The Anti-Racism of Rose Wilder Lane

A picture of Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968)

Whether you realize it or not you’ve probably read the words of Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968). She was the daughter of famed children’s book author,  Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books have delighted several generations of children (and adults) and which were adapted into a long-running, if somewhat mawkish television show. For all intents and purposes, Rose, an accomplished journalist and novelist in her own right, co-authored those books with her mother.

She was also one of the “three furies” of libertarianism. In 1943 three women published books that are considered important sources of modern libertarian thought. The best-known is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  Also in the annus mirabiles were Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine and Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom. These books have often marked Rand, Paterson, and Lane the “founding mothers of American libertarianism.”

Albert Jay Nock, the dean of American individualist/libertarian writers was deeply impressed by Lane. Writing to a correspondent he declared:

You must read The Discovery of Freedom. I don’t know who Sister Lane is. but she is a credit to the Cause, I assure you.

On anything basic she always shoots straight to centres, and hits damn hard. Another odd thing is that while she has the philosophy of individualism down fine, she seems to have got it entirely out; of her own head. There is no evidence that she has read the individualist writers, and considerable evidence that she has not–I believe she hasn’t. I think this is a remarkable achievement, and darned creditable. I’m all for Rose.

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Ayn Rand on Racism

The cover of a pulp magazine, FAMOUS FANTASTIC STORIES listing Ayn Rand's Anthem on the cover.

I’ve been purposefully avoiding discussing Ayn Rand on this blog. The reasons are entirely personal. I, like many of you I’m betting, had too many pointless discussions with Rand devotees when I was in my twenties. Like arguing with a three-year old, it was all very tiresome. Still, some of those emotionally and intellectually stunted Rand devotees are now ruining the country for us all. But, it is a New Year and all, so I decided to start things off by holding my nose and discussing Rand. Hold your nose if you must.

My topic is Rand’s 1963 essay on “Racism” which is often held up as proof that libertarians can’t be racists! This is usually accomplished by taking some choice quotations from the essay, most often the opening paragraph:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

Strong stuff! Rand has never been criticized for being insufficiently provocative. Reading the rest of the essay, however, shows how deeply flawed Rand’s thinking about racism was.

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Milton Friedman and Harvey Weinstein

In today’s disgusting news, Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood big shot, is a serial abuser of women who wanted to work in show business. He’s been fired by his own company for this. We are now having another national conversation about sexual harassment. We can only hope that this one will do some good. Keep this in the back of your mind as I discuss Milton Friedman; I’ll come back to it.

I threatened promised you another post about Friedman. This post should extend my post on Becker, since I’m assured that Friedman’s 1962 essay is simply a “popularization” of Becker and thus Friedman certainly wasn’t guilty of merely making stuff up to support his free-market ideology. I want to return to these ideas by revisiting Friedman’s essay and think about its implications. To what extent does Friedman base his policy proposals on Becker’s evidence?  Second, to what extent does Friedman embrace an antiracist policy for the sake of combating racism as an end in itself–rather than to further some other policy agenda?

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Gary Becker and the Economics of Discrimination

Graph depicting a persisting gap

Gary Becker argued that the gap in wages between white and black workers constituted discrimination

In response to my last point, it has been pointed out to me that I need to deal with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, whose 1957 book The Economics of Discrimination is, I’m told, a huge “counterexample” to my claim. Leaving apart that I carefully qualified my statement regarding libertarian silence on race—thus a single counterexample doesn’t really mean much—I will give you some first thoughts about Becker’s book.

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Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

Someone was wrong on the internet the other day. It was me. I was wrong. Howlingly wrong. You couldn’t even see right from where I was standing, that is how wrong I was. I apologize. Behold! My head is at your feet and I am but dust!

It was on Twitter (surprised?) where I was having a lively exchange with some critics of my work on this blog when I wrote:

Libertarians were silent on de jure segregation in ’50s &’60s. I’ve looked. I found nothing. Not. A. Word. Black people didn’t count.

Aha! Phil Magness, with a flourish usually reserved for magicians producing a rabbit from a top hat you would have sworn was empty, immediately produced not one, but two quotations wherein libertarians remarked that legalized segregation was wrong. In other words, it is if I said “All crows are black”  and Phil produced not one but two white crows!  Take that lefty!

