Caroline Fraser knows a great deal about Little House on the Prairie and next to nothing about what conservatives think. This is a problem for her recent L.A. Review of Books essay, which purports to explain to conservatives why they are wrong to embrace Laura Ingalls Wilder and her work.
There are three paths by which people on the right arrive at Little House on the Prairie. Libertarians took an interest in the books after a revival of their interest in the works of Wilder’s daughter, the libertarian polemicist Rose Wilder Lane, who exercised a degree of influence on her mother’s work, the extent of which is a matter of some controversy. The second path is through the Little House books themselves, which have long been a magnet to conservatives with an (admittedly romanticized) interest in agrarian self-reliance and family-centered life, and a suspicion of urban cosmopolitanism. The third path is the banal television program adapted very loosely from the books, which has a special place in the hearts of that niche group of conservatives who admire rural life mainly because they never have experienced it.
Ms. Fraser’s critique would make sense if one were to take her cartoonish view of who conservatives are and what they think. For example, in her view, people who cherish nature, wildlife, and solitude are by definition something other than conservative. “There is much to offend right-wing thinkers in Wilder’s work,” she writes, “perhaps as much as there is to comfort them. For instance, Wilder repeatedly declared her adoration of the wild and her dismay at its ruin.” She goes on to say that if Wilder had been around today, she would have been understood as a “radical environmentalist.” I know little of Ms. Fraser’s biography save her publishing history and the fact that she resides in Santa Fe, but I wonder if she has ventured as far afield as Idaho, where one is apt to meet right-wingers who make the editors of National Review look like Geraldine Ferraro but who also clearly prefer country to town and cherish the rural solitude in which many of them live. Perhaps she should be introduced to the Conservative Canadian MP Bob Sopuck, who has made a career out of pursuing environmental issues and a live-off-the-land ethic. There is an entire corpus of right-wing fantasy literature dedicated to this kind of thinking, the fullest expression of which is the pop-survivalist novels of the sort written by James Wesley, Rawles, whose post-apocalyptic works have reached the New York Times bestseller list.
Ms. Fraser notes that Charles Ingalls, Wilder’s father, was a member of the Populist party, “which opposed railroad interests and promoted those of wheat farmers,” citing this as prima-facie evidence of the political distance between the world of Little House and conservative thinking. Apparently she is unaware of the large body of conservative literature dealing with corporatism and crony capitalism, and the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s favoritism toward the railroads is a key part of the conservative/libertarian critique of his presidency. As Cato’s Jim Powell notes:
Grandiose schemes like the transcontinental railroad drained resources from some regions to benefit special interests.
There was no money to be made from operating a railroad through a desolate wasteland, yet the federal government rewarded railroad contractors with big subsidies: a thirty-year loan at below market interest rates; twenty sections (12,800 acres) of government-owned land for every mile of track; and an additional subsidy of $48,000 for every mile of track laid in mountainous regions.
Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames, and other officers of the Union Pacific Railroad, which went a thousand miles west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, started the Credit Mobilier company in 1867 and retained it to do the construction. Credit Mobilier distributed to shareholders profits estimated at between $7 million and $23 million, depleting the Union Pacific’s resources. In an effort to stop congressional investigations, the officers bribed Speaker of the House James G. Blaine and other congressmen with Credit Mobilier stock. Seldom modest about their thievery, congressmen voted themselves a 50 percent pay raise. The Union Pacific Railroad fell deep into debt, without enough revenue from passengers or shippers, and went bankrupt in 1893.
Free-market conservatives have spent more than a century arguing that the interests of free enterprise are not identical to the interests of Big Business. Ms. Fraser seems not to have heard that many conservatives opposed the bailout of General Motors, for example, and many aspects of President Obama’s program for subsidizing businesses he favors, such as Solyndra and Fisker. She also seems not to be aware that the majority of conservatives opposed in toto the president’s stimulus bill, which was very heavy on gifts to business interests.
She also compares the federal government’s land grants in the 19th century to modern welfare programs without bothering to consider the fact that Washington viewed such a quantity of undeveloped land as at least as much a liability as an asset; it was concerned that those vast tracts of land populated by squatters and Indians would render the interior of the country ungovernable. As one congressman put it at the time: “The sooner we dispose of the unsettled and uncultivated territory, the better it will be for the people of the U.S.”
My colleagues Jonah Goldberg and Jay Nordlinger have often noted that one of the strange features of the Left-Right debate is that conservatives, having in most cases attended conventional schools and having been thoroughly immersed in the dirty bathwater of American popular culture, have a pretty good idea what liberals think, sometimes a better idea than liberals do, since conservatives are in the habit of reading foundational progressive thinkers while liberals imagine that they distill their policy preferences ex nihilo from the ether of pure pragmatism. Liberals, on the other hand, seldom have any real understanding of what conservatives think and why they think it, not having read their Buckley or Sowell, to say nothing of their Hayek or Friedman or Kirk. Which is not really that much of a problem, until they start writing hilariously uninformed essays about conservatism, as in the case of Ms. Fraser’s display of ignorance.