People schooled in the libertarian idea are prepared for the thesis that freedom is productive and protective of human rights, whereas despotism is neither. Many years ago, I first glanced through Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom and assumed that it was an eloquent statement of known truths, so surely there was nothing much to learn here. Maybe it was right for beginners.
In my second reading, some ten years later, I was struck by the depth and sweep of her argument and how it goes far beyond conventions. The problem, as she sees it, is not just the state, but rather, the universal penchant for repressing the human spirit. The state is only the most egregious form of authority.
Finally, on my third reading, I got it. This is a supremely radical and challenging work, one that essentially turns the world upside down. Nearly every expert on the topic of the history of civilization will tell you that the regime is what makes the difference between whether a nation rises or falls.
Lane takes another view entirely. She says it is not the regime but the absence of the regime that sets the human spirit in flight and permits it to create and make beautiful things out of the uncivilized world of the state of nature. She pictures the whole history of humanity as a struggle to be free of authority — not just this or that authority but all authority.
The problem as she sees it is that men have a penchant to want to rule others. This expresses itself in every area of life in which we allow it to happen. In the voluntary sector of society, we are at least free to flee the impositions, and flee we must if we hope to create and build and prosper. But when authority grabs hold of the law, matters change, and we are no longer free to get away. That’s when the human spirit is most threatened with death.
Lane tracks the struggle from the ancient world through modern times. The first attempt she identifies with begins with the prophet Abraham, who asserts a law independent of civil authorities and yet serves as a basis for judging all authority. This culminates with the arrival of the Christian faith, which heralded the individual and recognized his rights, not by virtue of membership in a tribe or political unit, but universally by virtue of one’s very humanity. This attempt was subverted, however, with the union of church and state.
The second attempt that she chronicles will astound most every reader without exception. She marks it with the life of Muhammad, founder of Islam. Here was another attempt to free humanity from the chains of earthly authority, and the results (as she sees them) were the flowering of civilization in arts, commerce, science, and scholarship. It is through Islam that Christendom discovered the writings of the ancients, derived its number system, found its technology, and cast off its forming bias against commercial dealings.
It goes without saying that this section, probably more than any in the book, will come as a revelation to readers raised in the current epoch, in which we Americans are constantly told about the inherent dangers of Islam. Why don’t we know about this side of history? Lane’s explanation is rather plausible: Our official history is Christocentric in the extreme, and we are thus denied much information about the period between the 7th and 12th centuries — a gigantic swath of time in which most of the action took place outside the parameters of Christendom.
But of course, we know what happened to Islam. Its free spirit didn’t last; it became consumed in war and war preparations — and finally relented to authoritarian institutions. Its promise died.
What is the third great epoch? It began in the New World with the American colonies. In this section, Lane’s prose soars to all-new heights. Her love of America has nothing to do with the jingoism we know all too well. It is a love of individualism, experimentation, risk, entrepreneurship, creativity, reward, and the inspiration that comes with building a new civilization itself. What a hymn to our history she writes!
And note the date. This was written in wartime. There were censorship rules at the time, things you could and couldn’t say. What might she have written about war authoritarianism that she did not dare to write? I think we can imagine. In fact, you can read between the lines. She saw America betraying its history, principles, and destiny. And what would she write today?
There is so much wisdom in this work, so much to challenge and surprise us. Lane was learned, passionate, and remarkably creative, and her prose is that of a well-honed professional writer and researcher. This book is a gift. Its lessons are for our time and all time.