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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Isabel Paterson: A Woman Who Could ‘Save the World’

The wisdom in 'The God of the Machine' wisdom is as important today as it was in the 1940s.

March celebrates many women for often incredible contributions to, or influences on, our world. But for all the accolades given during Women’s History Month, there is a notable absence of attention given to one woman whose work “could literally save the world” by how she advanced liberty at a time it was greatly threatened. It is time to rectify that by recognizing Isabel Paterson.

Paterson’s most noted contribution came in 1943, when, according to David T. Beito, “Defenders of the free market were under siege and in decline.” But then, the “three furies” of libertarianism, as William F. Buckley, Jr. called them, “each helped to build the foundation for the modern libertarian movement.”

Isabel Paterson published The God of the Machine, Ayn Rand published The Fountainhead, and Rose Wilder Lane published The Discovery of Freedom, all in 1943. But as Beito noted “Of the three, The God of the Machine was the most explicit and sophisticated discussion of free markets, constitutional structures, and the fallacies of interventionism.” In fact, Ayn Rand, in a letter, said it “could literally save the world.”

Ron Paul provided an example of Patterson’s influence in End The Fed when he wrote, “Having read Isabel Paterson, I was not only influenced but convinced that a philosophy that embraced personal liberty, private property, and sound money was the only political philosophy worth championing.” So it is not surprising that among her accolades, Paul A. Cantor called Paterson “one of the great champions of freedom in the twentieth century,” and her biographer, Stephen D. Cox, called her the “earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.” Jim Powell considers that Paterson’s The God of the Machine “secured her immortality in the annals of liberty.”

All of those endorsements make it clear that The God of the Machine’s wisdom is also important today, because freedom still has far too few defenders and a host of attackers. Here are some of the best excerpts from the book:

  1. “If everyone were invariably honest, able, wise, and kind, there should be no occasion for government. Everyone would readily understand what is desirable and what is possible in given circumstances, all would concur upon the best means toward their purpose and for equitable participation in the ensuing benefits, and would act without compulsion or default.”
  2. “Since human beings will sometimes lie, shirk, break promises, fail to improve their faculties, act imprudently, seize by violence the goods of others, and even kill one another in anger or greed, government might be defined as the police organization…a necessary evil. It would have no…intrinsic authority; it could not be justly empowered to act excepting as individuals infringed one another’s rights, when it should enforce prescribed penalties. Generally, it would stand in the relation of a witness to a contract, holding a forfeit for the parties. As such, the least practicable measure of government must be the best. Anything beyond the minimum must be oppression.”
  3. “The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people.”
  4. “Politics consists of the power to prohibit, obstruct, and expropriate…it always tends to encroach on the primary field of freedom…Where permission is required, or expropriation possible, a consideration may be extorted.”
  5. “Government cannot ‘restore competition,’ or ‘ensure’ it. Government is monopoly; and all it can do is to impose restrictions…This is the essence of the Society of Status.”
  6. “Trade and money, which go together in a stream of energy, inevitably wash away the enclosing walls of a society of status.”
  7. “No law can give power to private persons; every law transfers power from private persons to government.”
  8. “Poverty can be brought about by law; it cannot be forbidden by law.”
  9. “The sole remedy for the abuse of political power is to limit it; but when politics corrupt business, modern reformers invariably demand the enlargement of the political power.”
  10. “Men are born free…since they begin with no government, they must therefore institute government by voluntary agreement, and thus government must be their agent, not their superior.”
  11. “If one man has no right to command all other men—the expedient of despotism—neither has he any right to command even one other man.”
  12. “Any time when finance is under attack through the political authority, it is an infallible sign that the political authority is already exercising too much power over the economic life of the nation through manipulation of finance, whether by exorbitant taxation, uncontrolled expenditure, unlimited borrowing, or currency depreciation.”
  13. “Every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy.”
  14. “Education under the political power…routes human energy into the dead-end political channels…As now the case, [people] will even forget the larger principles they have applied, and on which their well-being depends.”
  15. “There can be no greater stretch of arbitrary power than is required to seize children from their parents, teach them whatever the authorities decree they shall be taught, and expropriate from the parents the funds to pay for the procedure.”
  16. “If it were promised that…no man should ever again stand in his naked skin, who is to produce the clothes? who is to have such absolute power over every person?”
  17. “If profit is denounced, it must be assumed that running at a loss is admirable. On the contrary, that is what requires justification. Profit is self-justifying.”
  18. “Production is profit; and profit is production…they are the same thing. When a man plants potatoes, if he does not get back more than he put in, he has produced nothing.”
  19. “If a man were paid to pick up pebbles on the beach and throw them into the ocean, it would be just the same as if he were in a ‘government job,’ or on the dole; the producers have to supply his subsistence with no return.”
  20. “In arguing against free enterprise capitalism, the collectivist always adopts the false assumption of a fixed number of jobs in that system. Conversely, in arguing for collectivism, he always assumes that there will be as many jobs as there are workers. The government will make the jobs.”
  21. “The biggest pests are the people who use altruism as an alibi. What they passionately wish is to make themselves important.”
  22. “The humanitarian 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 he is 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.”
  23. “The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.”
  24. “Nothing is more essential to the welfare of a nation than the countercheck on government, by legitimate means. A mechanism without a brake, a motor without a cut-off, is built for self-destruction.”
  25. “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.”

Paterson wrote a great many things that people who were in charge—or sought to be—did not want to hear. But whether those things involved pipe dreams of imagining scarcity out of existence, of a government invokable as a presumed universal panacea (including magical powers over finance, rather than a ubiquitous threat to freedom), or any other delusion, social cooperation possibilities expand by thinking more accurately. As she said, “In human affairs, all that endures is what men think.” And she made a central contribution to our ability to think that can endure if we pay it heed. Perhaps that is why Ayn Rand thought The God of the Machine could “save the world.” But that hope for improvement also highlights the alternative—the risk of continuing to degrade our thinking rather than elevating it. And Paterson left us an appropriate warning of that there, as well.

Whoever is fortunate enough to be an American citizen came into the greatest inheritance man has ever enjoyed. He has had the benefit of every heroic and intellectual effort men have made for many thousands of years, realized at last. If Americans should now turn back, submit again to slavery, it would be a betrayal so base the human race might better perish.

It is also worth remembering that Paterson’s insights and inspirational words are not only in The God of the Machine. And I would not want to end this article without citing a few of them I find particularly worth noting.

  • “People mostly do as they like, and that would be fine if they’d let other people do the same.”
  • “Right now it is a terrible thing to be a rugged individualist; but we don’t know what else to be except a feeble nonentity.”
  • “Freedom is dangerous. Possibly crawling on all fours might be safer than standing upright, but we like the view better up there.”
  • “If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be?…Ours is liberty, now and forever.”

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).