Isabel Paterson’s God

God of the Machine

The following is a review of Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, a 1943 book arguing for free market capitalism.  I wrote this for a college course called Modern Political Thought:

The year was 1943.  Hitler’s Germany was in the midst of all-out war with Stalin’s Russia and Franklin Roosevelt’s United States.  Isabel Paterson, a Canadian-American author, published The God of the Machine, which has become one of the more influential libertarian works of the twentieth century.  Paterson was a radical individualist.  Hitler and Stalin were avowed collectivists, and the well-known human suffering in Russia and Germany during their reigns was too great to be ignored.  Roosevelt’s New Deal represented by far the greatest economic intervention in American history.  The tendencies of world powers toward collectivism were Paterson’s main focuses, but societal attitudes also concerned her.  Many believed that the war economy was healthy, and some even believed that Germany and Russia had gotten it right, increasing their powers by collectivization.  John Maynard Keynes’ interventionism was emerging as the new textbook standard for economic theory.  Radical sloganeers were advancing such ideas as “property is theft” and “capitalism means war.”  Paterson addressed all of these developments.  Her book is an overview of the logic and history behind her answer to the great question that still stands before the political actor today: which interest should be the focus of our political attention, society’s or the individual’s?

If not for its analyses of ancient, modern, and contemporary histories, The God of the Machine may have been criticized as a knee-jerk reactionary critique of world leaders’ current collectivist policies; Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was widely brushed aside by the political establishment as reactionary.  While the Nobel Laureate’s criticism of Keynesian economic theory was much more influential, Paterson published hers earlier, and she conveys the same message, that government cannot spend an economy back to health.

The individualist political philosophy was first described by John Locke, and there are clear similarities between Locke’s philosophy and Paterson’s.  Obviously both are individualists.  Both believe that government exists to protect the natural rights of life, liberty and property, and that those rights are gifts to man from God.  With respect to property, there are differences between the two thinkers.  For Locke, ownership of objects in nature is initiated when people mix their labor with those objects.  Paterson, contrarily, claims that ownership exists because of the physical laws of space and time. She explains this in a matter-of-fact manner, stating “two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time” (180).  Elaborating upon this obvious statement, which at first sight appears irrelevant to the matter at hand, she points out that no one would farm if his land could be used–without restraint–by anyone who stumbled upon it, nor would any family build a dwelling, if every man were permitted to come in and go out of it as he pleased; the man farms and builds for his own private purposes (180).

David Hume’s legitimate criticism of social contract theory was precisely that it was a theory.  It was based on thought experimentation, and had no historical evidence.  Locke was a social contract theorist, and Paterson accepts his theory, but she is not a social contract theorist; she is a social contract historian.  She makes little reference to an imaginary social contract, as Locke did, because, unlike Locke, she can point to a historical social contract, the United States Constitution.

The modern liberal, socialist, utilitarian, and utopian thinkers came after John Locke.  The father of classical liberalism was long dead before any opportunity to rebuff their arguments presented itself.  In The God of the Machine, Paterson plucks Locke’s intellectual sword from the grave and carries it into battle against the likes of Keynes, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Before that battle can be understood, however, it is necessary to explore Paterson’s social philosophy.  Paterson uses a metaphor extensively throughout the book, comparing society to an electrical circuit.  She perceives individual free will as the “dynamo” in society; in the metaphor, free association and exchange is the “electricity” of the circuit.  She argues that all progress comes from individual action.  Only individuals can think–groups cannot–and “in human affairs, all that endures is what men think” (18).  Paterson’s high potential energy circuit is closed and circulating maximum energy in a free enterprise system, when men are left to think and act however they wish.  It is static under a totalitarian system, when nearly every action must be commanded or permitted (78).  Government intervention into the market is represented by a “leak” in the otherwise complete high potential energy circuit.  A free enterprise society, then, will gain more and more prosperity and power, while a totalitarian society will tend to lose both.  The society in which government is most limited will be the most powerful society, in production and in war (61). Societies that are more powerful and prosperous become that way because they devise political systems that allow the greatest freedom of human action (13). Their circuits of energy are least broken.
Paterson borrows heavily from Herbert Spencer’s ideas.  She replaces Spencer’s “social organism” with her “high potential energy circuit,” and does so with favorable results.  Spencer laboriously pursues metaphors between government types and various biological organisms, flying over the heads of readers possessing even above average biological understanding.  Paterson clarifies Spencer’s message, by using a metaphor the average person can understand, a simple electrical circuit, and she simplifies his message by condensing it.

