Libertarian Fantasies and the Tea Party Movement


Leslie Rogne Schumacher is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota.

“One doesn’t mind things in Albania,” Rose Wilder Lane wrote in 1926 while traveling through Durrës, the country’s largest port.  “There isn’t any time here, only eternity, and in eternity there can’t be any haste or fretting.”  Such she announced the final stage of a journey that began in Paris three weeks earlier, made via a Ford Model T which Lane named “Zenobia,” after the third-century Syrian queen who led a romantically unsuccessful revolt against Rome.  Lane’s object was a long term residence in Albania, the country the now oft-overlooked American author and philosophical visionary had become particularly attached to in her prior travels to the recently post-Ottoman kingdom.

Rose Wilder Lane is best known as the editor of her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books and as the author of a number of significant works on freedom, capitalism, and anti-communism in the 1930s and 1940s.  In this latter capacity, she is often grouped with Ayn Rand as a foundational figure in modern libertarian thought.  What she is less known for, however, is her extensive travel writing about her time in Europe, the Balkans, and the Near and Middle East during the 1920s.  Her revelations about these places are in many ways unsurprising to those of us who study this type of material:  Orientalist tropes, exotic locales, delightfully or not-so-delightfully backward inhabitants, romantic danger, and the like, par for the course for American travel writing, both then and to a large degree today.  What is surprising, however, is evidence of what appears to be an overlooked relationship between the themes that appear in these travels and Lane’s later, deeply influential writings on libertarianism and anti-communism.

Considering the present resurgence of libertarian thought on the national stage, in the form of the Tea Party movement, an examination of the writings of one of the founding libertarian figures presents an opportunity for a certain critical angle on the political and cultural questions involved.  The results of a closer look at Lane’s impression of Albania and its relationship to Europe and to America is, I think, strangely suggestive of libertarian philosophy and political values.  We might say that her Albanian experiences can offer a provocative illumination of some less apparent reasons behind the Tea Party movement’s resonance with much of American society.  The Tea Party and the current state of libertarianism are difficult to understand, largely due to the innate contradictions, confusions, and hypocrisies concerning freedom and authority espoused by their adherents; we should of course avoid conflating the various philosophies it evokes.  Yet libertarianism provides a vital component of the Tea Party’s rhetoric and its raison d’être, and perhaps in Lane’s Albania there is a historical referent which is useful in encountering the present individualist mania.

Like many Western travelers to the Balkans who find themselves enjoying the place, Lane took a particular interest in telling her readers the “truth” about it.  For her it was misrepresented in Western literature and popular conceptions.  For one thing its peoples were not so foreign and repugnant as many imagined, but as Lane’s The Peaks of Shala claims, they were in fact closer in “character” and “temperament” to the West than to their “Slav neighbors.”  It was a place that, most importantly, offered a special kind of existence, a freer one.  In her writings on Albania and on other Eastern places, she often refers to the feeling of open time, an “eternity,” of a life of endless possibility.  For Lane, this was in contrast to Western Europe, the “Old World” which Lane describes in her famous 1943 libertarian tract The Discovery of Freedom as hopelessly mired in an unalterable and self-perpetuating cultural acquiescence to constant state intervention in one’s personal activities.  Thus Albania, though something like Europe in cultural traditions and its innate character, was through the historical accident of being within the Eastern, Ottoman orbit during the modern era devoid of all the bad bits related to Europeans’ mentality about state authority.

One might then suggest that Albania, close to Europe in custom and personality yet outside the orbit of Europe’s constraining statist mentality, was therefore something like America.  Just as, in her opinion, Americans got from Europe the basic philosophical tools to forge a superior political and social belief system based around personal freedom, so Albania had benefited from having not experienced the era of the European bourgeois nation-state.  She even gives the reader a sense that the chaotic system of authority and its periodic collateral damage (at one point, she mentions with amusement the destruction by Albanian shore batteries of both Austrian and Italian ships during World War I) was a preferable state of existence to the lifestyle of those living under the constantly repressive system of order she saw in the established governments of Europe or, worse, in the communist Soviet Union.  Indeed, in one telling example Lane drew up plans for a house on the Albanian coast, describing it to a friend as “in pure Arab style, and built, as you’ll notice, for defence [sic] if necessary.”  The diagram she provides is fascinating.  It is a happy citadel, the luxuries balanced neatly by the fortifications; like a true libertarian, she saw that freedom from social authorities might entail certain personal risks, but if someone burned your cabin down, that would be your own fault for not taking the necessary precautions.

