When Is It Okay to Steal a Cow?

It’s bitter cold outside and the winter storm has lasted for days. The snow is two feet high and getting worse. It’s 1872 and you are living in a dugout, living off small pieces of bread and potatoes, unsure when the weather will settle down. You also have a baby to feed.

Curious about what it looks like outside, you finally manage to pry open the front door. Off in the distance you see what appears to be a herd of cattle. But they are not moving. Maybe they are dead, frozen as anything would be. But then why are they standing?

Fearing starvation and longing for the taste of beef, or maybe even fresh milk, you decide to take the risk and creep out into the weather. The herd is perhaps 100 yards away. As you get closer, they do not run. They seem stuck in place. You notice that there is steam coming out of their nostrils, so they are not dead.

It turns out that they have all been blinded. The steam from their nostrils turned to ice and hardened around their eyes. Cows don’t move when they can’t see.

The cows are branded, meaning that they belong to someone, but they are clearly lost and probably far from home. One cow looks almost dead. You take out your pistol and shoot it, putting it out of its misery. It is not lost on you that you can drag it back to your dugout and cook it.

Then the prospect of milk occurs to you. You are not a thief. Stealing a branded cow seems not quite right. So you look through the herd. You find one without a brand. You lead it back through the snow to your shed. You return to grab the dead cow, drag it back, and chop it up for meat.

Then you return once again to scrape the ice off the eyes of the remaining cows, and they garner strength to move at last. They head out, perhaps returning to their pasture or perhaps to town. You can’t know for sure but you do know this: if you hadn’t done this, they would all die in a day or two. You saved the whole herd but for the nearly dead cow you killed and the one you took for milk.
How do you deal with this morally? This is the dilemma faced by a young frontier woman of 17 who is trying to survive by herself in the Dakota territory.

The story appears in the gripping novel Young Pioneers by Rose Wilder Lane. The young woman is morally scrupulous, a good person who would help anyone in need and who would never steal what belongs to someone else.

But these were extraordinary times. She feels oddly about what she has had done but ends up reconciling herself to it. After all, she save the whole herd or at least gave the herd a second chance for life. The payment for her services — though they were never contracted as this would be impossible given the weather — was some meat and one live cow.

It strikes me that she did what many might do, and that there is probably nothing wrong with what she did. The owner would be grateful. It’s unlikely any reasonable jury side against her. Personally I like the story because it seems more real world than the abstract and purely hypothetical scenarios that intellectuals conjure up to decided the rights and wrongs of private property. The story isn’t structured to bring about some grand conclusion. It seems more like real life.

What does the story imply about property rights and ethics? Probably nothing grand. At most, it shows that a temporary expedient taken during an emergency does not violate the larger principle for private property and against theft. Life is more complicated than any philosopher’s or ethicist’s model. It also illustrates how people can work out their own problems even in absence of government (which didn’t exist in this land and in this time) so long as there are clear boundaries about what is mine and what is thine.

In fact, this might be considered a summary of Lane’s whole worldview, and the worldview of that entire generation. The novel Young Pioneers is based on real life, exactly as the author had heard it as relayed by her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House series. Indeed, there is strong evidence that Rose herself heard all those stories from her mother and wrote them up, assigning authorship to her mother (they were her stories after all, drawn from real frontier life).

And yet, Rose herself signed a number of books herself. Her most famous is the Laissez Faire Club selection The Discovery of Freedom. It’s a favorite of mine. She shows how the human spirit is uniquely capable of creativity and productivity when it is unencumbered by authority that overrides individuality. It’s a stunning reconstruction of history in light of this one simple insight.

But her novel Young Pioneers takes that insight and puts it in novel form. We follow the harrowing life of David and Molly as they leave their comfortable lives in the East for a crazy adventure into the unsettled West. This is period in which unprecedented prosperity was dawning in the East. The tycoons of industry were building mansions and the age of steel was being born. People were living longer and happier lives.

And yet, at this very time, a new generation set out West into a land of terrible danger and grueling nothingness — all in the hope of living out a life of freedom and independence. All while making a grand contribution to founding a new society based on the principles of self reliance. David and Molly nearly met their doom but they refused to relent. What an inspiration it all is! And yet how forgotten it all is!

Today people complain when their wireless network is flakey, when a smartphone app is available in one operating system but not in another or when the beef at the store is corn rather than grass fed. Talk about your “first-world problems.”

More strangely, people spend the big bucks in elite stores to consume an upscale primitive lifestyle with natural soap, free-range chickens, and eco-friendly toilet paper.

This book reminds us of what real primitivism looks like: disease, starvation, killer grasshoppers, freezing to death. Not all problems are imposed by nature in her narrative. Some are man-made, like personal indebtedness. This proves to be as much an enemy as wolves and outlaws.

The biggest enemy of all today is one that no one in the West in 1870 had to deal with: massive taxation, regulation, legal barriers, depreciating money, and the ghastly burden of government generally. The pioneers overcome their barriers. Can we overcome ours?

As I closed the book this weekend, feeling completely enraptured about the history and the world that had been opened up to me, I had to find the right way to urge everyone to read it — especially young people who know nothing of such suffering. They know challenges of a different sort — mostly dealing with a government that has cut off opportunities for their own achievement of self reliance.

What this generation needs are examples of people who faced far higher barriers and far worse trials and overcame them. What if Lane’s purpose in writing a book like this (which came out at the dawn of the New Deal) was to show a way forward for future generations? What if she was writing an allegory that applies in all times and all places?

Fortunately, I have a way to share this book with a new generation. The Laissez Faire Club is offering this book as an instant download with membership in the Club. Also, the Club offers her other masterpiece, The Discovery of Freedom, for free, along with many other membership benefits.

A book like this can inspire, teach, and change a life. That’s why Lane wrote it. It is a timeless classic with lessons for then, now, and the future.


Jeff Tucker

Original article posted on Laissez-Faire Today

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