Paterson draws her “Society of Contract” and “Society of Status” from Spencer verbatim.  The society of contract recognizes the divinely given freedom and responsibility of each individual.  In the society of contract, “society consists of individuals in voluntary association.  The rights of any person are limited only by the equal rights of another person” (41). The society status, on the other hand, institutes privilege.  In Paterson’s mind, instituting a privileged status for anyone in society will lead to a class division between rulers and subjects.  She believes the society of status works against nature.  “The logic of status,” she says, “ignores physical fact.  The vital functions of a living creature do not wait upon permission; and unless a person is already able to act of his own motion, he cannot obey a command” (42).  Paterson says that her ideal societal relationships are best exemplified in what is called today’s middle class, which is not a class at all, but a classless society of contract (49).

Paterson bolsters her argument with the historical example of ancient Roman civilization.  She claims that Rome failed because it was a society of status, and the bureaucracy, the privileged class, became too big (and I am unqualified to argue this point with her).  Too much energy was diverted from production into the bureaucracy, so that almost no energy was making it all the way around the circuit.  When the productive class could no longer support the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy came down on the productive class and attempted a planned economy.  Prices were fixed and the currency was debased (39).  Roman civilization was torn apart.  Paterson writes, “Men who had formerly been productive escaped to the woods and mountains as outlaws, because they must starve if they went on working” (40).

Paterson says that the founding of the United States was the first and only time a society of contract was ever attempted.  The famous principle of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, had never previously been used as a basis of political structure (41).  The United States was an experiment in liberty.  Paterson points out that in the United States, for the first time, freedom was recognized as an indivisible whole; to speak of various “freedoms” was to revert to European terminology (68). The proof of the society of contract’s worth was the unprecedented power and prosperity of the United States.  Paterson derides European social philosophy as “mechanistic,” saying that it forgets that each individual naturally has freedom and responsibility, and it essentially reduces people to automatons.  She blames this on the arrogance of “academic planners” and the lust for power of self-described humanitarians. (145-147)

Paterson’s objection to “academic planners” returns us to the aforementioned intellectual battle between Paterson and thinkers like Keynes, Bentham, Mill, Marx, and Proudhon.   She says that John Stuart Mill, under the banner of liberty, in fact sacrificed it to society, saying that it was only justifiable insofar as it “served the collective good.” “Then,” writes Paterson, “if a plausible argument can be put forward that it does not–and such an argument will seem plausible because there is no collective good–obviously slavery must be right” (150).

Paterson views Bentham in much the same light, as another prominent philosopher who sold out liberty to the collective good.  Bentham is famous for attempting to devise a political system according to the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”  Paterson says that this “is a vicious phrase; for there is no unit of good which by addition or multiplication can make up a sum of good to be divided by the number of persons.  Jeremy Bentham, having adopted the phrase, spent the rest of his life trying to extract some meaning from his own words.  He meandered into almost incredible imbecilities, without ever perceiving why they couldn’t mean anything” (90).

Paterson calls Karl Marx a fool for thinking his utopian idea was an accurate prediction of the future (155).  She says Marx was a “parasitic pedant, shiftless and dishonest, he wanted to put in a claim on ‘society’ solely as a consumer” (96).  His theory of class war, she says, is “utter nonsense.”  Elaborating, she says, “it is physically impossible for ‘labor’ and ‘capital’ to engage in war on each other.  Capital is property; labor is men” (97).  She also criticizes Marx’s dialectical materialism, claiming that it “reduces verbal expression to literal nonsense” (96).  Paterson compares the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” to the phrase “roundness of a triangle” (96).

Keynes famously prescribed increasing government employment as a remedy for recessions.  Because recessions come with unemployment and slumping consumer demand, the theory goes that government can augment demand and employment by hiring more people, who will be consumers, multiplying demand.  In criticizing Keynes, Paterson employs reductio ad absurdum.  She brings up the example of paying a man to stand on the beach and throw pebbles into the ocean, arguing, “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, thus preventing the normal increase of jobs” (192).

Paterson says that Proudhon is responsible for “perhaps the most senseless phrase ever coined even by a collectivist” (179).  She is referring to Proudhon’s famous slogan, “property is theft.”  Clearly this statement is non-sensical, because theft presupposes property (179).  The slogan follows in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who may well have agreed with its spirit, if not its words.  Both Rousseau and Proudhon saw property as an unnatural institution, and the source of inequality and unfairness.  Paterson contends otherwise, asserting that unfairness and inequality are unavoidable in any system, and that sacrificing property rights for the sake of fairness is foolish (200).  She explains, “The incidental hazard of a free society, which is that of nature, that some individuals may be temporarily unable to command a livelihood, is the permanent condition of every man living in a collective society.  In giving up freedom, the individual gets nothing in return, and gives up every chance or hope of ever getting anything” (200).

Paterson criticizes collectivists by analyzing their language and showing its errors.  She frequently uses “nonsense” as a descriptor of their rhetoric.  There is a tinge of hypocrisy in her critique, because she does not hold herself to the same exacting standards.  Proudhon’s “property is theft” is “senseless” to Paterson, but Paterson herself, in no uncertain terms, asserts that “profit is production,” which is evidently “senseless” to anyone with an understanding of economics (221).

Even accepting Paterson’s political principles and her criticisms of the collectivists, there remains a very important question: What is the alternative?  What political system does Paterson suggest?  Her ideal society is the “the private property, free enterprise society of contract,” but in The God of the Machine, the political apparatus responsible for protecting property and enforcing contracts is difficult to pin down.  The absence of a comprehensive, alternative political system may be the most prominent weakness of her argument.  Paterson thinks the very idea of political “leadership” is a threat to civilization, because every free man must lead his own affairs (80). She echoes classical liberals in saying that, ideally, government is a necessary evil.  Paterson explains, “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” (69). Her ideal system seems to be liberty with a police man, a system that completes her high potential energy circuit for the machine of society, maximizing the creative use of human energy.  It requires equal protection of the laws, with privileged status for no “type” of person, be they impoverished, wealthy, numerous, or within government.  Paterson never even posits a method of determining who will make up the “police organization” that is government.

Some aspects of Paterson’s political system are clear.  She dislikes passports, or any other national identification (45).  She thinks “democracy inevitably lapses into tyranny” (16).  She favors a metal currency, saying the economist who advocates fiat money is “below the mental level of savages” because he has “forgotten how to apply number” (202).  She rejects compulsory public education as “the complete model of the totalitarian state” (258).  She also rejects licensing and regulation, which are impediments to free association (50).  However, Paterson’s political structure remains enigmatic.  As long as every individual is treated equally by the law, their natural rights are protected, and contracts are enforced, it does not concern her who governs, or how they are chosen.

Paterson, Isabel (1943). The God of the Machine. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. ISBN: 1560006668

Letter to the editor of the Daily Beacon, 11.09.09

I am not sure if this letter ever appeared in the U. of Tennessee student newspaper.  If it did, I missed it.

I am writing in response to Amien Essif’s November 9 column, “Media miss drama of demonstration”.  In it, he distinguishes the political environments of Europe from ours in the United States, and his distinction deserves further exploration.

Essif laments the quiet politics of U.S. citizens, and wishes there were frequent raucous protests.  In Europe, crowds of people partake in what he calls “real action.”  Going to work, minding your own business, and expecting the same of others is the American political tradition, but apparently these activities do not qualify as “real action.”

Then again, Americans have never walked en masse to the enlightened despot’s palace to request food, or travelled to the democratic tyrant’s outpost to request medical attention.  Even before the United States ratified a constitution to prevent those European follies, their citizens had begun a very different tradition.  That tradition began every time a group of colonists stepped off of a boat and into a vast wilderness, finding no postal roads, no gendarmerie, and certainly no royal granary.

In his journal, William Bradford, leader of the religious separatists that founded Plymouth colony, wrote that within a few months of landfall, half his company was dead.  Back in the Old World, the key to survival was “real action,” but rowdy demonstrations proved futile in the colony.  The harsh winter of Massachusetts Bay heeds neither protest nor prayer.

How did colonists survive?  They took the unreal action of providing for themselves, and in so doing began the American tradition of personal responsibility.  This tradition has endured through countless authoritarian regimes in Europe, all of which began with moral intentions for the greater good and “real action.”

Essif complains about “the uniquely American relationship to government, a strange concoction of cowardice and contempt,” and believes that “in Europe, the government is afraid of the people, while in the United States, the people are afraid of the government.”  This begs the question: what have the European governments done that makes them so fearful of their people?

The answer is that European governments have promised their citizens an end to fear, and an end to want, and their citizens believed them.  A digressive lesson for citizens and single women: if a man ever promises to bring an end to your fears and wants, you believe him at the risk that he will thereafter control you.  No government can deliver on those promises, and those that try not only exceed their true purpose (to defend natural rights) but act against it, by becoming instruments of plunder.

When government pursues its true purpose, the political environment is very calm.  Essif sees the absence of massive demonstrations as a negative; on the contrary, it is a sign that society is working well.  As Frederic Bastiat points out, “No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack.”

Our government has stepped outside of the boundaries of its purpose, but it has not been doing this as long or as extensively as its European counterparts, and the effects are not yet as visible.  While Americans were running their own lives and expecting the same of others, their leaders in Washington–perhaps envying European governmental power–were patterning their legislation on the unwisely set examples of Europe, and then destroying the constitution accordingly.  After more than a century of this insidious legal process, the American political stage is finally set for some “real action.”

