In the early 20th‐century liberal ideas were in danger of becoming extinct with the rise of extreme ideologies such as fascism and communism in Europe and the massively expanding state of the New Deal era. Perturbed by the ever‐increasing government, Isabel Paterson wrote her magnum opus, “The God of the Machine,” about how free and creative individuals bring about progress, not the state.
The first half of the twentieth century was a time when it seemed liberal ideas were going extinct in America. The First World War shattered confidence in liberalism leading to the rise of more extreme ideologies like Fascism and Communism throughout Europe. Many of the American intelligentsia of academics, pundits, and writers agreed that the capitalist system was no longer fit for purpose. By 1933 FDR’s New Deal resulted in a new ideological consensus that the state was to manage the economy at the advice of benevolent experts who knew best.
Deeply perturbed by the ever‐expanding state, an eccentric alliance of three women dedicated their efforts towards promoting the principles of individualism and laissez‐faire economics. The trio consisted of the controversial and outspoken novelist Ayn Rand, the unsung co‐writer of Little House on the Prairie Rose Wilder Lane, and lastly, Isabel Paterson a name that few are aware of today. Ayn Rand is already very well‐known and famous, and I have already covered Rose Wilder Lane in a previous episode you should check out if you haven’t already. Paterson is often the least discussed of the trio which is a great shame considering her writings are just as relevant as ever. Paterson became a renowned writer and literary critic but then shifted gears towards politics becoming a dogged critic of any brand of collectivism or statism. Along with Rand and Lane, Paterson helped save liberal ideas from the brink of destruction and in the process, she brought a renewed energy and enthusiasm for ideals of individualism laissez‐faire economics. Though she is rarely read today, Paterson was and still is a pivotal figure in the establishment of libertarianism as the political movement we know it as today.
Though we know her as Isabel Paterson today she was born with the name of Isabel Mary Bowler taking the name Paterson at a later date. Isabel was born on the 22nd of January 1886 on an island in the middle of Lake Huron Canada. Isabel and her eight siblings did not live with a silver spoon in their mouths. Isabel’s earliest memories were of a rugged frontier lifestyle alongside her families attempts to become financially stable. Her family crossed the border of America and began sporadically moving to Michigan, Utah, and Alberta in search of lasting prosperity. Isabel had little love for her father who every few years would force the family to trek across the country in search of economic stability. Moving every few years and working with her family meant that Isabel’s education consisted of ad‐hoc homeschooling and a grand total of two years in a county school. But Isabel was no intellectual slouch, she spent a great deal of her free time devouring books to further educate herself.
Isabel lept at the chance to become independent, leaving her family ranch as a teen to work a clerical job back in Canada in the city of Calgary. Throughout her teenage years, she worked as a waitress, stenographer, bookkeeper and even as the assistant to the lawyer and later Canadian Prime Minister R.B Bennett. By 1910 at the age of 24, Isabel married a Canadian real estate agent named Kenneth Birrell Paterson. Their marriage was short‐lived and the pair quickly separated but never divorced. Isabel kept the name Paterson though and so that’s what I am going to call her for the rest of the episode.
During the 1910s, Isabel began her career in journalism, returning to America landing a job at a paper called the Spokane Inland Herald based in the state of Washington, though she started in the business department her talent for prose was quickly spotted and Isabel was transferred to the editorial department instead. Isabel then moved back to Canada working with a newspaper based in Vancouver for writing drama reviews for two years. While working, Isabel turned her attention towards literary pursuits, writing her first two novels entitled The Magpie’s Nest and The Shadow Riders. She began submitting to publishers by 1914 and though initially her writings garnered little more than a lukewarm reception from publishers, Shadow Riders was published by the John Lane Company in 1916, Magpie’s nest was also published by the same company the following year.
By the end of the First World War, Lane relocated to New York. Her career began to gather surprising momentum when she was introduced by a mutual friend to Burton Rascoe, the literary editor for the New York Tribune, which would later become the Herald Tribune. Though Rascoe did not have much love for Paterson she was hired as his assistantbut later became a columnist and critic for over two decades. Her weekly column, Turns with a Bookworm established Paterson as not only an influential literary critic and tastemaker, but also as a person capable of the most fierce, piercing, and biting criticisms of a piece of literature. One contemporary reporter wrote of Paterson, ““more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which books shall be popular.” One novelist John O’Hara admitted that he was “very much afraid of Isabel Paterson.” It is a testament to Paterson’s strength of character and talent that someone with nearly no formal schooling, few if any connections, and no literary reputation soared so high so quickly in the buzzing world of New York. And Paterson was not living through a boring time for books either with the rising stars like Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald coming to prominence as well as the Harlem Renaissance movement.
