Rose Wilder Lane: Pioneer of Educational Freedom

My eight-year-old daughter Abby recently started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was prompted, in part, by watching the Little House on the Prairie television episodes with her great-aunt. Coincidentally, I have been reading more lately about some of the key women in history who promoted the ideals of individual freedom, limited government, non-coercion, and voluntary cooperation through trade. Rose Wilder Lane is one of these women. She was born on this day in 1886.

Liberty Should Always Trump Coercion

The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, baby Rose is the child many of us remember from the ninth Little House book, The First Four Years. Perhaps those years of growing up on the prairie instilled in Lane a sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance that ultimately found their way into her writings throughout the 20th century. By the late 1920s, she was said to be one of the highest-paid women writers in the US. She became an outspoken critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security, and other government programs she felt disempowered individuals and gave greater authority to the state.

In her 1943 book The Discovery of Freedom, Lane makes a compelling case for individual freedom and limited government power. She traces the roots of compulsion in many areas of life, including education, and explains why liberty should always trump coercion. She writes:

American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth. (pp. 259-60).

Lane goes on to say that this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom” (p. 260). She laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force (p. 258).

As Abby digs into the Little House series (which Lane was instrumental in helping to create to catalog the experiences of her parents), I learn alongside my daughter, fascinated by the life and works of baby Rose, who would grow up to become a pioneer of liberty.

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Controlled Choice Isn’t School Choice

I recently heard the term “libertarian paternalism.” It was presented in an article about health care, specifically doctor-patient relationships, as a strategy for helping patients choose among the various best options the doctor recommends. There were many good points in this article about personalizing medicine, but that term made me cringe. Taken literally, “libertarian paternalism” means the free will to select among the choices that some authority figure determines is in your best interest. I don’t like this term, mainly because it’s an oxymoron. The dictionary definition of “libertarian” is a person who believes in the doctrine of free will. To add a caveat that limits free will to options chosen by some allegedly omniscient actor rubs me the wrong way. And yet, we see this contradictory and demeaning idea enacted in many areas of life, especially education.

The comparable term in education is “controlled choice,” or the idea that someone will pre-select among the best options and then allow an end-user (e.g., a student or a family) to choose from among those established options. At the student level, controlled choice might look like a teacher announcing a unit on US presidents and then letting the learner pick which one to research. Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will.Or it could look like a lesson on mammals in which a teacher allows the child to pick the elephant group, the bat group, or the whale group. In this environment, the teacher (or curriculum developer) decides what the child will learn but allows the child some discretion. It’s a lot like reading a choose-your-own-ending book: It can make the story more enjoyable, but only if you are interested in the overall theme. We can contrast controlled choice at the learner level with self-directed education in which the child is fully in control of what, how, when, and with whom she learns.

At the macro level, controlled choice manifests in policies that allow families some degree of choice over their assigned district school, as long as it meets a district’s overall enrollment distribution goals. My city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the first to enact this type of controlled choice program in 1981 as a way to let families choose among the city’s various public elementary schools through a ranking system, as long as each school met its preferred socioeconomic distribution quota. The goal was economic integration and improved academic performance, particularly for disadvantaged students, while retaining some choice beyond a zipcode school assignment.

Controlled Choice Programs Results

But new research reveals that controlled choice programs in many urban districts have not achieved their intended goals of socioeconomic integration or the narrowing of achievement gaps between high- and low-income students. An in-depth analysis by David Armor of the Cato Institute finds that not only were intended goals not reached but also that unintended consequences, including “white flight,” were widespread in controlled choice districts. Armor concludes:

Most larger school districts that have implemented controlled-choice plans have experienced (or are experiencing) demographic changes like those experienced during race-based busing, meaning the loss (or “flight”) of white and middle-class families. Moreover, there is ample evidence that economic diversity is not producing academic benefits for poor children in these districts. In other words, controlled choice can bring much pain and controversy for little or no educational gains, at least as measured by test scores.

Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will. Concerned that when given real freedom individuals will make the wrong choice, those with power often seek to limit—or control—choice. It is true that freedom means the freedom to make bad choices, but that isn’t a compelling reason to curb one’s freedom to choose. It’s also important to note that what constitutes a “bad choice” is subjective. Individual freedom means toleration of individual choices. As the Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

What is im­portant is not what freedom I per­sonally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things bene­ficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.

Hayek goes on to say that the essence of real freedom is humility. He wrote:

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

Controlled choice, libertarian paternalism, or any number of similarly discrepant terms suggest that appointed wise ones should have the power and influence to coerce others through policy or decree. Those of us who truly believe in the doctrine of free will should recoil at attempts to add qualifiers to its promise.

