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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NATO is a Brain Dead, Obsolete, Rabid Dog; Euthanize It

In early November, French president Emmanuel Macron complained that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization  (NATO) is experiencing “brain death” as its member states go their own ways, with “no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making.” US president Donald Trump’s reply: “Nobody needs NATO more than France.” The two continued their duel over NATO’s future at an early December meeting of the alliance’s members in London.

Unfortunately, 2019 Trump isn’t nearly as smart as 2016 Trump, who noted that “NATO is obsolete.” In fact, it became obsolete 25 years before Trump called the fact to our attention. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact — the two enemies NATO was supposedly formed to protect Europe from — dissolved in 1991.

Wars of offensive choice, rather than defensive necessity, followed in the Balkans and Libya. NATO participated for more than a decade in the  US occupation of Afghanistan. Its current direction includes dangerous membership overtures to Ukraine and Georgia — countries bordering, and overtly hostile to, Russia.  NATO’s claim to be a “defensive” alliance of any kind has long ceased to pass the laugh test.

If the organization was merely brain dead or obsolete, that would still be good reason to dissolve it. But it’s actually far worse than that.

If there’s any real logic to NATO’s continued existence, that logic probably centers around its $1 trillion annual expenses. That’s a lot of money fed into the maws of various military industrial complexes by an entrenched multi-national bureaucracy who love their own paychecks, pensions, and prerogatives.

Maintaining those two welfare programs requires NATO to operate as an active and perpetual threat to world peace, a rabid dog wandering the globe in foaming-mouthed search of opportunities to “defend itself” against opponents who represent no threat whatsoever to it or to its member states.

Even if it attempted to maintain a truly defensive posture, NATO would still be too dangerous to keep around. Its 29 member states, stretching as far east as Turkey, each have their own grudges among each other and with external parties. Sooner or later, an otherwise insignificant spark is bound to set the whole book of matches alight.

When a person is brain dead, we mercifully turn off the ventilator. When an organization is obsolete, we shut it down and move on. And when a rabid dog threatens the neighborhood, we shoot it before it can bite us or our neighbors.

Nearly 30 years late is better than never. Let’s euthanize NATO.

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Non-Intervention: An Imperfect Solution to a Terrible Problem

On November 27, US president Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

The bill, passed by veto-proof majorities in Congress amid large protests in the “special administrative region,”  allows the president to impose sanctions on officials who violate human rights there, and requires various US government departments to annually review Hong Kong’s political status with a view toward changing trade relations if the US doesn’t like what it sees.

In response to the bill’s passage and Trump’s signature, the Chinese government in Beijing denounced US “meddling” in China’s “internal affairs” and threatened “countermeasures.”

Some non-interventionists agree with Beijing’s line on the matter, claiming that Hong Kong is intrinsically part of a thing called “China” and that the US simply has no business poking its nose into the conflict between pro-democracy (and increasingly pro-independence) protesters and mainland China’s Communist Party regime.

I happen to disagree with Beijing’s line, but that doesn’t mean I think the bill is a good idea. Non-interventionism is sound foreign policy not because the situation in Hong Kong is simple, but because it’s complex.

In 1842, the British Empire forced China’s Qing dynasty to cede areas including Hong Kong to it as a colony. In 1898, that same dynastic regime granted Britain a 99-year lease on Hong Kong.

When Britain’s lease ran out in 1997, Hong Kong wasn’t returned to the Qing dynasty. That dynasty no longer existed. It had been replaced in rebellion and civil war,  first by a notional republic under Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party, then in 1949 by Mao’s Communist Party.

But Britain still returned Hong Kong to “China,” albeit with some negotiations for “special administrative status,” meaning more personal, political, and economic freedom than the people of mainland China enjoyed. Now the Beijing regime is acting to erode the prerogatives of that “special” status, and the people of Hong Kong are unhappy about it.

The problem is that the Westphalian nation-state model that has prevailed for the last 400 years treats given areas as “sovereign” even if the governments  within those areas change. “China” is the territory enclosed by a set of lines on the ground (“borders”) agreed to by politicians once upon a time, and nothing that happens within those borders is anyone else’s business, forever and ever amen.

Yes, Hong Kong was “returned” to a “China” completely different from the “China” it was torn from, but nobody gets to tell the new “China” what to do within the agreed borders. At least, it seems, not for more than 20 years or so.

I don’t like that, but I don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether I like it or not.  Beijing doesn’t get to decide how Washington treats us. Washington doesn’t get to decide how Beijing treats the people of Hong Kong.

That being the case, the choice is non-intervention or some form of conflict, up to and including war. I prefer the former — and I hope we evolve out of the nation-state political model before the latter destroys us.

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Trump Sentences Accused War Criminals to Death

On November 15, US president Donald Trump pardoned two US Army officers accused of war crimes (one convicted, the other awaiting trial ).

Trump also re-promoted US Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher from Petty Officer First Class to Chief Petty Officer. Gallagher was convicted of a minor war crime (posing for a photo with a corpse) after he was accused of murdering the victim, but acquitted when a fellow sailor swung a deal for immunity, then reversed his testimony and claimed responsibility for the murder.

When he learned that the Navy intended to remove Gallagher from duty as a SEAL, Trump intervened again, by tweet —  “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin” — and had Richard Spencer fired as Secretary of the Navy for not treating the tweet as an order.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Trump’s actions, but I only have room in this column for one of those reasons:

He has effectively sentenced future US soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to battlefield execution.

Gallagher’s crimes were reported by his SEAL comrades.

