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Three Books for the Current Crisis

Monday, 02 Mar 2009 01:56 PM

By Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson

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When my friend Paul Kengor, the executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, asked me what three books I would recommend to students if they wanted to broaden their economic education, my answer was immediate. Every college student — indeed, every American — could benefit from a close encounter with the ideas of three of the 20th century’s great female authors: Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, and Taylor Caldwell.

Ayn Rand may be the most famous of the three, because of the perennial popularity of her magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged," and the occasional TV rebroadcast of the film version of her novel, "The Fountainhead," starring Gary Cooper. She is also the only one of the three who has left behind a small group of intellectual disciples, who publicize her philosophy (“Objectivism”) and carry on Rand’s uneasy, prickly relationship with fellow travelers on the right. (For example, we at this college in Grove City, Pa., admire her clear defense of free markets but find her atheism problematical.)

With apologies to her Objectivist followers, I would recommend Rand’s first novel, "We the Living," as the one to read. This largely autobiographical novel provides an on-the-ground, firsthand account of what it was like to live in Russia when the communist social engineers used brute force to reshape the lives of millions. The indomitable spirit and bravery of a teenage girl who refused to be crushed by the tyranny of “the people” is inspiring.

Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, of "Little House on the Prairie" fame. In fact, Rose is commonly thought to have used her superior writing skills to edit the "Little Prairie" manuscripts, and it is possible that she was a co-writer, if not a ghost writer, of those popular reminiscences of frontier life.

As a young journalist, Lane traveled through most of the States and most of Europe. She fancied herself a communist until she spent some time in the Soviet Union that Rand had escaped. Once she saw communism for the lie that it was, she was forever after an unflinching advocate of our Founding Fathers' limited-government, individual-rights philosophy against the intellectual plague of collectivism. She unabashedly challenged American lies, too, boldly characterizing Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” back in the 1950s. Smart lady!

Lane articulated her political philosophy in her book, "The Discovery of Freedom." Reading this book is very much like reading Rand’s essays. The prose of both Rand and Lane works like intellectual Drano, flushing fallacious beliefs out of one’s mind. The two were both very different, yet very similar. Rand was a city girl, a Jewish-turned-atheist Russian. Lane was, of course, a country girl, a theist (not Christian, thank you) American. As authors, both of them advocated individual liberty forcefully, directly, fearlessly. As powerful thinkers whose will and convictions had been forged in the crucible of soul-strengthening trials, neither Rand nor Lane suffered fools well. Neither of them could be intimidated, nor would either shrink from defending any assault on individual rights.

The third book I would recommend is Taylor Caldwell’s, "A Pillar of Iron." Born in Scotland, Janet Taylor Caldwell emigrated to the United States as a child. She loved her adopted country and joined the United States Naval Reserve during World War I.

Caldwell led a much quieter life than Rand, the fiery ideological combatant, and Lane, the tireless globe-trotter (she went to South Vietnam as a reporter at age 78), spending her adult life as a housewife/author. Caldwell was much more a student of history than the other two, and she used that extensive knowledge of various times, places, people, and philosophies to share vital lessons from the past. (She also had a broader vocabulary than Rand and Lane, so have a dictionary handy when you read her books!)

A prolific writer, Caldwell crafted vivid novels about the lives and times of such characters as the apostles Luke and Paul, the Mongol leader Temujin (Genghis Khan), and, in "A Pillar of Iron," the Roman orator and statesman Cicero. In the latter, she drew striking parallels between Cicero’s Rome and the United States of today—parallels that we ignore at our peril.

The philosopher Santayana told us that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. A wag once quipped that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes. Ecclesiastes declares that there is nothing new under the sun. A Pillar of Iron validates these adages. To read this book is to be forewarned about the tragic fate that awaits us if we don’t resist moral and political corruption. For those of you who wonder why folks like me periodically refer to ancient Rome, read this book and you will know.

These books are now between 40 and 70 years old, but they are as important and relevant today as ever. If you want to understand the battleground on which the future of America and human civilization will be fought, these three great books will do that for you.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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