Properly humbled, I will now offer a new claim I am prepared to defend:

Libertarians were all but silent about civil rights and race in the Civil Rights era. I’ve looked. I found almost nothing. In one of the biggest struggles for freedom in the 20th century: libertarians did almost nothing.

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Baldy Harper and the Racist Right

The Strange Parallels Between a Noted Libertarian’s Writings and Those of the Antisemitic Right

A man looking at his bald spot in the mirror.

In those pre-PC days it was apparently OK to use a cruel nickname

While not a household name as much as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are, Floyd Arthur Harper (1905-1973), who wrote under the name F.A. Harper and who was known to his friends by the ungenerous nickname “Baldy,” was an important figure in the post-World War II libertarian movement. Baldy Harper is remembered more for his organizational prowess than his writings, but comparing his writings to that of the racist right of the 1950s shows how much the libertarian rhetoric of “freedom” served the ends of the racist right.

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Are Libertarian Principles Incompatible with White Supremacy? First Thoughts.

Jacob Levy of McGill University has a thoughtful post entitled “Black Liberty Matters.” Levy forthrightly and forcefully recognizes the troubled history of libertarianism’s entanglement with racism. He correctly notes that “Now, libertarian, individualist, and market-liberal ideas, concepts, slogans, and advocates aren’t alone in having a history that is entangled with white supremacy. Hardly any set of social ideas in American intellectual history lacks such an entanglement.”  Levy reminds us (or reminds me, anyway) that the real opposition is not between libertarianism vs. non-libertarianism but racism vs. anti-racism.

Levy’s essay also helps me clarify what my own project is and is not about. For me, this paragraph was especially stimulating. He frames it in the context of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. He’d read a few reviews and found them “entirely persuasive about Democracy in Chains’ details and core claims alike.” In conclusion he wrote:

I don’t want the convincing intellectual victory over Democracy in Chains to fool us into thinking that there’s no problem. I don’t want the forceful, true, statement that libertarian principles are incompatible with white supremacy to fool us into overlooking a morally compromised history and sociological and psychological patterns about how those principles turn into general political discourse.

Now, regular readers know that there has been no “convincing intellectual victory” over MacLean’s book, a point I will return to at the end of this post. For now I want to ask if it is really the case that “libertarian principles” really are incompatible with white supremacy because we seem to have a paradox.

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Arguing With Libertarians

A picture of George the Pug

George the Pug

I’m spending the next few days dogsitting George the Pug (pictured above). Claire Potter has written a nice and insightful review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains over at Public Seminar. I spent the evening playing fetch with the tireless George and responding to criticisms of Potter’s piece by Professors David E. Bernstein and Phil Magness. I wrote some rather lengthy comments, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and George and I turned in for the night.  This morning I woke up and found the the Disqus commenting system had marked those two lengthy comments as “spam” and didn’t post them. Maybe I should have left out the part about how you can make thousands of dollars from your home?

At any rate, I’m going to post them here just to get them out in public. I recommend you go read Potter’s review and the comments if you feel like you’ve been dropped in halfway  through the movie.

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The White Ignorance of Milton Friedman

Line drawing of a black and white man looking at each other laid over the word

White people have the luxury of not thinking about race if they don’t want to. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are forced to think about their own oppression all the time if they want to get by in the world. One way to think about this luxury is what philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance.” In scholarship, one way the white ignorance is displayed is by white scholars, whom Critical Race Theorist Richard Delgado called “imperial scholars,” who ignore the scholarship of people of color. The poster child for white ignorance may well be Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman was one of the most famous economists of the twentieth century. The leading light of the “Chicago School of Economics,” the most influential economics department in the world, Nobel prize-winner in Economics in 1976. If there were an All-Star team of economists, Friedman would be in the starting line-up. My view of him was nicely summarized by Murray Rothbard in 1964:  “I am getting pretty p.o.’ed at the influence of that little bastard anyway; he is the No.1 respectable right-wing economist in Newsweek and Business Week, and Goldwater’s chief economic theoretician.” (Rothbard to James Martin, Martin Papers, University of Wyoming).

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