Isabel Patterson: A Woman Whose Wisdom Could Literally Save the World

By: Gary Galles

Women’s History Month celebrates many who have made incredible contributions. But I have never seen a woman who “could literally save the world” by how she advanced liberty honored during it. It is time to rectify that omission and recognize Isabel Paterson.

Her most notable 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, “[e]ach 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. But “[o]f 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, it was a letter from Ayn Rand that 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 many defenders, among a host of attackers:

  • 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.
  • 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. In that case, it must be described as a necessary evil. It would have no existence as a separate entity, and 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 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.
  • The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people.
  • Politics consists of the power to prohibit, obstruct, and expropriate … it always tends to encroach on the primary field of freedom, in such manner that the producer may be compelled to obtain permission before he can get to work. Where permission is required, or expropriation possible, a consideration may be extorted.
  • Government cannot “restore competition,” or “ensure” it. Government is monopoly; and all it can do is to impose restrictions which may issue in monopoly, when they go so far as to require permission for the individual to engage in production. This is the essence of the Society of Status.
  • No law can give power to private persons; every law transfers power from private persons to government.
  • Poverty can be brought about by law; it cannot be forbidden by law.
  • Now 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.
  • The least practicable measure of government must be the best. Anything beyond the minimum must be oppression.
  • 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 … the individual has the precedent right.
  • In reason 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; nor yet have ten men, or a million, the right to command even one other man, for ten times nothing is nothing, and a million times nothing is nothing.
  • 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.
  • Every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later…. Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey.
  • Education under the political power … once it has obtained full control … 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.
  • If it were promised that from the hour of his birth 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? The only condition in which no one can experience poverty, want, or fear, is that of rigor mortis.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Why did the humanitarian philosophy of eighteenth-century Europe usher in the Reign of Terror? … it followed from the original premise, objective and means proposed. The objective is to do good to others as a primary justification of existence; the means is the power of the collective; and the premise is that “good” is collective.
  • The biggest pests are the people who use altruism as an alibi. What they passionately wish is to make themselves important.
  • The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.
  • 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.

Isabel Paterson wrote a great many things people did not want to hear. But whether those things involved pipe dreams of imagining scarcity out of existence, of government invokable as a presumed universal panacea, with 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 Isabel Paterson left us an appropriate warning of that, 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.

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