Monday, 10 March 2014

Libertarian classic: "The God of the Machine", Isabel Paterson's 1943 trumpet blast against the liberal fascism of the New Deal

Isabel Paterson
I wrote about Isabel Paterson's astonishing book in June 2012 (here), but that mainly consisted of one long quote, a few slapdash observations, and, besides, it was all mixed up with a review of a television series being broadcast at that time. I've now written what I hope is a proper appreciation of the great lady for the latest edition of The Salisbury Review, albeit under a pseudonym.  I'm not a libertarian, but I've read quite a few modern books on the subject, and none of them comes close to Paterson's masterpiece, which strikes me as the wellsprung of every libertarian - and many conservative and right-wing - works published since her bracing game-changer first appeared. If my article were available online, I'd link to it, but it isn't, so I've made it available here (God, that sounds pompous!):

When Ronald Reagan told the American people at the start of his presidency that “Government is not the solution to our problem: government is the problem”, he was (probably knowingly) echoing Isabel Paterson, an eminent Canadian-American book reviewer, novelist and political thinker who produced such gems as: “…the country which is least governed is best governed” “Government… is solely an instrument or mechanism of appropriation, prohibition, compulsion and extinction”; and “History within nations consists of the struggle of the individual against government”. Today, in an era when an increasing number of politicians and commentators seem eager to describe themselves as libertarians (whether they are or not) such pronouncements seem relatively unexceptionable: 70 years ago, when Paterson made them, they must have sounded blasphemous.

Poster for the film of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

1943 saw the publication of notable works by each of the three founding mothers of the modern libertarian movement: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom and Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine. Taken together, they represent a concerted assault on collectivism, Big Government and the myth of the benevolent state.

Of the three books, Paterson’s history of human liberty is probably the most trenchant, yet the least well-known (possibly because she was dissatisfied with it and refused to sanction a reprint). She was undoubtedly the triumvirate’s guiding light. Ayn Rand (who said of The God of the Machine that “it does for capitalism what Das Kapital does for the Reds and what The Bible did for Christianity”) was an acolyte, and Paterson had a great influence on Rose Wilder Lane (at one point even telling her where she should live). What particularly distinguishes all three works from most conservative writings of the time is their clarity and originality (in Paterson and Lane’s case this might have been the result of not having undergone liberal brainwashing at a university), their unrestrained enthusiasm for red-in-too-and-claw capitalism, and their verve and optimism: Paterson was convinced that the battle to reverse the enervating state’s wasteful diversion of energy away from the private to the public sector was winnable.

While all three writers targeted full-blown totalitarian systems, Paterson was particularly alarmed by America’s acceleration under President Roosevelt towards the sort of seemingly benign, smiley-face, coercive political system Jonah Goldberg has termed “liberal fascism”. For her, the New Deal, with its mass of interfering, big-spending government agencies staffed by an army of left-wing social “experts”, had resulted in a pernicious expansion of state power, leading to attacks on the Constitution, the principles of free trade, and personal liberty. Now, of course, we realise that the New Deal did much to retard America’s emergence from the Depression while creating the deluded view of government as responsible for – and capable of - solving everyone’s problems. Paterson, who grew up as one of nine children on a Canadian cattle ranch and had to leave school early to earn a living, was a fierce opponent of taxpayer-funded welfare: when she died at the age of 74, found among her effects was her unused social security card sealed inside an envelope with the words “Social Security Swindle” written on it.

What’s most startling about The God of the Machine is how contemporary it feels: there is hardly a section that doesn’t seem as relevant today as it must have done when it was published. Perhaps because she was writing with the memory of a global economic upheaval still fresh in her memory, and as we’re still suffering the turbulent after-effects of the credit crunch, Paterson seems to be addressing many of today’s key political and economic issues. For instance, after the events of 2008, many modern commentators echoed her brutal advice about how to handle economic disaster: “The quickest and most drastic liquidation of a credit collapse would be the best and most equitable; because it would most rapidly reconnect the production system; but this is seldom allowed. Instead, the political power is called in to seize or depreciate money; the meter is falsified, and a general leakage all along the line is caused. After that, no genuine recovery is possible, unless or until this power is revoked and the general leakage stopped.” Of course, many of those responsible for the credit crunch had studied economics: Paterson suffered no such disadvantage.

