Little House in the Balkans

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The following passage from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom (1943) will be familiar to many libertarians:

Twenty years ago the Dukhagini in the Dinaric Alps were living in the same obedience to their Law of Lek. I tried for hours to convince some of them that a man can own a house.

Rose Wilder Lane A dangerously radical woman of the village was demanding a house. She had helped her husband build it; now she was a childless widow, but she wanted to keep that house. It was an ordinary house; a small, stone-walled, stone-roofed hovel, without floor, window, or chimney.

Obstinately anti-social, she doggedly repeated, “With these hands, my hands, I built up the walls. I laid the roof-stones with my hands. It is my house. I want my house.”

The villagers said, “It is a madness. A spirit of the rocks, not human, has entered into her.”

They were intelligent. My plea for the woman astounded them, but upon reflection they produced most of the sound arguments for communism: economic equality, economic security, social order.

I said that in America a man owns a house. They could not believe it; they admired America. They had heard of its marvels; during the recent world war they had seen with their eyes the airplanes from that fabulous land.

They questioned me shrewdly. I staggered myself by mentioning taxes; I had to admit that an American pays the tribe for possession of a house. This seemed to concede that the American tribe does own the house. I was routed; their high opinion of my country was restored.

They were unable to imagine that any security, order, or justice could exist among men who were not controlled by some intangible Authority, which could not permit an individual to own a house.

Rather less familiar, I suspect, is the earlier and much fuller account of the same incident in Lane’s hard-to-find travel memoir Peaks of Shala (1922 – about which date more anon).

The differences between the two versions are quite interesting, and generally seem to stem from the fact that whereas by 1943 Lane was a committed free-market libertarian, in 1922 she was still – well, not really the “communist” she would later claim, with typically Lanean excess, to have been, but not definitely anything else either. Thus in the 1943 version the anecdote has been shaped to serve a polemical anti-communist purpose that seems absent in the 1922 version.

For example, in the 1943 version the villagers are described as communists, and their views are explained as the product of a superstitious belief in superhuman authority; but in the 1922 version they seem more like Proudhonians, and the “authoritarian” diagnosis is nowhere in evidence. The house, described as “large” in 1922, has become “small” by 1943. Most strikingly, in 1943 Lane’s reference to taxation is the crucial admission on which her interlocutors pounce to defeat her argument – an effective rhetorical point for Lane the libertarian polemicist, indirectly attacking taxation as equivalent in principle to communism. But in the 1922 version, taxation is mentioned only in passing and the villagers don’t pick up on it at all.  (The woman in the anecdote also goes, for no obvious reason, from having two children to having none.)

Anyway, here’s the 1922 version:

So we came up out of the Wood, and over the next mountain, and there on a slope where the dead grass was splotched with patches of rotting snow, and the soft earth trodden by the sharp hoofs of goats, we came back with a jolt to the problems of reality. For we met a woman, herding the goats, who believes in private property.

She was a tall, dark-eyed woman, handsome, but not beautiful. Her face, as we say, was full of character; and there was independence, even a shade of defiance, in her bearing as she stood watching us approach, her chin up, her eyes cool and steady, one hand grasping a peeled branch as a staff, her ragged skirt strained against her by the wind that blew down from the mountain pass. Her thick, dark hair hung forward over her shoulders in two braids, and from each dangled a charm of bright blue beads, defence against any demon she might meet in the mountains.

“Long life to you!” she said.

Shala “And to you, long life!” we replied, and seeing her glance fall covetously on my cigarette – only the swiftest flicker of a glance it was – I offered her one. She took it, thanked me, lighted it from mine.

“A bold woman,” said Perolli.


“In these mountains the women smoke, but not before men; that is a man’s privilege, and it is unwomanly to smoke in their presence. Are you a woman?” he asked her in Albanian.

“A woman of Pultit, married in Shala. A widow with two children, demanding justice from my tribe,” she said.

I looked about. There was nothing but snow and wet earth to sit on. Well, she must have been standing for hours, watching the goats. I leaned on my staff. “What justice?” said I.

She told us with a calm precision; none of her people’s rhetorical flourishes. Even through the barrier of language I could see that she was stating her case as a lawyer might who was not addressing a jury.

