From the December 1993 issue of Chronicles.
“Modern liberty begins in revolt.”
In 1943, in the midst of the dark years of World War II when collectivism seemed to be sweeping all before it at home and abroad, three fiercely independent and feisty women, all of them friends and libertarians devoted to what was then called “individualism,” hurled mighty manifestos in defense of liberty at the burgeoning collectivist state. The two older ladies, Isabel Bowler Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, both born in 1886, were well-known novelists and essayists, and Paterson was a distinguished literary and cultural critic for the establishmentarian New York Herald Tribune.
Rose Wilder Lane’s nonfiction magnum opus, published in 1943, was The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority, a prose poem on the meaning of individual freedom and freedom of enterprise in the history of human affairs, while Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine was a brilliant and unusual work of political philosophy, written not for the typical dry-as-dust academic, nor as an intellectual game, nor to win tenure, but from a devotion to principle and liberty, providing marvelous insights into a host of economic matters in which she acquitted herself magnificently despite a lack of mandarin academic credentials. Mrs. Paterson succeeded in combining political and economic principle with a powerful reading of history, and with a dramatic account of the eternal conflict between freedom and power as it has manifested itself historically. Most striking perhaps was her scintillating and dramatic style, deriving from her decidedly non-mandarin realization that political philosophy matters, that questions of freedom and power and egalitarianism and individuality are truly issues of life and death.
The third of these ladies who virtually created the individualist movement during World War II was the Russian-born Ayn Rand, also an essayist and novelist and 19 years their junior. Rand’s The Fountainhead, which put her individualist philosophy into fictional form, became a best-seller, allowing her fame and literary career to blossom while her former mentors, repudiated as hopeless reactionaries by the intellectual establishment and lacking best-sellers to break through to mass approval, found their careers in decline. A fierce critic of the New Deal and of America’s entry into World War II, Paterson was finally fired from her long-standing Herald Tribune column in 1949.
There are remarkable similarities in the lives of Paterson and Lane, in addition to their common birth-year. Both grew up in the rural Middle West (although Paterson was born in Canada). Both were married briefly and quickly discarded their husbands. Both were eloquent, articulate, and argumentative libertarians. Both hated the “Social Security Swindle” above all things and rejected its “benefits,” Lane going so far as to stop writing fiction in order to avoid paying the self-employed social security tax.
Despite the brilliance of Paterson’s The God of the Machine, the book is the least known, although by far the most profound, of the major works by Paterson, Lane, and Rand. The climate of the age was scarcely suited to a bold and uncompromising individualist and antistatist work. It was highly influential, however, in the catacombs of the new libertarian and conservative movement that struggled out of World War II to form the postwar right.
It is wonderful, then, to have The God of the Machine back in print on its 50th anniversary, in a handsome new paperback edition, published as a volume in Transaction’s Library of Conservative Books series, edited by Russell Kirk. The edition is particularly graced by an excellent 56-page introduction by Professor Stephen Cox, who not only discusses Paterson’s ideas but provides us with the only biographical study ever written of this fascinating woman. One hopes that this introduction will be a prelude to a full-scale biography.
Before discussing the merits of this wonderful book, I must acknowledge its major flaw, which undoubtedly limited and hindered its impact. Though Paterson clearly considered her use of metaphors drawn from the field of electrical engineering to have been a major contribution to political philosophy. The one person she acknowledges in the front matter is electrical engineering professor Thomas T. Read, and The God of the Machine is peppered with such words and phrases as “energy circuits,” “dynamos,” “kinetic energy,” “inertia,” “mechanisms,” and so forth. If Mrs. Paterson gad written in recent years, we might be subjected to more up-to-date scientific metaphors, such as “servomechanisms,” “computer chips,” “fiberoptics,” and other techno-mysticism. Though you may grasp her meaning in a general sense, the metaphors become annoying when you realize that for Mrs. Paterson these metaphors were real, and she intended to write scientifically of human action in the sense that a physical scientist writes of chemical interaction.
Professor Cox makes a valiant attempt to defend Mrs. Paterson’s engineering conceit, and to some extent he is successful, pointing out that as she was religious and believed in free will, hers was not really a “mechanistic” theory. More strikingly, he adds that Mrs. Paterson countered the standard conservative critique of “rights talk” as unduly abstract. Since her property doctrine is rooted in the concrete physicality of time and space, it makes “abstract” rights realistic and concrete; in particular, she demonstrates that “human rights” cannot exist without concomitant rights in material private property. Mrs. Paterson begins her discussion of property rights not with Lockean talk of mixing one’s labor with resources, but with this striking truth: “Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. This is the reason why private property belongs to man as a creative being (a right both natural and divine).” She observes in a brilliant passage that
collectivists talk of civil rights in a collective society, where in fact civil rights cannot exist because there is no place in which they can be exercised and no materials on which they can take effect. How can a man speak freely if there is no spot on which he and his audience have the right to stand? How can he practice his religion if he has no right to own a religious edifice, or to his own person? How is a free press to exist if the materials are not in private ownership?
There are, in fact, many marvelous chapters and passages in The God of the Machine. “The Fiction of Public Ownership” employs her concept of property-as-specific-place to demolish this fiction: in reality, “public property” is “owned” not by the public but by sections of the government elite. Can you or I sell our “share” of the TVA, or the White I louse, as we could if we really “owned” these assets?
To Mrs. Paterson, the “Fatal Amendments” to the U.S. Constitution were the centralizing 14th, 13th, 16th, and 17th. The 15th Amendment, which has been neglected by conservatives, transferred the power to determine suffrage qualifications from the states to the central government; as Mrs. Paterson says, “The Fifteenth Amendment fatally perpetuated the destruction wrought by the Reconstruction Acts.” She, however, favors real landed property, rather than race or liquid property, as qualification for the franchise and makes an interesting case on behalf of her argument. Mrs. Paterson denounces the 16th Amendment, not simply for its justification of the power of the national income tax to loot but for its centralizing nullification of the original constitutional insistence that any direct or personal tax be in proportion to the population.
In “The Corporations and Status Law,” Mrs. Paterson denounces the post-Civil War system of federal subsidies and land grants to railroads, which injected politics and corruption into American capitalism. Moreover, as she points out, subsidization caused the railroad network to be built too early and induced farmers to settle the West sooner than they would otherwise have done. Thus the Western farmers’ continuing migration against railroad freight rates that were in fact already low and going ever lower makes sense in the context of Paterson’s argument that the farmers realized that something about the system was amiss and blamed the railroads, rather than the government, for the special privileges the former enjoyed. But, while properly critical of government subsidies of business, Mrs. Paterson also attacks antitrust laws as pernicious and restrictive. “Standard Oil,” she points out, “did not restrain trade; it went to the ends of the earth to make a market.” Business creates no problems in its activities on the market, difficulties being created solely by the government, including government as instrument of business privilege. Endorsing Herbert Spencer’s demand for a society of contract in place of a society of status, Paterson notes that “government cannot ‘restore competition,’ or ‘ensure’ it. Government is monopoly; and all it can do is to impose restrictions which may issue in monopoly.” Antitrust law can only create a society of status.
Even on the vexed question of money, Mrs. Paterson is sound as a bell. In “Why Real Money is Indispensable,” she calls for a gold standard and denounces fiat paper. Guided by her real-space theory of property, Paterson explains that the dollar as a fixed weight of gold becomes real property and is defined by a real, existing unit. In a lengthy footnote, she provides one of the best critiques of the Irving Fisher protomonetarist “commodity dollar” ever written. Prefiguring current critiques of mathematical economics, she notes that for mathematics to apply, the unit must be fixed, while paper money and monetarist schemes can only destroy the fixed unit of money.
But the outstanding chapter is “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine,” which in my view constitutes the finest critique of compulsory charity and the welfare state ever written: here Mrs. Paterson delineates the crucial difference between compulsory charity and charity as voluntary action generally conducted by churches. Voluntary charity was necessarily secondary to production, and, being conducted by churches, was not engaged in as a profitable career by the people exercising and channeling charity. By contrast, modern “humanitarianism” is different, since the “primary objective” of the humanitarian, “his justification for living . . . his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want If he wishes to help ‘humanity,’ the whole of humanity must be in need.” “The humanitarian,” Mrs. Paterson continues, “wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God.”
But, as Mrs. Paterson notes, he is also “confronted by two awkward facts: first, that the competent do not need his assistance; and second, that the majority of people, if unperverted, positively do not want to be ‘done good’ by the humanitarian.” Having considered what the “good” of others might be, and who is to decide the question finally, Mrs. Paterson trenchantly concludes: “Of course what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine.”
“What kind of world,” she inquires, “does the humanitarian contemplate as affording him full scope? It could only be a world filled with breadlines and hospitals, in which nobody retained the natural power of a human being to help himself or to resist having things done to him. And that is precisely the world that the humanitarian arranges when he gets his way.” The humanitarian, Mrs. Paterson adds, “feels the utmost gratification when he visits or hears of a country in which everyone is restricted to ration cards.” When “subsistence is doled out, the desideratum has been achieved, of general want and a superior power to ‘relieve’ it.” Hence, as Mrs. Paterson keenly concludes, “the humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.”
Ayn Rand, whose Fountainhead came out in the same month as The God of the Machine, accused Isabel Paterson of “stealing” her theory of morality for “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine.” But who stole from whom? Rand’s view of charity (which in any case was only fully set forth in Atlas Shrugged, published 14 years later) was not really of the same order: her frenetic denunciation of “altruism” as the root of all moral evil is a meat-axe distortion of Paterson’s crucial and nuanced distinctions between the compulsory and the voluntary, as well as between the primary and the secondary, motivations for charitable action. Rand, the younger woman who read virtually nothing, was the eager disciple of Isabel Paterson in history and political philosophy. And rumor has it that Professor Cox has discovered, in his researches in the Herald-Tribune columns, numerous prefigurations of Paterson’s theory of morality and charity long before the appearance of The Fountainhead.
Since World War II, Ayn Rand has been the object of a cult, while her essentially more interesting and more important colleagues have virtually disappeared. But now Professor William Holtz has resurrected Rose Lane with his recent biography and with his collection of letters between Mrs. Lane and Dorothy Thompson. Let us hope that Transaction’s reprint, and Steve Cox’s introduction, will bring Isabel Paterson to the attention of a new generation of Americans for the perceptive insights, and for the hard-edged attack on pretense and sham, that this great lady can give them.
[The God of the Machine, by Isabel Paterson (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) 292 pp., $21.95]