As for the public’s suspicion that they – rather than the perpetrators – ended up paying the price for the near-collapse of the world banking system in 2008, the same thing seems to have happened in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, about which Paterson (an admirer of entrepreneurs, but no lover of bankers) had this to say: “The first measure of ‘relief’ was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; and the first money paid out from it went to J. P. Morgan & Co. It was the non-productive rich who first went on the dole.” Nothing much changes, evidently.

Paterson appears just as contemporary on non-economic matters. She is a fierce defender of the American Constitution against attacks by judicial activists (a major Tea Party theme); she dismisses the obsession with “human rights” as a nonsense, arguing that they are one and the same as property rights; she sees the family as the main bulwark against the encroaching power of the state; and she is against positive discrimination on the basis of race. She dismisses grandiose government plans to “abolish poverty” or to guarantee “freedom from want” as a mere confusion of terms: “The only condition in which no one can experience poverty, want, or fear, is that of rigor mortis.”

Paterson is immensely sound on another of the great banes of contemporary life – “progressive” education. After railing against the impossibility of sacking useless teachers, she outlines the principles of touchy-feely, non-judgmental, child-centric educational methods (“it forbids positive punishment; aims… to encourage self-expression” etc.) and goes on to contrast this sort of nonsense with old-fashioned teaching principles, which “…gave the teacher sufficient authority for any necessary discipline. It imparted positive facts and positive principles. It discouraged immature self-expression, sought to strengthen character by self-control against the social impulse; and attached personal responsibility to any degree of emancipation from the rule of obedience for children. It taught the child to think by the use of formal logic on
impersonal examples; while contemporary issues were kept out of the schoolroom as far as possible.”

Paterson also addresses attempts by the liberal establishment to impose unearned equality by means of a system whereby a pupil’s work was marked according to how well he had performed in relation to his “innate capacities” instead of judging “the specific results of a specific examination” (i.e. the sort of sleight-of-hand chicanery routinely advocated by modern leftists in order to shoehorn increasing numbers of “disadvantaged” children into top universities). She points out that one result of these methods is that “the negligent child is advantaged, and the diligent, clever, and conscientious child is deprived of an earned benefit.” In fact, Paterson rejects the principle of state-controlled education altogether: “A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.”

Perhaps the finest chapter in her book is “The Humanitarian With the Guillotine” in which she contrasts the teachings of major religions - that those who seek to raise and distribute charitable funds shouldn’t profit from their activities - with the evident assumption of many secular compassion-mongers that they have a perfect right to fill their boots (with our money) and to be regarded as morallly superior to the rest of us while they do so: “The politicians can get votes out of distress; the humanitarians land lucrative white collar jobs for themselves distributing relief funds; only the producers, both capitalists and workingmen, have to take the abuse and pay the shot.”

I bought The God of the Machine after reading this intriguing quote from it: “The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.” Those who have long suspected that many of the world’s problems are often made worse by those frightfully nice hand-wringing types who stand to gain the most by prolonging them will discover that Paterson agrees: “What kind of world 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.” (This would certainly explain why the number of people judged to be in need of state charity increases exponentially when socialists are in power.)

I am not a libertarian, but anyone who claims to be really should read The God of the Machine. Print and Kindle editions are available from Amazon (here), and it can downloaded as a free pdf file from the Ludwig von Mises Institute website (here).

I’ll end with one of the best-known quotes from the book:
“The philanthropist, the politician, and the pimp are inevitably found in alliance because they have the same motives, they seek the same ends, to exist for, through, and by others.”

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