He was investigated and charged with those crimes by the Navy itself, which has morale and publicity incentives to only go after “the worst of the worst” for actions on the battlefield.

He was tried and convicted by a jury of his military peers in a process that actually offers more protections for defendants than the civilian justice system (for example, an enlisted defendant can demand that at least one third of the jury be enlisted personnel rather than officers).

When Trump short-circuited that process — first with the pardon, then with the re-promotion, and finally with the demand that Gallagher be allowed to return to his former unit — he very loudly sent a message to every member of the US armed forces:

“When you have a bad actor in your midst, take care of the problem yourselves. If you go through the proper channels, that bad actor will get off with little or no punishment and be sent right back to your ranks.”

Above and beyond the damage done to their direct victims, war criminals endanger their fellow troops. They make enemies out of people who might otherwise remain neutral or even friendly. They motivate those enemies to fight harder and to seek harsh vengeance.

If the military justice system doesn’t charge, try, and punish people whose crimes endanger their comrades because the president panders for votes from “support the troops” types, the (unsupported) troops will deal with such matters on the spot.

We who are veterans can attest to “blanket parties” for serial screw-ups,  “dry showers” with scrub brushes for guys who don’t maintain  personal hygiene in close living quarters, and other “light” punishments for minor offenses.

For endangering the lives of comrades, military vigilantism extends all the way to summary execution. In Vietnam, it was referred to as “fragging.”

Trump isn’t sparing future Eddie Gallaghers their punishments. He’s just robbing them of their rightful day in court.

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Thankful in 2019

A political writer’s annual Thanksgiving column can be easy to write, or incredibly difficult to put together. It can also be inspiring or banal. The two are probably connected. It’s always a difficult one for me; its quality is a matter of your opinion. But hey, Turkey Day is just around the corner and it’s time to talk about being thankful. Please bear with me.

Yes, like you, I’m grateful for family, friends, neighbors, the absence of bankruptcy or prison time, yada, yada, yada. All in all it’s been a good year for me, and I hope it’s been a good one for you as well.

On the political end … well, I’m grateful for pretty much everything in my life EXCEPT politics.

I can remember a time when political writers used “fatigue” to describe “this too shall pass” events such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

These days, “fatigue” seems to be the one American political constant.

Political campaigns used to start the day after the previous election for candidates and campaign staff, but the rest of us got a break.

Now, every election becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIMES the day after the previous one.

Some of us are tired of waking up every morning wondering what Donald Trump did now.

Some of us are tired of the whole two-and-a-half-year impeachment trail going back to “Russiagate.”

Some of us are tired of year-plus-long presidential clown motorcades full of presidential wannabes, like the 2016 Republican primary field or this cycle’s Democratic pack.

Some of us are worn out from all that and more. And political writers aren’t immune.

Speaking to a crowd of Democratic donors on November 21, former president Barack Obama said “everyone needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process.”

My Thanksgiving advice is to “chill out” entirely over the holiday weekend and set the “ginning up” aside for later.

Yes, we’re really allowed to do that.

We can turn off our televisions, or at least watch something other than “news.”

We can set aside political emails mail for a few days. They’ll wait.

We can talk about sports or movies over our holiday dinners instead of arguing about politics.

For all of which I am indescribably grateful. If it was up to me, politics would play a much smaller part in all our lives, even if that meant I had to find a different line of work.

My Thanksgiving weekend plans involve three days of camping and music with a bunch of hippies, hopefully with minimal political speechifying from the stage.

I wish you as happy a Thanksgiving as I anticipate for myself and mine.

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Trump’s Course Correction on E-Cigarettes: Great Idea, No Matter His Reasons

Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman, and Sheila Kaplan  of the New York Times describe US president Donald Trump’s proposed ban on flavored e-cigarette products as “a swift and bold reaction to a growing public health crisis affecting teenagers” that Trump backed away from “under pressure from his political advisers and lobbyists to factor in the potential pushback from his supporters.”

Maybe they’re right about Trump’s motivations, but they’re wrong about pretty much everything else.

E-cigarettes are not a “public health crisis.” That supposed crisis is not “growing.” And to the extent that teenagers are negatively affected by e-cigarettes, the very “bold reactions” the three writers seem to favor are far more culpable than e-cigarettes themselves.

E-cigarettes are, according to all credible evidence, safer than burning sticks of tobacco — sorry, FDA, you don’t get to tell me I can’t say so.

A few cases of lung injury from black market “street vapes” have been reported, the cause (use of vitamin E in the “juice”) seems to have been identified, and that problem is already disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Who buys “street vapes?” People who can’t buy the e-cigarette products they want legally, either because of content (cannabis) or age (the teenagers the Times authors imply they care about so much).

Banning flavored e-cigarette products wouldn’t stop teenagers, or anyone else, from getting flavored e-cigarette products. It would just send even more of them to the “street vape” market for those products.

If Trump reconsidered his proposed ban due to political pressure and the desire to be re-elected, so what? A good decision is a good decision.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told a group of lobbyists, who were pushing a policy change at him, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and bring pressure on me.”

That’s how politics works. Politicians  appease voters and activist groups who can help or harm their careers. Sometimes that works out well for the public, sometimes it works out badly.

In this case it works out well — certainly for the public, and possibly for Trump. Much of the “I Vape and I Vote” demographic presumably falls outside his existing electoral “base,” and for at least some the issue matters enough to swing their votes.

Now Trump’s Democratic opponents need to decide which they value more: Their desire to run everyone’s lives at the expense of actual public health, or that public health and those votes.

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