars still argue over just how much of the “Little House” books were Laura’s doing, and how much they were helped along—or produced—by Rose’s edits.

The ‘Little House’ books open a lost world for today’s kids—and adults.

Clearly, we can’t settle that question here. The works Rose did author, including “The Discovery of Freedom” and “Give Me Liberty,” helped re-launch the classical liberal movement or, as it came to be known, libertarianism, in an era—the 1940s—when its opposite was all the rage. Whether on the fascist right or the communist left, modern politics seemed to embrace central control, to say nothing of the conformity and brutality accompanying it.

A Tradition of Creative Destruction

Such things were not for Rose: She declared that just seeing the Soviet Union had rid her of her youthful communism. From that point on she would champion individualism, capitalism, and—in her words—the “natural diversity of human beings.” Diversity, she held, had been allowed to flourish in America as nowhere else and never before. This was the secret of American strength: that each person was free to be more different than he or she might have been elsewhere, to pursue new talents, new lifestyles, and bold creative visions.

“It is our tradition,” she wrote, “our heritage… to destroy the old, to create the new.” Authoritarianism was not new, she insisted. It was ancient, and it was not even particularly interesting. We Americans had leaped from abject frontier poverty to the wealthiest nation in the world only by discovering, and embracing, freedom.

As a small token of the appreciation we libertarians hold for such a bold and original thinker, the Cato Institute has named its front hall for Rose Wilder Lane. Now, some will tell you that she peppered the Little House” books with libertarian propaganda, praising the ruggedly individualistic frontiersmen. But I don’t think that’s quite right (and neither does Megan). “I have no illusions about the pioneers,” Rose wrote. She deemed the pioneers Europe’s trouble-makers, “not the stuff one would have chosen to make a nation or an admirable national character.” What did make an admirable national character was liberty itself.

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at The Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound.