Paterson, Isabel (1886-1961)
Isabel Paterson was an early and consistent exponent of the ideas that now define radical libertarianism. She advocated minimal government, laissez-faire capitalism, and absolute individual rights in both the social and economic spheres. She thought through the implications of these ideas, argued for them over the course of many years, and embodied them in a powerful theory of history and society.
Paterson’s life acquainted her with economic and social problems of many kinds. Born Isabel Bowler, on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, she was one of nine children in a family that moved several times during her girlhood, arriving at last at a ranch on the Alberta frontier. As she recalled, “There never was any money in the family.” She attended school briefly and reluctantly—because her independent reading put her far ahead of her class. After leaving home, she held such jobs as a waitress and a stenographer. In 1910, she married Kenneth Birrell Paterson, of whom little is known, and she quickly separated from him. She became an editorial writer and critic for Western newspapers, and from 1916 to 1940, she published eight novels, some of them bestsellers. Of her novels, The Singing Season and The Golden Vanity are especially relevant to libertarian ideas. From 1924 to 1949, she wrote a literary column for New York Herald Tribune Books, a nationally influential journal. The column became an instrument of her political and literary thoughts. In 1943, she published The God of the Machine, a fundamental statement of her political and historical theories.
Paterson was a cultivated person with wide literary interests. She was famous for her wit and her vigorously colloquial style, which lent her arguments unique charm and emphasis. The disciple of no one, she formed her political and economic ideas before the New Deal provoked others to oppose big government on libertarian grounds. She called her philosophy “individualism,” “classical Americanism,” or simply “liberalism,” distinguishing it sharply from the “pseudoliberalism” of the welfare state. She insisted on a complete separation of government from both economic management and moral surveillance, attacking the whole range of government intervention, from victimless crime laws to social planning. In opposition to demands for redistribution of wealth, she noted that “destitution is easily distributed. It’s the one thing political power can insure you.”
Collectivist theory attributes the existence of oppressive social classes to the operation of the marketplace; Paterson, a pioneer of libertarian social analysis, traces them to government manipulation. She was an independent discoverer of many economic arguments now commonly used against the welfare state. In The God of the Machine, she advanced an original historical theory that focused on the generation and organization of energy. She described the individual, creative mind as a “dynamo” and commerce as the means by which “circuits” are formed for the application of energy across time and space. Surveying history from ancient Carthage to modern America, she analyzed the philosophical assumptions and political devices that have enabled people to create and maintain “the long circuit” of energy, by which the work of the modern world is done. She described the devices by which governments short-circuit innovation and the dynamic creation of wealth.
The God of the Machine characterizes the engineering principles of a free society as utterly different from the principles of social engineering, which assumes that people can be treated as if they were machines. To Paterson, it is clear that “a machine economy cannot run on a mechanistic philosophy.” The great example of correct engineering principles is America’s original constitutional system, in which government functions mainly as a brake on invasions of liberty. The constitutional system allowed for the existence of laissez-faire capitalism, which includes its own self-controlling features and which has produced the greatest extension of the long circuit of energy. Subsequent progress depends on people’s willingness to understand the principles of a liberal society and the errors of its conscious or unconscious opponents—errors that The God of the Machine relentlessly exposes. The book’s most famous chapter, “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine,” argues that “most of the harm in the world is done by good people,” people willing to violate both rights and reason to realize their allegedly “high ideals.” As she had said in her column, “The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people—and you can guess for yourself which is likely to be done.”
Paterson influenced many leaders of the emerging anticollectivist movement, such as her friends John Chamberlain, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. Rand apparently derived much of her knowledge of American history and political philosophy from her close association with Paterson from 1941 to 1948. But Paterson’s uncompromising individualism was too far in advance of its time to permit her to retain her wider public influence. In 1949, she was “retired” from her job at the Herald Tribune. She contemptuously rejected payments from the “‘Social Security’ Swindle” and showed that she could manage to live comfortably without them. She spent the remainder of her life thinking, writing (another novel, still unpublished, and occasional published articles), and indulging her taste for books.
Cox, Stephen. The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004.
Paterson, Isabel. The God of the Machine. Introduction by Stephen Cox. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993.
———. The Golden Vanity. New York: Morrow, 1934.
———. The Singing Season. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1924.
Originally published .