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Liberty's Most Formative Friendships of the 20th Century
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Liberty’s Most Formative Friendships of the 20th Century

A review of ‘Freedom’s Furies’ by Timothy Sandefur.

During World War II, while American soldiers fought dictators overseas, three women back home were unleashing a barrage on the ideas at the very foundation of tyranny. Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, all published in 1943, became cornerstones of the American libertarian movement. Their authors, once described as “the three furies of modern libertarianism,” have been the subjects of separate biographies. But Freedom’s Furies by Timothy Sandefur is the first book-length exploration of their relationships and the context surrounding these enduring works.

“There have been many books written on philosophical clashes,” observed Dennis Rasmussen in 2017, “but far fewer on philosophical friendships.” That’s probably true at least in part because, as Rasmussen said, “conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not.” The story of the trio that launched the modern American liberty movement, however, combines both. “At times friends, at other times fiercely estranged,” Paterson, Lane, and Rand were brilliant and devoted champions of an ideal then on the wane: individualism, the view that the individual’s life is his own and that he ought to spend it in pursuit of his own happiness. When they weren’t debating among one another, they were trying desperately to keep America from sinking to the same depths that had swallowed communist Russia, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany.

That required, as Sandefur shows, swimming against two strong cultural currents, one literary and the other political. The first, dubbed the “revolt from the village,” mixed the understandable goal of throwing off the chains of small-town orthodoxy with a sneer at consumerism and “bourgeois values.” Sinclair Lewis, the towering literary figure of the day, became de facto head of the revolt, the spirit of which he conveyed in his blockbuster novel Main Street. It portrayed small-town Americans as “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”

All three furies marveled at Lewis’ ability to skewer stifling conformity but, in different ways, each eventually came to revolt against the revolt. Paterson was “wary of the village rebels” because she saw that “the mundane lives of the people Lewis ridiculed were admirable in their own way” and that “bourgeois culture represented something rare and precious: the peaceful pursuit of individual happiness, free of the commands of political authorities,” writes Sandefur. Lane regarded Lewis as having sent American literature into a “ditch,” and some of her best work was done trying to rehabilitate the image and values of America’s hardscrabble pioneers, who conquered the plains in covered wagons and had no time for the sorts of busybodies who now scoffed at hard-won simple pleasures.

Rand’s grasp of Lewis’ critique went deeper, though, helping her pinpoint psychological causes of America’s loss of liberty. What Lewis had described as “a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable,” she termed “second-handedness,” referring to the propensity to take one’s views and values from others instead of arriving at them by one’s own judgment. And, in The Fountainhead, she showed how the kernel of truth at the heart of Lewis’ cultural critique—the vulgarity of cheap imitation—was a symptom of the same second-handedness that led, at the political level, to the collectivism then plaguing Russia and much of Europe.

This trend was the second cultural current the furies swam against: a tide that daily brought New Deal America closer to the collectivist Russia that Rand had fled. Because their 1943 books so brilliantly illuminated timeless principles, it’s easy to miss the many ways in which the furies were responding directly to contemporary events and threats. But Sandefur puts us into their world, showing how the pronouncements and policies of Herbert Hoover, FDR, and their lackeys impacted the furies’ lives and works.

Among the many New Deal policies Sandefur unpacks is the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was premised on the idea that competition between businesses is wasteful and therefore “sought to stamp out business rivalry by giving existing companies the power to draft ‘codes of fair competition’” that “dictated what businesses could charge and what they could produce.” In her weekly column at the New York Herald-Tribune, Paterson spilled oceans of ink lampooning this and other shackles on business. And readers of Atlas Shrugged will no doubt see near facsimiles of NIRA and other such policies in the novel’s “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule” and “Directive 10-289.”

Sandefur oscillates easily between eye-opening economic history and narrative accounts that let readers live and breathe in the furies’ world. We’re gobsmacked, as they would have been, by a government-made musical, starring Jimmy Durante and defending the ideas behind NIRA. And we feel the frustration of “the forgotten man,” the entrepreneurs crushed by its irrational restrictions. Sandefur writes:  