Albania and America weren’t so different then.  They were the black sheep of their regions, and that was fine by Lane, for the answer wasn’t the shiny ornaments of progress in the European welfare states.  For libertarians, not all progress is created equal, and perhaps these two places, the most westerly of the East and the most easterly of the West, had ended up in similar places.  Albania had missed the boat in the march of progress, while America had gotten off at the appropriate point.  For precisely this reason, both locations provided a similar level of personal freedom, especially in the sense of one’s ability to organize one’s life apart from the guidelines of arbitrarily empowered social orders.  Lane’s Albanians, like the pioneers on the American frontier evoked in her later writings, seem to have possessed a level of freedom that would otherwise not be available if led by an “Old World” order or, worse, by a communist party which promised liberation from the bonds of bourgeois capitalism and offered instead a state authority interested only in the expropriation of individuals’ physical and spiritual energy.

This is where it begins to get strange.  If we keep in the front of our minds the fact that Lane was in the process of developing her later revolutionary libertarian philosophy, then it is clear her distaste with Western Europe and her treatment of Albania as a “second home” had some bearing on her understanding of what liberty and freedom actually meant.  It is further significant that Lane often referred to herself as a reformed communist in her libertarian writings, given the healthy association in the West with communism and Eastern culture and ideology.  So, Lane’s taxonomy of civilization was actually inverted from the standard classical liberal model and its communist alternative, with the logical progression of modernity leading not to ultimate freedom but rather different forms of insidious bondage.  Albania and perhaps other Eastern places, which were neither liberal nor communist, might not be such bad environments for those seeking freedom from the various statist systems.  The tumultuous livelihood certainly didn’t limit freedom, in any case.  Indeed, Albania, with its hodgepodge tribes and backward values, was in Lane’s view a country of free people not in spite of its near-crippling power vacuum, but because of it.  In doing so Lane effectively fetishized and aggrandized a primitive, freedom-loving soul in her pursuit of understanding the world at large, and this is precisely the connection between her enthrallment with Albania and her later, more developed libertarian values.

So Rose Wilder Lane’s positive assessment of a backward and chaotic Albania might have influenced her later libertarian vision, but what of how this relates to today’s libertarian resurgence in the form of the Tea Party?  In a word, it suggests that libertarian thought and values may be more dangerous and subversive to modern democratic society than we’re willing to admit.  Chief among these dangers is libertarians’ view, much supported by the Tea Party, that the quotient of personal freedom is automatically limited by actions intended to benefit the public good.  This suspicion feeds a strange logic, where a public park hence becomes a symbol of oppression, a bus stop a statist plot.  Certainly there is a basis for such fear; personal liberty has in the past of course been threatened by governments imposing their will by fiat.  Yet positive, neutral, and even innocuous events are encountered with the presumption that there exists some nefarious conspiracy to eliminate personal liberty and the right of private property.  Proceeding from this vision of reality distorted by the impulse to gauge everything according to free and non-free, there is a sense that it is perfectly acceptable in the libertarian worldview for a socially and economically undeveloped world to offer a greater level of freedom than a developed and progressive one, and thus constitute the preferable option.

This aspect certainly seems apparent in looking at the rhetoric libertarians and their philosophical affiliates deploy.  Libertarians consistently use terms like “rugged individualism,” “common sense,” and “pioneer spirit.”  These terms evoke a past wherein Americans tamed the wilderness by joining human and technological energy, with the taming project and the product of that energy upholding the politics of self-interest—the only thing that could keep both the urban, parasitic bourgeoisie and the evil temptations of socialism from taking charge.  This precept never really held water, and it holds less now.  Lane at least had the credibility of having been born into a pioneering family, but no one in the Tea Party can say the same.  However, the power of such language is unchanged today in America.  One need only look at the soaring political and commercial success of people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to see that the belief in the eternal relevance of a frontier mentality shows no signs of waning.  The Tea Party’s vision of a broken and lost America is a lament for the loss of an untamed and disconnected existence.  They hence yearn for a fictional land where the government doesn’t need to be drowned in the bathtub, for the reason that it had the decency to not exist in the first place. 

The Tea Party wants, in other words, a place that looks uncomfortably like Lane’s Albania:  a land of endless possibility and inverted hierarchies, a land where freedom is not ascribed and defined but inherent and instinctive.  It seems to matter little to them that such a world would involve the radical reshaping, even destruction of modern society, nor does it seem to figure that almost no one would actually want to live in a world of contiguous fiefdoms with no authority beyond the hand the holds the plow or grips the gun.  Indeed, if Lane’s vision of Albania might be considered a misguided dream, then the Tea Party’s vision for America is by all measures an unmitigated nightmare.

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