She had been married five years; she was twenty-one years old. She had two children, boys. While she was married her husband had built a house. It was a large house; two rooms. She had helped her husband build that house. With her own hands she had laid the slate on the roof. She liked that house. She had lived in it four years. Now her husband had been killed by the Serbs, and she wanted to keep that house. She wanted to live in it alone with her two children.

“But it is impossible!” said Perolli. “A large house, with two rooms, for one woman?”

By the Virgin Mary, she said, yes! She wanted that house; it was her house. She was going to have that house. She was not going to stop talking till she got that house.

“By Jove! I like her spirit!” said Betsy. The woman stood looking from one to the other of us, defiant, superb.

“Well, but what’s become of the house?” Alex demanded.

Her husband’s brother, head of the family now, had taken it. He was living in it with his wife and children and brothers and cousins and – I forget exactly – seventeen of them in all. The family – which comprises all the village at the foot of the slope on which we stood – had decided that the house should be used for them. She and her children could live with them. But she would not do it. She wanted that house all for herself; she said again that it was her house. Until she got that house nothing would content her or keep her silent. Her sons she had sent to the priest’s house in Plani – to the same “macaroni” who had refused us shelter. He had taken them in and promised to educate them for the priesthood. For herself, she remained in this village, clamouring for that house. If she got it before her sons were grown and married she would bring them back to live with her. She might do so, even when they were married. That did not matter; what she wanted was the house, her house, all for herself.

“Well,” said Perolli, “I pity the chiefs of that village.”

“But where do you suppose she got the idea?”

“Heaven knows! Who can tell what women will think of?” said Perolli.

We left her standing on the cliff edge, still superb and still defiant, the cigarette in her hand and the blue beads twinkling at the ends of her braids. A bright scarlet handkerchief was twisted around her head, and her wide belt, thickly studded with silver nails, shone like armour. A picture of revolt, and I thought what a catastrophe she must be in the peaceful village to which we were descending, clinging and dropping from boulder to boulder.

“Will we see her again?” I asked.

“Oh, she’ll probably drop in during the evening. She looks like a woman who would,” said Perolli.

After that our host handed over the making of coffee to one of the village men and went out to help his wife cook the dinner; there was a built-up place of stone outside where the cooking fire was made. All this time we had been talking, making courteous speeches that accompany coffee-drinking, and exchanging cigarettes.  

One of the empty cigarette boxes – the little ten-cigarette, tinfoil-lined ones – I handed to a little boy, perhaps four years old. He took it gravely, thanking me like a man, and retired to look at it. But hardly had he opened the flap when I saw the hand of a chief come over the boy’s shoulder and quietly take the box. The boy gave it up, nor even a shade of discontent on his face, and it passed slowly from hand to hand, inspected, marvelled at, discussed. The cunningness of the folding, the beautiful design of printing and picture, the delicacy of the tissue paper that had been around the cigarettes, the pliability of the tinfoil – of metal, and yet so thin – engrossed them all. When they had satisfied their curiosity and admiration, it went back to the boy, who took it with his hand on his heart, bowed, and sat for a long time looking at it.

“Have you ever seen such perfect courtesy?” said I, marvelling. “And from such a baby?”

Perolli looked at me in amazement. “Why, what’s strange about it?” he asked.

Undoubtedly, we were among the most courteous people in the world, I thought, but the next moment that idea was completely upset, for out of the darkness walked that rebel woman who believes in private property.

She came quite calmly into the circle of the fire-light, her beautiful hands low on her thighs, below the wide, silver-shining marriage belt, the blue beads twinkling at the ends of the long black braids of her hair, her chin up, and a light of battle in her eyes.

“May you live long!” said she to the circle, and “To you, long life!” we responded. But the chiefs looked at her sidewise from narrowed eyes and then again at the fire, and hostility came from them like a chill air. The children looked at her with wide, attentive eyes, chins on their hands; the sprawling, graceful, handsome youths seemed amused. Beyond the firelight the women of the household went about their tasks; one came in and lowered from her shoulders a large, kidney-shaped wooden keg of water.