“In June 1933, the owner of an Ohio tire company complained that his business could have effectively competed against Goodyear and other major firms in his town, if the codes had not prevented it. “Since we have so little of this consumer publicity when compared with them, our only hope is in our ability to make as good or a better tire than they make and to sell it at a less[er] price,” he wrote, but the codes made that illegal—meaning, in effect, that “the government deliberately raised our prices up towards the prices at which the big companies wanted to sell.” Other businessmen suffered worse fates. A Pennsylvania battery maker was incarcerated when he paid his workers—with their consent—less than the 40 cents per hour the code required. Jersey City laundryman Jacob Maged was sent to jail and fined $100 for charging 35 cents to press a suit rather than 40 cents as dictated by the codes. Sam Markowitz and his wife Rose were jailed in Cleveland for cleaning suits for 5 cents less than the codes mandated. “You tried to tell me when I could open my doors and when to lock them, what I could sell for and what I should pay in wages,” the owner of a wallpaper store complained to Roosevelt. “As to my profits you didn’t give a —, yet I must pay the taxes you insolently piled upon me.”

Freedom’s Furies is a painstakingly constructed historical record that at times reads like a novel, with finely hewn characters and a plot driven by a central conflict of lasting importance: liberty versus tyranny. And in showing the travails of historic freedom fighters, its value—like that of all good history—goes far beyond the story itself. It lights the way for others, showing the errors and omissions that sometimes led the furies to aim their ire at would-be defenders of liberty. “Paterson, Lane, and Rand were troubled by economists who seemed unable or unwilling to offer a moral case for liberty,” writes Sandefur. “Whatever their disagreements, all three shared a belief that freedom could not be defended on exclusively economic grounds. Instead, the case must be made for the individual’s right to his own life.”

Thus, they were incensed by an early libertarian pamphlet, co-authored by Milton Friedman and George Stigler, titled Roofs or Ceilings. It adopted New Dealer terminology, saying for instance that, in a free market, goods are “rationed” according to supply and demand. But, the furies held, this blurred the vital distinction between free trade and government force.

Similar blunders spurred an often frustrated correspondence between Lane and Rand, notably, regarding the position of Ludwig von Mises on moral arguments. Sandefur writes of Mises’ view, “Morality was only a matter of personal preference, and, in a democratic society, the arbitrary value preferences endorsed by the majority simply are justice.” The furies considered this “ultra democratic” stance dangerous. “Mises’s subjectivism seemed to threaten the intellectual rigor of the case for liberty by suggesting that the value of freedom is merely a matter of personal taste, rather than a mandate of human nature,” Sandefur explains. “Lane therefore declared . . . that Mises was ‘absolutely sound’ in economics, but ‘in politics he is bewildered.’” She even wrote to Mises, to ask if the old Austrian actually believed this “stuff and nonsense,” provoking a curt response and eliminating any possibility of rapprochement or cooperation.

Although the furies agreed on the necessity of a moral case for individualism and capitalism, they disagreed on how to make it. And although Rand is often painted as an activist for atheism, Sandefur shows that her friends more insistently steered the discussion to that topic, arguing that the case for liberty depends on faith. Rand’s infrequent replies (she “weighed every word she wrote so carefully that it took her an entire day to write a single letter”) typically focused on the inherent weakness of any argument resting on faith.

Rand was not opposed to spirituality as such. In The Fountainhead, when a client observes of Roark that he’s an intensely religious man in his own way, Roark says “that’s true,” just as Rand would have. She held that “art is the technology of the soul,” and she meant it. But she didn’t regard the soul as some otherworldly essence that we’re endowed with at conception and that lives on when our earthly bodies perish. Rather, she held that the soul is man’s consciousness, the non-physical, non-material aspect of his being and the essence of who he really is. If Freedom’s Furies has a flaw, it’s that this aspect of Rand’s thought gets muddled in the back-and-forth between the furies, and Sandefur leaves it where it lies, concluding: “Lane could not reconcile herself to Rand’s atheism for the same reason that Paterson could not: both believed a purely mechanical universe had no room for free will or for the value of individual personality.” But the view implicitly ascribed to Rand, that the universe is “purely mechanical,” is not one she actually held.

In view of Sandefur’s achievement, though, it’s a small gripe. Freedom’s Furies encapsulates the friendships and context that led to some of the most influential pro-liberty works of the 20th century. It serves as a microcosm of the movement’s sometimes fractious disputes. But it simultaneously shows the common ground these women staked out in defense of individualism—and spotlights the importance of that value for those who wish to carry on the fight for liberty.

Jon Hersey (@revivingreason) is managing editor of The Objective Standard and holds fellowships at Foundation for Economic Education and Objective Standard Institute.