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Doug French: Why Democracy Doesn’t Work (58m)

This episode features a talk by economics professor Doug French from 2013. The true believers always tell us we are just one election away from liberty. It never happens. French blends Hoppe, Hayek, and Maslow to explain why, despite voters best intentions, sociopaths are elected and freedom is lost. Purchase books by Doug French on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (58m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Nobody asked but …

At the risk of jinxing myself, I will admit that I have never been audited by the IRS.  The interesting thing is that my late father, Kilgore Sr., got audited annually.  The other day, it occurred to me, why was this so?  On the strength of our names alone, it would seem that I should have been a marked man.  After much cogitation, thinking about an associated matter, I came to the conclusion that I was invisible to the watchful eye, statistically speaking.

We are not a statistic.  Each of us is an individual.  Each of us participates in a 1-to-1 relationship with every other person, place, or thing in the Universe, including how the other sees us.  My Dad went to the thoroughbred race track nearly every day of his adult life.  Now, the IRS maintains a presence at gambling establishments, if such entities are statistically significant, because the numbers are big enough to count on corralling a few big winners every day in the meet.  My Dad was never such a big winner.  Instead the IRS watched him on an annual cycle to ensure that he was not getting away with anything.  Their efforts were as economically unrewarding as was his playing the ponies — Dad always claimed that he broke even, and the only value he derived was to be around the equines.

I, on the other hand, have never been a track habitué.  Therefore, in the taxman’s eye, I am of little interest.  I have always played a statistical game, aka keeping a low profile.  For instance, back in the old days, when computers were unsophisticated and the IRS was pinioned by its own technological backwardness, I always filed my taxes only on “Tax Day” — figuring that that was the day on which the most numbers needed to be crunched.  I may be committing the wet sidewalk fallacy, but it seemed to work.

There are billions of tardigrades in a drop of water.  Perhaps you can tell us what you know about any single one that stands out from the rest?  Don’t be embarrassed; individual tardigrades do not statistically matter to us.  Don’t be superior, tardigrades don’t care about us either.

The best part about statistical anonymity is that one is free, at liberty, from the interveners who take no notice.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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Legislation, Laws, Not the Same Thing

How much do you respect and obey laws? How much should you? I suppose that depends on what you mean by “laws.”

Most people confuse legislation for laws. Laws were discovered — usually thousands of years ago — while legislation is made up by politicians and imposed under threat of violence as if it were law. Occasionally, legislation is written to copy or reflect law, but not often.

Law concerns respecting the rights of others, while legislation is almost entirely written to give excuses for government to violate individual rights. Thus “don’t murder” is a law, while “pay this tax” is legislation.

Laws don’t need to be written down for you to have the right to defend your life, liberty, or property from violators. Nor do laws have to be enforced. People must only be allowed to defend themselves and others from anyone who violates law.

Since most people use the word “law” for legislation, I’ll make things simple and switch to following the common usage below. Just keep the difference in mind.

I have lived in many places. Each time I moved to a new place I was subjected to a new set of laws. I never felt glad about the laws that were being enforced in my new location. Not even once. I have, however, often been glad about the laws that either hadn’t been written or weren’t being enforced.

I’m much more likely to comply with a harmless policy, even if it’s arbitrary, if I’m asked nicely than I am if someone puts it into legislative language and turns it into a threat. I see all laws as a negative; a drain on society. The fewer laws, the better.

In the Tao Te Ching, written in the 6th century BCE, Lao Tzu wrote: “The more laws and restrictions there are, the poorer people become … The more laws and commands there are, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

So, thousands of years ago, smart people had already realized that laws aren’t good for society. Politicians and their hired guns still pretend otherwise.

I once asked a retired deputy sheriff — a former legislation enforcement officer — whether something was “legal.” He replied, “By the time a person sits down to breakfast they’ve already broken a bunch of laws, so don’t worry about it. Just live the best you can without harming anyone else and you’ll be better than most people.”

Great advice for everyone, unless you suffer from a law fetish.

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Evil Among Us

When I was a teen, an IRS agent lived across the street from my family.

No one said anything to him about it, but everyone looked at him as though he were in the mafia. Which is closer to the truth than I realized at the time. People were a bit suspicious and standoffish around him. And he didn’t really socialize much.

He acted guilty because he was.

Of course, I was just a teen. Perhaps the adults didn’t think they were acting that way toward him. It’s certainly the vibe I got, though.

This was back before concealed carry “laws” were spreading around the country, and he was the only person I knew of who routinely carried a gun. Honestly, I don’t remember whether he open carried, but if he didn’t I’m not sure how everyone knew.

I’m in favor of everyone other than government employees carrying weapons. I am not in favor of anyone working a “job” that allows them to do things which are unethical (theft/”taxation”) or to do ethical things illegitimately forbidden to the rest of us (carrying weapons).

I knew at the time there was something not quite right about him and his “job”. Now I know exactly what it was.

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