At this time, Paterson’s career revolved mostly around literature and working on her novels with little focus on politics. The direction of politics began to disturb Patterson greatly. On January 17th 1920, the federal prohibition of alcohol began with over 1,500 federal agents being assigned to enforce the ban on alcohol. Though this didn’t effect Paterson who was a teetotaller she still viewed it as a grave violation of individual freedom.
But the injustices of prohibition were miniscule when compared to what was around the corner. The Thanks to her regular income at the Tribune, Paterson was able to weather the worst of the Great Depression, though she lost a hefty sum on the stock market. Though Paterson stayed mostly financially stable, the Great Depression was a cataclysmic event, a recession that was enequaled in magnitude. To give some numbers to help between 1929 when the downturn began and 1932, worldwide GDP fell by nearly 15%. In response to the dramatic downturn, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enecated the New Deal, an extensive series of programs, public works, financial reforms, and regulations that expanded the American government to an unprecedented size and scope. The American government was intervening more than it ever had before in the economy, a development many left‐leaning and socialist intellectuals welcomed wth open arms. Paterson was appalled to find that the vast majority of literary intellectuals fervently supported the New Deal.
Paterson on the other hand was disgusted and the New Deal acted as a catalyst to launch Paterson into the arena of political writing. Before the New Deal Paterson had voted for FDR due to his opposition to prohibition and had even voted for the socialist Eugene Debs because she admired his principled stance. But by the 30s, Patterson’s public persona transitioned from that of a novelist and critic, into a astute political commentator. In her column, Patterson advocated for a minimal government, while arguing against income tax, conscription, aggressive foreign policy, and the government regulating the economy.
By 1933, Paterson stated her beliefs openly saying her credo was “liberty or death, no foreign entanglements, and the least governed country is the best governed.” Paterson wrote that, “A lot of American principles is contained in the two words, ‘Just don’t.’ Much of the rest is encompassed by the suggestion of minding one’s own business” This stands in stark contrast to the New Deal years where the government was actively trying to manage the economy with state control. Throughout her columns, Paterson hones her ideas that she would later compile in her magnum opus. For Patterson the state was not productive, it could not produce resources and relied upon taxing creative and productive individuals to sustain itself. For Paterson, the state is incapable of bringing about prosperity. When discussing the redistribution of wealth she sniped that “destitution is easily distributed. It’s the one thing political power can insure you.” The managerial state does not bestow upon its inhabitant’s freedom or prosperity. Left‐wing intellectuals in publications like the New Republic argued that liberty is not merely an absent of restraint but a positive purpose, what the philosopher Isiah Berlin would later call positive liberty. In response, Paterson wrote that “Freedom is just freedom from restraint.” Getting her jabs in she added, “And what Communism, government control, brings about is freedom from soap, freedom from shoes, freedom from food.” Paterson’s columns show us her rapid transformation into a fully‐fledged individualist. Paterson pulled no punches and fully expressed her vitriol for any form of collectivism. Paterson defended her dramatic tone saying that “tolerance is no virtue when human liberty is at stake.”
Paterson would later explain that instead of detracting from power in private hands, the New Deal in reality centralizes power in fewer private hands than would ever be possible in a free market. According to Paterson the winners of the New Deal were “the inheritors of non‐productive fortune, the beneficiaries of fixed charges and en‐ dowments, the recipients of public money … believing themselves moved by other principles, some candidly out for the spoils.” Paterson was especially disgusted with capitalists who lobbied for government favors and took public money. She lashed out in a letter complaining of capitalists who relied on government support writing “if nothing else, I look forward to the pleasure of seeing them hanged to the lamp posts.” The problem facing America Paterson explained was that “Our present difficulty is that our ‘best minds,’ both big business men and intellectuals, have already got the political machinery dangerously entangled with the economic system, disrupting both; and they are now demanding that they government should save them from what they’ve done to it.” Ironically, Paterson was on a mission to save capitalism from the capitalists who had so happily accepted the New Deal.
When World War Two broke out Paterson believed America ought to stay out of European affairs. By the attack on Pearl Habour Paterson supported American but not without criticism. Paterson was especially disgusted by Truman dropping two atomic bombs killing over a hundred thousand innocent Japanese civilians, she was disgusted by the use of science “to fry Japanese babies in atomic radiation.” While the war unfolded Paterson began to fear for the fate of the western world. To articulate why the west was worth preserving Paterson wrote her magnum opus the God in the Machine, published in 1943, the same year that Rand published Atlas Shrugged and Lane published the Discovery of Freedom.
