Friday, 22 June 2012

“The Humanitarian with the Guillotine”: the astonishing genius of Isabel Paterson

Isabel Paterson
I watched the third part of the excellent BBC series, The Secret History of our Streets, last night. It traced the history of the Caledonian Road in North London, which, as one long-term resident put it, everyone thinks of as a “shit-hole” (I certainly always have). Then, in the early hours of this morning, I finished reading one of the works which kick-started the modern Libertarian movement, The Ghost of the Machine, by the Canadian-American journalist and novelist, Isabel Paterson, published in 1943.

I downloaded The Ghost of the Machine from Amazon, because so many of my fellow right-wingers have recently taken to calling themselves libertarians I thought I’d better find out what the term actually means – and Isabel Paterson (whom I’d never heard of) was apparently one of the founders of the movement. Turns out Ayn Rand was one of her acolytes. Now, I’ve only properly read one thing by Ayn Rand - a book on philosophy in which she spent most of her time kicking Immanuel Kant – and it was as weird and barking as the film version of her novel, The Fountainhead, so I didn’t hold out much hope for The Ghost of the Machine. In fact, it is one of the most original, exciting, and profoundly wise books I have ever read. When it comes to the defence of personal liberty, individualism, the free market and limited government, the author is right up there with Hayek, Burke, Popper, De Tocqueville, Friedman and Thomas Sowell.

Eileen, the glamorous pub landlady
I couldn't help think of Mrs Paterson's book during a truly moving sequence in the TV programme, in which one former resident of “the Cally” describes how the people who lived in one of the crowded, poverty-stricken, child-crammed side-streets went to the Council and asked for some trees to be planted. The council eventually said yes – but the residents had to pay for them. The interviewee – an elderly lady - remembered her mother staring out of their ground-floor window at the newly-planted trees and crying with pleasure. The same interviewee then took us on a brief tour of the piece of waste-ground she and the other residents had turned into a tiny park for everyone to enjoy, and which she proudly remembered policing to make sure no one dropped any litter: this, by the way, at a time when the area was packed with prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics. (The programme can be watched on iPlayer, here - it's worth it for the feisty, funny pub landlady alone.)

Meanwhile, the compassionate, humanitarian council (and British Rail, who wanted to build a huge new development around King’s Cross Station) had been doing its damnedest to destroy the area by forcibly purchasing houses for peanuts, knocking them down, and sticking up blocks of council flats in their stead, thereby handing private property over to socialist gauleiters, all of whom would no doubt have viewed themselves as humanitarians.

Modern humanitarians invariably believe that the poor are incapable of sorting out their own lives, or even understanding what it is that they really want, and that the private sector (what Paterson called “the producer”) is incapable of doing the decent thing. Hence the humanitarian sees it as his or her duty to take control of other people’s lives, sequestrating business profits and other people’s earnings for that purpose. Think about it for a moment and the sheer cosmic arrogance of these people is almost beyond belief.

