Isabel Paterson (1886–1961) was one of the most erudite and widely educated thinkers to ever grace the libertarian world. This book is her masterwork. Its contents have not been sufficiently absorbed into the current intellectual world. It is one of those lost treasures, a book that you begin and your whole world stops. It is wise. It is prophetic. It has stood the test of time.
The God of the Machine was one of four magisterial libertarian works to be published in the dark days of 1943. Ms. Paterson’s is the least known but most influential at the time. When Paterson’s great work first appeared, the book seemed old-fashioned, but with the passage of time, it is prophetic.
Paterson defends free enterprise and individualism and exposes the failures of collectivism. She blasts monetary depreciation and war. She heralds innovation and invention by the market and explained its energy. She condemns the humanitarian impulse to improve the world by force.
Considering not only the tenor of the times, this was absolutely heroic, especially given that Paterson was struggling just to make a living as a writer. This was not some rich industrialist writing.
The individual mind is paramount in Paterson’s view of history. “An abstraction,” she writes, “will move a mountain: Nothing can withstand an idea.” She believed that the American system allowed for the “dynamo” — the creative mind — to be unleashed with energy produced through individual exchange. The circuit extended through the use of money.
Paterson made her living as a novelist and columnist. However, while her column in the New York Herald Tribune was “Turns With a Bookworm,” she was given the latitude to write about most anything she wanted, which turned out to be economics, politics and whatever else came to her mind.
She railed against FDR’s gold seizure from a woman’s point of view: “Never shall we forget the line of women we saw turning in their savings, under threat of 10 years in jail and $10,000 fine, while the multimillionaire Sen. Couzens stood up bravely on the floor of the Senate and promised to ‘hunt them down’ if they tried to hold out a few dollars.”
Paterson was not just adventurous with her words — calling Eleanor Roosevelt “a pathetic fool,” for instance — but the first time she flew, Nov. 5, 1912, she set a record for reaching an altitude of 5,000 feet, flying higher than any woman had to that point. The 26-year-old Canadian frontier girl sat beside pilot Harry Bingham Brown in the tiny Wright biplane, constructed of cloth and wood, and said afterward, “It was the greatest experience of my life.”
Isabel grew up in the rough-and-tumble West; her family was relegated to living in tents while she did farm chores like making soap and taking care of the livestock. In Utah, she attended school for a month before asking to leave. She knew more than the teacher, and at 7 years old was already reading “a consideration of Bryan’s stand on the free silver question.” So readings the teacher offered, like The Little Red Hen, provided no stimulation. She didn’t see an electric light until she was 16 years old.
The Bowler (Isabel’s maiden name) family traveled throughout the West. She left home at 18 and began a series of jobs — so many she lost count. She married Kenneth Paterson, but left him within weeks. Why she married him, no one knows. These experiences provided the fodder for her novels, which to varying degrees were autobiographical.
After leaving her husband, she immediately found a writing career, accidentally. Starting as the boss’ secretary at a Spokane newspaper, within two weeks, she was writing editorials.
Everyone in the freedom movement owes a debt to this brilliant, productive, tenacious and complicated woman. It’s long overdue that she be recognized with the greatest classical liberal thinkers of all time.