Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Founding Mothers of Libertarianism

Freedom's Furies tells how three women offered their own unique defenses of individual liberty and how their disagreements anticipated the differences among libertarians and classical liberals today.


Freedom's Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness, by Timothy Sandefur, Cato Institute, 500 pages, $19.95

With Freedom's Furies, Timothy Sandefur shows how Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand defended individualism and free markets while America was in the grips of Depression and war. Although these three furies have long been identified as the founders of modern American libertarianism, Sandefur treads new ground by exploring their relationships with each other and by tracing the evolution of their thought. All three women offered their own unique defenses of individual liberty, and their disagreements anticipated the differences among libertarians and classical liberals today.

Sandefur, the vice president for legal affairs at the Goldwater Institute, begins with the trio's literary influences, particularly the novelist Sinclair Lewis. All three, he writes, appreciated how Lewis' books "expressed the way modern mass culture penalized originality and integrity, and rewarded obedience and cravenness." Each joined Lewis in rejecting conformity, but they resisted his dismissal of all bourgeois virtue—and Rand also rejected his pessimism.

The New Deal and World War II had a tremendous influence on the three thinkers. Sandefur describes the historical context well, with particular attention to the authoritarian side of President Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Indeed, professors looking for a book to assign classes studying American history from 1920 to 1950 should seriously consider Freedom's Furies. It masterfully details the causes of the Great Depression, the federal government's overreach during the New Deal, and the wartime attacks on political, economic, and civil liberties. Not only was individual freedom under assault, Sandefur notes, but it was "almost impossible to find any published material that made a strong, intellectual case for free markets." The furies realized they would have to produce their own.

And so Paterson's The God of the Machine (a philosophical treatise), Lane's The Discovery of Freedom (a pop history crossed with a manifesto), and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (a didactic novel) were published in 1943. All three writers believed that the morality of self-sacrifice should be rejected. Rand and Paterson both argued for a form of ethical egoism, and they would long debate who influenced whom. But the two differed greatly in their style: Rand was deeply influenced by 19th-century Romanticism while Paterson was committed to naturalism. For her part, Lane argued that human energy produced human flourishing and that "every human being, by his nature, is free." Humanity simply needed to discover this truth; hence her book's title.

All three authors independently developed some of the most important insights of classical liberal academics. Paterson's criticism of the New Deal, for instance, included the argument that central planning was impossible because bureaucrats "would have to know 'absolutely all the factors of present and past out of which the future must proceed, and to anticipate inerrantly all the possible new discoveries which may be made.'" These arguments capture some of the insights of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, who were not well-known in the U.S. at the time. Likewise, The God of the Machine anticipated Karl Popper's critique of "the arrested society," which he wrote two years later. Paterson recognized that all utopias "are final…they are static societies"; as such, she suggested, they could not adapt, because "creative processes do not function to order." In short, "To live, people must think, and to think, they must be free."

Lane anticipated Hayek's critique of government planning in a short 1936 book titled Give Me Liberty. She argued, in Sandefur's words, that "to truly organize an economy…government bureaucrats would, in principle, need infinite knowledge." Lane also hit on some important insights later associated with the economics of public choice. The idea that bureaucrats could better manage the economy than individuals was, she wrote, the "dominant fallacy" of the 1930s. Instead, Lane insisted that "there was no reason to think government officials would be exempt from the shortsightedness, corruption, or ignorance that plagued the decisions of private citizens."

Sandefur also details the trio's views on religion and how those related to their defense of liberty. While all three believed that natural rights existed independently of government, they arrived at this conclusion in different ways. Lane and Paterson both argued that the existence of a deity was necessary. Rand, an atheist, disagreed; she believed that human beings could reason our way to a justification of natural rights.

Lane irritated the other two women with her insistence that Christian ethics could be reconciled with a robust defense of individual liberty. Her argument that people have a moral sense that leads us, by nature, to care for our neighbor annoyed Rand and Paterson, who felt that man should look after his own happiness and had no moral obligation to others. Paterson took umbrage at the vagueness of Lane's "all men are brothers" thesis and retorted, "Stalin is no brother of mine." This helped end Lane and Paterson's friendship. Lane's religious views and Rand's atheism likewise made any deep friendship between the two women difficult, and they met in person just once. As Paterson grew older, her notorious temper and her practice of hurting those close to her drove a wedge in her relationship with Rand.

Although this is an exceptional book, it is not flawless. The most striking shortcoming is the lack of attention to the ways the furies applied their individualism to minorities. Sandefur does note that "on matters of race relations, freedom of speech, and sexual autonomy, they were decades ahead of their time in embracing views later classified as 'liberal.'" That is absolutely correct, which is why it is frustrating that the book doesn't delve into that point in more detail.

Sandefur mentions, for instance, that Lane was hired by the Pittsburgh Courier (one of the largest black newspapers in the country) in 1942, but he doesn't detail any of the arguments she made in her essays there. Fellow historian David T. Beito and I have compiled more than 80 of Lane's columns in a collection that will be published in 2024. For more than two years at the Courier, Lane applied the ideals of individual liberty and her unique conception of human energy to black Americans and their struggle. As Rachel Ferguson and I show in our book Black Liberation Through the Marketplace, there is a deep tradition of classical liberals and libertarians fighting for minority rights in America.

Still, this book's flaws are small compared to its contributions. Freedom's Furies offers hope to a new generation of classical liberals and libertarians living through the threat of authoritarianism abroad and illiberalism at home. Compared with the domestic overreach of the 1930s and '40s and the rise of fascism and communism abroad, our own troubles don't seem quite as bad.

In the midst of that darkness, Sandefur writes, Paterson, Lane, and Rand argued "that the spirit of self-reliance was the keystone of American mores—the essential element that allowed for political liberalism, economic growth, the flourishing of geniuses such as Edison and the Wright brothers, and the peaceful pursuit of happiness by millions of unknown citizens." Individual liberty and self-reliance are still the keystones, and the furies' successors will surely continue to promote liberty in the face of the darkness today.