Marx wrote that “The hand‐mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam‐mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” According to Marx’s theory of historical materialism, any cultural or political expression of a society is what he calls a superstructure. But beneath this superstructure is the base which is firmly technological. Marx believed our material conditions determine our ideology. In Paterson’s day, many anthropologists had similar approaches to Marx. The idea that humans were merely conditioned by the environment made liitle sense to Paterson becasue it dscribed a world in her words where “human beings are nothing but so much protoplasmic dough baked in a mold of external influences.”
Paterson on the other hand asks how did we create the steam mill? She wanted to understand why some places flourished and others stagnated. Paterson begins with her analysis of why the ancient Romans became the dominant power of the Mediterranian. Some might say Rome thrived because it defeated its arch‐rival and would‐be super power Carthage. But Paterson argues that this isn’t the full picture. Paterson explains that in the Second Punic Wars between the Carthaginians and Romans, Carthage had the one up on every military factor. The military genius of the Carthaginian general Hannibal was legendary, but Rome still prevailed, but how?
Paterson believes the answer lies in how the Roman government was structured. Hannibal expected that when he marched into territories the Romans had conquered, Rome’s former rivals would join his side, but they didn’t. Rome offered citizenship to loyal allies which conferred numerous benefits. Citizens could not be imprisoned unless there was specific charge, today this practice is known as the legal principle of Heabus Corpus. She also adds that the Romans were among the first to theorize and implement the law as an abstract set of principles with an internal logic. Instead of the judgement of a changeable individual Romans relied on a set of rules beyond the reach of mean. This is why the Roman historian Livy said Rome is an empire of laws not of men.
Paterson believed Rome’s power didn’t come from its armies, or natural resources, or some accidental assortment of factors, instead she believed it was because Rome harnessed the productive energy of its people. Paterson is the inverse of Marx, Marx said technology determines the ideas we think, but Paterson says our ideas are the driving force in history.
This is why Paterson is so compelled by America’s unique history and values. For Paterson, the establishment of the American Republic represents a watershed moment in human history. Her argument does not stem from some idea of Americans being inherently better than other cultures. Paterson explains America was the first‐ever nation “founded on reasoned political principles, proceeding from the axiom that man’s birthright is freedom.” Because of this America flourished and other countries adopted the American political system. The result was unprecedented material progress on a scale humanity had never seen. If a group of famous Romans had a time machine and visited Jefferson they would see some new technology, but overall the world is relatively similar. The Romans and Jefferson have large plantations of slaves, both write by candle light, and both still rely primarily on agriculture as a form of wealth. But now imagine if the Romans visited Paterson. There are no more slaves, women hae the right to vote just recently, homes are powered by electricity, people travel by trains and automobiles. The world is starkly different. If Paterson sat down with ancient Roman she could tell them about the time when in in 1912 along with a stunt pilot, she set the record for the highest altitude flight by a woman, 5,000 feet in the air. They would be flabberghasted.
So how did this massive shift in humans affairs occur? Paterson explained this phenomenon through a slightly odd metaphor of society as a machine. In this machine individual people are what she calls dynamos, they create energy. The state on the other hand is “is an end‐appliance, and a dead‐end in respect of the energy it uses.” Paterson believes the success stories of human history do not come from states flexing their muscles with armies and navies but instead from individuals energy being channelled and released resulting in a burst of thrift, invention, and commerce from free individuals. Paterson warns this system runs “absolute security of private property, full personal liberty, and firm autonomous regional bases for a federal structure.” In more simple terms, a minimal state that enforces property rights and rules but does not directly interfere in the economic life of individuals.
For Paterson, the state helps guide energy but cannot create its own energy independent of individuals. This is why ideas of communism and fascism are always doomed to fail in Paterson’s eyes because they put the inert state before the energetic individual. Paterson had her eye on the New Deal and its cadre of supporters who believed the state was the driving force of progress. Paterson believed if the state intervened and prohibited the freedom of individuals, stagnation and decline was bound to occur.
Libertarians always argue that if the state just backed off, individuals would have happier, wealthier, and healthier lives. But if this is true and based on laws of nature or at least observable facts, like Paterson says, then why are libertarians such a minority? Paterson answers this in her most unique chapters titled The Humanitarian with the Guillotine, where she argues “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people…motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.”