“When am I going to get my house?” said the woman. She stood there superb, holding that question like a bone above a mob of starving dogs, and they rose at it.

Shala I have never seen such a pandemonium. Three chiefs spoke at once, snarling; they were on their feet; all the men were on their feet; it was like a picture by Jan Steen changed into the wildest of futurist canvases. I expected them to fly at each other’s throats, after the words that they hurled at each other like spears. I expected them to strike the woman, so violently they thrust their faces close to hers, clenching quivering fists on the hilts of the knives in their sashes. She stamped her foot; her lips curled back like a dog’s from her fine, gleaming teeth, and she stood her ground, flashing back at them words that seemed poisoned by the venom in her eyes. “My house!” she repeated, and “I want my house!” These words, the only ones I recognised, were like a motif in the clamour; Rexh and Perolli were both too much absorbed to translate, and we added to the turmoil by frantic appeals to them.

Then, suddenly as the calm after an explosion, they were all quiet. They sat down; they rolled cigarettes; the coffee-maker picked up his flung-away pot and went on making coffee. Only the eyes of the chiefs were still cold and bitter, and the woman, though silent, was not at all defeated. There was a pause.

“Ask him what she wants,” said I quickly to Perolli.

“Who can say what the avalanche desires?” replied the chief contemptuously. “She would break our village into pieces. She has no respect for wisdom or custom. She says that a house is her house; she is a widow with two sons, and she demands the house in which she lived with her husband. She wishes to take a house from the tribe and keep it for herself. Have the mountains seen such a thing since, a hundred hundred years before the Turks came? She is gogoli.” [Gogoli – bewitched by a demon of the mountains; insane.]

“I helped to build that house,” said the woman. “With my own hands I laid the roof upon it. It is my house. I will not give up my house.”

Betsy and I hugged each other in silent convulsions of delight. My pen spilled ink on my excited hands as I tried to capture their words in shorthand. I was seeing, actually seeing with my own eyes, the invention of private property!

“What are they going to do about it?”

The question was not too tactful, nor too happily received, but they answered it. “They have already called a council of the whole village four times,” said Perolli. “They will do nothing about it. Houses belong to the tribe. It is a large house, and the people have decided that her dead husband’s brother shall have it for his household. She has been offered a place in it. If she does not want that, she can live wherever she likes in the tribe. No one will refuse shelter or food to her and her children. She has friends with whom she can live, since she quarrels with her husband’s brother. All this is absurd, and they will not call another council to satisfy a foolish woman.”

“I want my house,” said the woman.

Then the oldest man – one of the little boys was playing with the silver chains around his neck, and another hung heavily against his shoulder, but his dignity was undisturbed, and he was obviously chief of the chiefs – appealed to me :

“In your country, what would you do with such a woman?” And I perceived that I was obliged to explain to this circle of eager listeners a system of social and economic life of which they had never dreamed, of which they know as little as we know of the year 2900 A.D.

The woman sat impassive, as unmoved as a rock of her mountains ; the younger men turned, propping their chins on their elbows and looking at me attentively, and the chiefs waited with expectation. The children, settled comfortably here and there in the mass of lounging bodies, stopped their quiet playing to listen.

“Go on,” said Alex with friendly malice, “just tell them what private property is.”

“I expect sympathy, not ribald mirth,” said I. “Well,” I said carefully, “tell them, Perolli, that when I say ‘man’ I mean either a man or a woman. It isn’t quite true, of course, but I’ll have to say that. Now then. In my country a man owns a house.”

Po, po!” they said, shaking their heads from side to side in the sign that in Albanian means “Yes.” “It is so here. A man owns the house in which he lives.”

“No, it’s not that. In my country a man can own a house in which he does not live.”

Then they were surprised. “You must have many houses in your tribe if some are left vacant.”

(“Shades of the housing situation!” murmured Alex. “Shut up!” said I).

“No,” I said. “You don’t understand. In my country a man owns a house. It is his very own house. He owns it always; he owns it after he is dead. He owns it when other people live in it.”

“In your country dead men own houses? Dead men live in houses?”

“No. Living in a house has nothing to do with owning a house. A man owns a house; it is his house; other people live in that house, and they pay him money to be allowed to live in his house.”

