A look at Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, one of the three books that launched the modern American libertarian movement.
“The hand‐mill,” wrote Karl Marx, summarizing his theory of historical materialism, “gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam‐mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” On his view, the cultural and political forms that appeared in any given society were mere “superstructure,” determined by the society’s material and technological “base.”
This highly reductionist view of history has been enormously influential, but in her classic The God of the Machine , Isabel Paterson asks a devastating question: what gives you the steam‐mill? Why have some societies had enormous scientific and material development while others stagnated? Or, as education scholar Andrew Coulson has wryly put it, why did Athens give us philosophy, mathematics, literature, and the natural sciences, while neighboring Sparta gave us little more than the names of a few high school football teams?
Paterson’s search for an answer, articulated via a sustained metaphor of the “engineering principles” of political economy needed to sustain the “flows” of productive human energy, takes her from ancient Greece and Rome to Medieval Europe to the American Founding.
Paterson begins in the ancient world, considering popular explanations for the ascendance of Rome and, in particular, their victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars. Military discipline? Carthage’s was more rigorous and severe. Strategic aptitude? But the strategically brilliant Napoleon routed by one loss, while Rome lost many major battles on the road to victory, and the Carthaginian general Hannibal was widely regarded as a military genius. Sea power? But Carthage had a huge naval advantage early on, with Rome catching up only long after the beginning of the conflict.
Rome’s advantage, Paterson suggests, lay far from the battlefield, in its superior political structure. Carthage had expected the tributary peoples on Rome’s boundaries to join the Carthaginian armies and rise against their masters; they did not. As Paterson observes, the Roman Empire was not really a military empire, in that its control over the periphery was not maintained by force of arms alone: “conquered” people found that Roman citizenship came with benefits. The secret to both Rome’s expansion and its ability to harness the productive ability of its people, argues Paterson, was Roman law. Whereas all peoples have followed rules, Paterson sees in Rome the origin of law in its modern sense: an abstract set of principles, with their own internal logic, independent of the will of any particular ruler. She notes that despite strong local pressure to imprison or execute the apostle Paul, the Roman authorities were unable to do anything in the absence of a specific charge once he invoked his rights as a citizen. Rome also found a way to channel public “inertia” through the veto power of the Tribunes, which provided a feedback loop that prevented the imposition of laws intolerable to the plebes without giving them any affirmative power to create new law.
Like many historical theorists, Paterson identified a series of stages through which societies move. Her innovation was to see the structural features that characterized each stage as a mechanism for channeling the corresponding stage of technological development. Custom and taboo could provide the basic stability needed for early development, but were ill suited to contexts marked by high levels of innovation. The counsel of respected members of the community could provide greater flexibility, but only for relatively small social groupings. To deal with what F. A. Hayek called “an extended order,” and Paterson described as a “long circuit of energy,” formal hierarchy and, at still higher levels, abstract and neutral law were needed.
Turning Marx on his head, Paterson saw political ideology as the “base” and the technological level as “superstructure.” Totalitarian regimes could achieve advanced technology only by parasitism on previous innovation, or free societies elsewhere. “Production methods,” she wrote:
will catch up with advanced political ideas; whereas if an advanced physical economy develops within a political framework that cannot accommodate it, production must either be choked down again or it will destroy the political entity, being subverted to the wrong ends.
The Phoenician civilization, for example, disintegrated because in attempting to stifle trade as productive technology advanced, they “effected a hook‐up of an energy circuit which their political mechanism could not accommodate.”
It was, writes Paterson, the merger of the Roman concept of law with the Christian focus on the freedom and salvation of the individual soul and the Greek ideal of truth pursued through reason that allowed a mercantile “society of contract,” with the United States as its prime example, to emerge in the West from a feudal “society of status.” The negative force of contract law—negative because given content only by the voluntary agreements of persons, and invoked only when one of the parties is dissatisfied—ensures the stability of the “circuit” through which productive energy flows. That “negative” character means that the stabilizing power of contract does not impede productive flexibility. The indispensable corollary of contract, she later explains, is privately held property, which eliminates the braking effect of centralized authority on innovation. Paterson contrasts feudal “status” societies. Like later planned economies, these locked workers in to particular roles, preventing adjustment to changing circumstances or in accordance with new ideas.
With that distinction in mind, Paterson considers antitrust law, and concludes that, far from preserving the competition associated with contract society, it tends to resurrect the society of status. In his 1970 book Power and Market , the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard called her treatment here “[o]ne of the few cogent discussions of the antitrust principle in recent years.” After exposing several infamous “monopolies” as either chimerical or the product of government privilege, Paterson turns her attention to the putative remedy for monopoly. Laws banning practices “in restraint of trade,” she argues, are meaningless: nobody can know in advance precisely what they forbid. Producers who charge more than their competitors, Paterson observes, can be accused of price gouging. Those who charge less are guilty of predatory pricing and unfair competition. Those who charge precisely the same must surely be engaged in price fixing. Any of these accusations might therefore be leveled against a firm by a competitor, making “status,” or political power, crucially important to commerce. According to Paterson, the malleability of the notion of “anticompetitive” practices means that in effect, firms will seek prior approval before innovating, merging, or splitting and selling off subsidiaries. The effect, ironically, is to inhibit competition.
Readers with an interest in monetary policy, or public education, or wartime economics will find separate chapters, brimming with insight, on each area. But it is Paterson’s broader ideas that made The God of the Machine a classic, and among the most enduring of these has been her image of “the humanitarian with the guillotine.” The opening paragraph of the chapter by that name begs to be quoted:
Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends… [I]n periods when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.
In a few pages, Paterson makes a powerful case against the tendency, still all too common, to judge policies by their intentions rather than their effects. She points out that because capitalism channels selfish motives to the public benefit, the most widely beneficial actions will often appear morally ugly, because motivated by greed. The philanthropic impulse itself, she warns, can become a far more pernicious form of greed—desire for the satisfaction of acting as savior to the helpless masses. From the French Reign of Terror to the communist Gulag, Paterson observes that there are few atrocities that don’t begin with a noble motive.
Paterson’s one‐time protegé Ayn Rand said of The God of the Machine:
It is a sparkling book, with little gems of polemical fire scattered through almost every page, ranging from bright wit to the hard glitter of logic to the quiet radiance of a profound understanding.
Paterson’s wit, logic, and understanding still cast light today, and The God of the Machine remains a source of illumination for modern readers seeking a better understanding of the preconditions for development and freedom.