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‘Little House’ Libertarians and the Culture of Freedom

‘Little House’ Libertarians and the Culture of Freedom

It’s no coincidence that one of the first American libertarians was not a politician nor a political philosopher. Instead, she was a mother and a pioneer. Her name is probably familiar to you: Laura Ingalls Wilder. And while her influence on libertarian thought may come as a surprise, it makes perfect sense.

When intellectuals write about liberty, they often focus on laws and governments. That’s to be expected—freedom and the rule of law really do go hand in hand. Yet many of these thinkers overlook one pesky fact: For the written words that make up their ideal constitution to have any effect on the real world, the people have to put them into practice.

So while a freedom-focused legal regime is important, it is only one element of a free society. The true foundation of freedom always lies with the people and their culture.

To get an idea of what a culture of liberty might look like, Americans can look to Wilder’s beloved Little House series. In it, people make self-reliance, community spirit, and sacrifice a daily practice.

In many ways, the Ingalls exemplified the ideal of rugged individualism. They traveled across a continent and built a home for themselves with hand tools. Then, they did it again. And again. And again. Over the course of the series, the family moves to Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri.

Compared to modern American men, Pa Ingalls seems superhuman. He hunts bears, fells trees, plows fields, and braves snowstorms. In Little House on the Prairie, it takes him just a few days to erect four walls for the family’s log cabin. Meanwhile, Ma sews clothes, gathers and preserves food, tends to wounds, and civilizes her children. They are a formidable pair.

Yet all their strength and skill isn’t enough to protect the lives and liberties of their children. For example, in Little House on the Prairie, the entire Ingalls family comes down with malaria during their first summer on the Great Plains. They almost die right then and there. At one point, young Laura “crawled all the way across the floor to the water-bucket. There was only a little water in it. She shook so with cold that she could hardly get hold of the dipper. … It was a long time before she began to get warm again.”

One might suppose that, as pioneers and rugged individualists, the Ingalls recovered from malaria on their own. But that’s not the case. Instead, they were saved when Dr. Tan, a black doctor who worked among the Osage, found and medicated them. The doctor then alerted Mrs. Scott, another pioneer, who came and cooked for the young family. In other words, the Ingalls survived because of the aid and support of their neighbors.

Ma and Pa Ingalls are a model of self-reliance. By fully developing their capacity to sustain life, they were able to provide for their family without much outside help. It’s hard to imagine people more capable of resisting tyranny.

Yet sickness, old age, and death are a natural part of human life. They come for all of us—even for those who, like the Ingalls, stand at the height of human strength and skill. This is why rugged individualism will never be enough to sustain a free people.

Indeed, if the people do not care for one another, then the government will have to step in. This is why we can see that the Constitution was written for people like the Ingalls and their neighbors. It was designed to guard against government encroachment on communities that had genuinely life-saving powers.

How many of us modern Americans have neighbors who would tend to us as we recover from a life-threatening illness? And if the tables were turned, would we move into a neighbor’s home and nurse them back to life?

The fact of the matter is that a return to the small government that prevailed in the time of the Little House series would likely result in the deaths of millions who are entirely dependent on the state. The American people for whom the Constitution was written simply no longer exist.

This suggests a clear path forward for those who believe in a freedom-oriented America. Before we can have a legal regime that prioritizes liberty, we need to revive a culture of liberty.

Image credit: public domain

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Adam De Gree
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    Margaret Rouhani
    June 13, 2024, 5:22 pm

    Thank you for a very insightful well-written article. Am a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series & its vivid, detailed portrayal of frontier life.

    Adam DeCree’s assessment of both the rugged individualism & self-reliance of the pioneer spirit, coupled with a strong sense of community & helping one’s neighbour is very accurate & I have to concur with his statement that the people for whom the Constitution was written, in large part, no longer exist. Primarily owing to the fact that both societal values & priorities have changed so radically. Resurrecting those values & priorities would go a long way to resurrecting the soul of a nation which seems to have lost its way for the most part.

    Margaret Rouhani

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