Isabel Paterson is so astute when it comes to the near-universal assumption that it’s fine for “compassionate” people to confiscate our money to spend on things that will make them feel good – possibly the greatest threat to liberty and prosperity we now face - that I shall, unapologetically, quote her at some length (my italics throughout):
The great religions enjoin charity, benevolence, as a moral obligation, to be met out of the producer's surplus. That is, they make it secondary to production, for the inescapable reason that without production there could be nothing to give. Consequently they prescribe the most severe rule, to be embraced only voluntarily, for those who wish to devote their lives wholly to works of charity, from contributions. Always this is regarded as a special vocation, because it could not be a general way of life. Since the almoner must obtain the funds or goods he distributes from the producers, he has no authority to command; he must ask. When he subtracts his own livelihood from such alms, he must take no more than bare subsistence. In proof of his vocation, he must even forego the happiness of family life, if he were to receive the formal religious sanction. Never was he to derive comfort for himself from the misery of others. 
If the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. If he wishes to help "humanity," the whole of humanity must be in need. 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… 
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 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. 
When a humanitarian wishes to see to it that everyone has a quart of milk, it is evident that he hasn't got the milk, and cannot produce it himself, or why should he be merely wishing? Further, if he did have a sufficient quantity of milk to bestow a quart on everyone, as long as his proposed beneficiaries can and do produce milk for themselves, they would say no, thank you. Then how is the humanitarian to contrive that he shall have all the milk to distribute, and that everyone else shall be in want of milk? 
There is only one way, and that is by the use of the political power in its fullest extension. Hence the humanitarian feels the utmost gratification when he visits or hears of a country in which everyone is restricted to ration cards. Where subsistence is doled out, the desideratum has been achieved, of general want and a superior power to "relieve" it. The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action… 
But if taxes are to be imposed for relief, who is the judge of what is possible or beneficial? It must be either the producers, the needy, or some third group. To say it shall be all three together is no answer; the verdict must swing upon majority or plurality drawn from one or other group. Are the needy to vote themselves whatever they want? Are the humanitarians, the third group, to vote themselves control of both the producers and the needy? (That is what they have done.) 
The government is thus supposed to be empowered to give "security" to the needy. It cannot. What it does is to seize the provision made by private persons for their own security, thus depriving everyone of every hope or chance of security. It can do nothing else, if it acts at all. Those who do not understand the nature of the action are like savages who might cut down a tree to get the fruit; they do not think over time and space, as civilized men must think…  
As between the private philanthropist and the private capitalist acting as such, take the case of the truly needy man, who is not incapacitated, and suppose that the philanthropist gives him food and clothes and shelter — when he has used them up, he is just where he was before, except that he may have acquired the habit of dependence. But suppose someone with no benevolent motive whatever, simply wanting work done for his own reasons, should hire the needy man for a wage. The employer has not done a good deed. Yet the condition of the employed man has actually been changed. What is the vital difference between the two actions? 
It is that the unphilanthropic employer has brought the man he employed back into the production line, on the great circuit of energy — whereas the philanthropist can only divert energy in such manner that there can be no return into production, and therefore less likelihood of the object of his benefaction finding employment…  
If the full roll of sincere philanthropists were called, from the beginning of time, it would be found that all of them together by their strictly philanthropic activities have never conferred upon humanity one-tenth of the benefit derived from the normally self-interested efforts of Thomas Alva Edison, to say nothing of the greater minds who worked out the scientific principles which Edison applied. Innumerable speculative thinkers, inventors, and organizers, have contributed to the comfort, health, and happiness of their fellow men — because that was not their objective… 
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.

Over the coming months, I will cover some of Paterson’s other themes  - the Status Society versus the Society of Contract; the way that energy diverted from the private sector into the public sector always has disastrous consequences; why free societies will always win wars waged against a totalitarian enemy (remember, this was 1943); how government interference causes and prolongs Depressions; why trendy new educational methods don’t work (this was 70 years ago!) etc.

When she retired  (comfortably - she had invested wisely) Isabel Paterson refused to enrol for social security, but kept her Social security card in an envelope on which she had written the words "Social Security Swindle".

What a fantastic woman!

You can find a longer version of "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine" chapter here.

The whole of The Ghost of the Machine can be read online, here.

And the Kindle version can be downloaded here.


  1. Excellent.

    We all know where good intentions lead...only a fool or a malicious person would try to force us all their.

    Thank you sir for the links.

  2. "...Modern humanitarians invariably believe that the poor are incapable of sorting out their own lives.."

    Apologies for quoting Theodore Dalrymple again:

    "...there are few pleasures greater than promoting your moral enthusiasms at other people's expense."

    "...compassion being measured by the amount of other people's money you are prepared to pay for the supposed resolution of a social problem." Gordon Brown and his newly discovered concern for the fate of Africa.

    "...nothing is sure about Mr Brown's policy, but the sentimentality behind it,a combination of condescension [the assumption that Africans left to themselves cannot, even in theory, solve their own problems], self-importance [that Mr. Brown has a unique duty in their regard]. and self-indulgence [the warm glow inside probably given him by the knowledge that he is a compassionate politician....]"

    Source: Spoilt Rotten! The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality.