Doctor Science Knows

Monday, August 16, 2010

Libertopia and The Long Winter

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber continues looking at libertarian utopias, and whether 19th Century America qualifies. I commented:

I find that Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter casts a particularly clear light on the libertarian vision of the American frontier.

There's no doubt that Laura' father thought of himself in libertarian terms. "Free and independent" is his mantra and that of the other settlers: they came west, they say, to be free and self-reliant, proud and independent, owing no man anything.

But if you pay attention to what they actually do and how they actually live, they are completely dependent on the government and the industrial society they claim to be fleeing. Laura's family stakes a claim -- on land expropriated from the Indians not in the misty past but within the past few years.

To hold the claim they have to live on the land, but they can't actually support themselves there -- the ground isn't ready for serious agriculture, even if the climate was suitable. They don't even have a place to live without materials that have to be brought in -- nothing available to them can be used to make a shelter they're willing to live in.

The women and children live on the claim to secure the legal title, but the family's income mostly comes from work on the railroad. Laura's parents talk about self-sufficiency, but at no point in her life do they actually survive on food they produce themselves -- purchased flour, meal, and meat are *always* the backbone of their diet. This food comes on the railroad from the East.

Their dependence is made clear during The Long Winter when the railroad is blocked. The frontier townspeople talk about being free and independent, but they are in fact still completely tied into the industrial economy. Without it, they begin to starve.

They only survive the winter because of collective action. Laura's future husband Almanzo and his brother are fronted money by the general store owner to make a perilous journey to buy wheat for everybody in town. They bring it back at great risk, and the storeman wants to sell it at a monopoly price -- giving the Wilder boys a fee for their efforts, of course. The Wilders, though, say *they didn't do it for money*, and they won't take money from the mouths of the starving. Laura's father tells the storeman that *of course* he's a free man who can do whatever he wants with his property -- but the townspeople will also be perfectly free to ignore him socially and economically after winter is over. It's libertarian rhetoric as a veneer over communitarian actions.

Furthermore, the more I've thought about their situation (while I read and re-read the book to my children), the more I've realized that their libertarian ideals are part of what brings the town to the edge of total disaster. Everyone in town *should* be living together, sharing warmth, food, and company -- not wasting precious fuel trying to heat individual houses. With communal living and eating arrangements, they wouldn't have nearly as much trouble getting through the winter.

lemuel pitkin @55:

I read that New Yorker article, too, and Rose's libertarianism is one factor pushing me to think Laura really did write most of the books. The difficulty with reading the Little House books IMHO is that young!Laura, from whose POV we see the story, is an unreliable narrator. She doesn't lie to us about what she sees -- but she doesn't see everything or understand it on an adult level. Writer!Laura IMHO makes a lot of her points indirectly -- like the fact that Pa Ingalls loves the wilderness, but spends his life destroying it. Young!Laura loves and admires him, but that doesn't mean Writer!Laura shows everything he does as loveable or admirable.

mw @69:

My point is that the cooperation in The Long Winter is not truly private nor voluntary. The wealthy storeman doesn't cooperate voluntarily, but because he is threatened by the public acting together. They *are* the government of the isolated town, and Mr. Wilder later was an elected official.

It's true that this is not state-level government, but it's community-level socialism (or something): Mr. Ingalls is a leader of the community against the wealthiest individual in it.

Gareth Rees @94:

arrgh, yes! the shame, the shame! The problem was that I was mentally translating from "Pa".

mw @95:

I wasn't clear in my retelling of the scene in The Long Winter. The citizens weren't originally "threatening to take their business elsewhere", they were getting ready to use (well-armed) mob violence. Pa Ingalls talked them down to threatening a boycott, and got the storekeeper to agree he didn't want it to come to that -- but the real alternative, not discussed explicitly, was violent robbery and/or lynching. They may not have had *state-level* coercion, but guns there were a-plenty -- courts and prisons would have been much nicer and less bluntly coercive.

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