“We do not understand. In your country do men of the same tribe pay each other money for houses?”


There was always a pause after I had spoken, while they pondered.

“Ah!” they said. “In your country a man can build a house all by himself. You have one man who makes all the houses for the village, and the others divide with him the money they earn outside the tribe?”

“No,” I said. “In my country many men must work to build a house.” And I tried to think how best to go on.

“But it is so here,” they said. “Many men of the tribe build a house, and then the house is a house of the tribe.”

“But it is different in my country,” I insisted. “In my country the house does not belong to the tribe. It belongs to the man who owns the land on which it is built, and he pays money to the men who build it for him, and then it is his house. Even if he lives somewhere else it is still his house. Now, in the case of this woman, the house would belong to her husband, and when he died he would give her the house, and then it would be her house. It would belong to her. The tribe would not own the house, but she would pay money to the tribe from time to time, because she had the house.”

(“Don’t tell me you’re going to explain taxation, too!” chortled the joyous Betsy. “For the love of Michael, do this yourself then!” said I).

But the chiefs passed over the taxation idea; they stuck to the main point, though their eyes were clouded with bewilderment.

“How can a man own land?” said one, more in amazement than in question. And, “But how can a man pay another man for helping him to build a house, except by helping him as much in building another house? And when all have helped each other equally, then no man would have two houses unless every man had two houses, and that would be foolish, for half the houses would be empty,” reasoned another, slowly.

It was then that the remarkable intelligence of these people began to dawn on me. For, given the experience from which he was reasoning, I consider this one of the most intelligent and logical methods of meeting a new idea that I have known. A case of almost pure logic, given his starting point.

But my delight in this discovery of their intelligence received a violent blow almost at once, for another man – tall, keen-featured, black-bearded, his face framed in the folds of a white turban, red and blue stones gleaming dully in the links of the silver chains on his breast; I will never forget him – leaned forward in the firelight and said, “Such things can never be. Even a child knows that it would be foolish to own a house in which he did not live. Of what use is a house except to live in? As it is, each man has the house in which he lives, and there are houses for all, and they belong to the tribe that built them. It is impossible that a man can own a house. It is not the nature of men to own houses, and we will never do it, for the nature of man is always the same. It is the same to-day as it was before the Romans came, and it will always be the same. And no man will ever own a house.”

“Glory to your lips!” they said to him. “It is so.”

The woman, who had been sitting quietly listening to this, now rose and very quietly, without saying farewell, slipped out of the firelight, and in a moment, by the sound of the closing door, I knew she had left the house. But there was something about my last glimpse of her back that makes me believe she is still clamouring for her house, and will be, until long after her baby sons are grown and married – unless she gets it sooner.

There was a little silence after the woman had gone, and then one of the youths, compressing his ears with his thumbs, began to sing. He sang softly, for an Albanian mountaineer, but the high, clear notes filled the house like those of a bugle. He uttered a phrase, and paused; Cheremi repeated it, and paused, and so singing alternately, repeating always the same musical phrase with changing words, they chanted long songs of war and adventure, old legends of men whose lives had been worn into myths by the erosion of centuries.

The music, strange and nostalgic, was pitched quite differently from ours. Thin and vibrating like a violin string, the notes struck somewhere off our scale, so that our throats could not repeat them. 

Damn, the woman could write.

Now about that date: I’d always thought that Peaks of Shala fell on the wrong side of the 1923 copyright line, since its publication date is usually listed as 1923. But it turns out that 1923 was only the date of the first American publication; a British edition came out the previous year. That means the book falls into the glorious public domain, and its entire contents can be posted on the internet without fear of state violence. And so I plan to do – after I first get done with Francis Tandy, and the Proudhon-Bastiat debate, and that Molinari translation ….

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2 Responses to Little House in the Balkans

  1. Jared February 15, 2007 at 11:51 am #

    That was absolutely amazing to read. Thank you much!

  2. Charles Hanes February 15, 2007 at 7:06 pm #


    This “Peaks of Shala” book sounds like it might be a good candidate for the Mises’ Institute’s new Print on Demand publishing program.

    The few used copies available on the web are all at least $100.

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