Paterson believes that the vast majority of people are good and not inclined towards harming others. Murderers and thieves are a minority not a majority. Paterson argues that when you add up every single criminal act it still doesn’t explain the utter devastation acorss human history where millions have been killed, starved, and imprisoned.
“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.” She explains that good people, humanitarians have a psychological desire to help others, but perversely the ultimate goal of the humanitarian requires that other people want for something. To help others they have to be in need and thus the humanitarian in Paterson’s words “wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others.” Paterson believes the best way to help others is through what she admits is random and sporadic charity. Even if charity cannot alleviate all suffering, Paterson believes it is a whole lot better than the dependency perpetuated by a large scale welfare state. But Paterson notes in free society progress moves fast and new inventions dramatically improve people’s lives more than charity ever could.
God in the Machine is not an easy read, as libertarian Albert Jay Nock advised, God of the Machine “must be taken by sips.” Paterson articulated themes that are today commonplace in libertarian thought, the role of private property as a guarantor of freedom and her negative depiction of the state as a negative force in economic affairs.
Fellow libertarian Rose Wilder Lane wrote to Herbert Hoover that God in the Machine ranked among the best works of Thomas Paine and Madison. She emphatically stated that “anyone who has read it comfortably has not read it adequately, and should read it again and again until he experiences an earthquake.” Ayn Rand of all people who acknowledged few intellectual influences wrote to Paterson “you were the very first person to see how Capitalism works in specific application.” Murray Rothbard and Robert Lefevre were dedicated fans of Paterson also.
But God in the Machine was not a commercial success, it was no bestseller. But those who read it were enthusiastic fans and Paterson was always willing to engage in correspondence with anyone who was interested. But Paterson was outside of the mainstream ad she knew it, increasingly her radical political views alienated others. This came to a head in 1949 Paterson was fired from her job after 25 years of work. Leaving the exciting life of New York, Paterson moved to a farm in New Jersey near Princeton. Though she published a handful of pieces, Paterson refused low rates of pay due to her former position and would not let her pride be wounded. Though she did not write, she was able to live modestly but comfortably on her past investments. Of course Paterson also ardently refused ever to take any form of social security.
But this doesn’t mean Paterson was not contributing to the cause of libertarianism. At the outbreak of World War 2, anti‐state writers like Albert Jay Nock found it increasingly hard to publish their work anywhere. Nock wrote that “I got letters from strangers urging me to come out against collectivism, and I have to tell them that there is no place to publish‐for there is none.” Many who had libertarian beliefs felt isolated, it seemed as if there was little hope for any organized libertarian movement to ever establish itself in a climate of such laudatory praise of a state‐run economy. Paterson corresponded with a large number of intellectuals, businessmen, and like‐minded people to show them they were not isolated and that there were people who believed in these ideas. Though Paterson steered clear of attaching her name to any official organization her mentoring of various figures brought the nascent libertarian movement together. Though journalists such as John Chamberlain sparred with Paterson, ultimately he was won over by her arguments. Chamberlain writes that “If it had been left to pusillanimous males probably nothing much would have happened.… Indeed, it was three women — [Isabel] Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand — who, with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn’t an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D.”
By the time Paterson died in 1960, she was largely forgotten. While God in the Machine is still in print, it is not one of the typical books libertarians reference like Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman or Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But Paterson’s columns, God in the Machine and her advocacy largely behind the scenes ensured that libertarianism would not recede into the ideological dustbin but survive its darkest hour and emerge strengthened. Nock wrote that Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson “shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally.They make all of us male writers look like Confederate money.They don’t fumble and fiddle around‐ every shot goes straight to the centre.”
Isabel Paterson’s biographer Stephen Cox, notes that “women were more important to the creation of the libertarian movement than they were to the creation of any political movement not strictly focused on women’s rights.” Though Patterson might not be a household name today, without her contributions, both as a writer and mentor to disparate libertarians across the country, it is possible there would be either a much diminished or possibly no libertarian movement. Her magnum opus God in the Machine established and popularized core themes of libertarian thought: the bulwark of private property against state interference, a vision of the state as a economically and creatively impotent institution, and lastly, a critical stance towards paternalism or any form of state action cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric.
Paterson ended her life in obscurity. Her political beliefs caused her to become increasingly alienated, eventually losing her job for being too outspoken. It must have seemed hopeless to an extent for Paterson to dedicate herself to a cause that she would never see flourish, she had a thankless job. It would have been much easier to revert back to writing her literary column and staying out of politics altogether. But that was not in the nature of a person like Paterson who said “Freedom is worth whatever it costs.”