Europeans demonstrate to their governments because their governments run their lives, and in all likelihood this will soon be true for us, and then Thomas Paine’s words will apply to America for the first time since before he penned them: “The enormous expense of government has provoked men to think, by making them feel.”

Sincerely,

DeGraw solid, honeyhoney sweet

honeyhoney

Apologies to my readers for leaving the political realm for this post, but this is my blog and I will write whatever the hell I want to on it.  Today I want to write about a concert.

I went to see Gavin DeGraw at the Square Room last night.  I actually got to meet him a few hours before his show, which was a bonus.  He was walking around Market Square in Knoxville.  He seemed to be shopping, but he was kind enough to stop and talk with me for a minute.

DeGraw, musically, was about what I expected him to be.    He sounds a lot like his albums.  He surprised me once; while playing “Mountain to Move”, which is a quiet song, DeGraw turned to his lead guitarist and said, “hold on.”  The music stopped.  DeGraw was annoyed.  He said, “I can’t play over all this talking.”  He then respectfully told the audience to either shut up or leave, and started the song from the top.  The crowd submitted; the room fell completely silent for the entire song.  It was unexpected and stellar.

But the best surprise was the opener I had never heard of, honeyhoney.  There were only two members, a guy named Ben and a gal named Suzanne.  They were uber-talented.  Ben played guitar (and drums, sort of, if you can imagine what that might be like simultaneously), and Suzanne played violin, banjo, and sang (beautifully, but not all at once).  I was so impressed that I bought their disc, First Rodeo.  That’s right, I paid for music.  I listened to it in the car on the way home.  Enjoyable.  Where the hell did this band come from?  I wondered.

Upon arriving home, I wanted to see what sort of youtube presence they had.  I searched “honey honey,” and though there were a ton of hits, I was disappointed to find they were all Mamma Mia and ABBA videos–not that there’s anything wrong with Mamma Mia or ABBA.

Google hooked me up with their website, and as it turns out, I am the one out of the loop, not them.  Unknown to me, Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe have apparently gained relative fame as honeyhoney.  For instance, Kiefer freaking Sutherland is in their video for “Little Toy Gun”.  When I heard Suzanne sing that song live, I mentioned that she sounded almost exactly like Amy Winehouse (she did, but not as much on the record).

Fortunately, Suzanne does not look like Amy Winehouse.  She is an adorable, down-to-earth redhead (for now) with an edgy sense of humor and a welcoming smile.  From what I gathered, Ben is no slouch either.  I’m no judge of masculine sexiness, but when honeyhoney first came onstage, someone nearby asked if Ben was Gavin DeGraw.  The girl next to me noted that he was, “way too good-looking to be Gavin DeGraw.”  I’m not sure if that’s a knock on Gavin or a compliment to Ben.

If you don’t know Gavin DeGraw’s music, climb out of your hole and give it a listen.

I encourage all to visit honeyhoney’s website and listen to them as well.   Feed these relatively famous starving artists by purchasing their music and/or groupie gear (they have cool t-shirts with crows on them).

My interview with The Pakistani Spectator

Pakistani politics

I would like to inform my readers of an up and coming Pakistani website called The Pakistani Spectator.  Its webmaster, Ghazala Khan (who may or may not be a descendant of Genghis), is committed to the free flow of ideas throughout the world.   It is people like Khan who–more than the overpaid CEO’s of biased, failing media conglomerates–are laying the foundation for lasting global understanding, friendship, and peace.  Websites like The Pakistani Spectator are creating a global forum in which the humble average citizen of one country may speak openly with the humble average citizen of another, and these two would-be-strangers may find a common interest in peace that their governments and corporate media would have hidden from them.

If Americans wish to truly know a foreign people, they should look not to the solitary voice of that foreign government, but to the myriad voices of its real people.  This is a luxury only the blogosphere can provide, and it is the luxury that people like Ghazala Khan help provide to the world.  The greatest tool for peace that humans have is direct communication, and never before has that tool been available to so many.

Thomas Paine wrote, “Man will not be brought up with the savage idea of considering his species as his enemy, because the accident of birth gave the individuals existence in countries distinguished by different names.” If, after more than two centuries of lying inefficaciously upon our bookshelves, and lying ceaselessly to the hopeful minds of multitudes, those words are to finally become truth, humankind may owe less gratitude to Paine’s enlightenment than to the free exchange of ideas across the worldwide web.

I agreed to an interview with The Pakistani Spectator, which may be found here.  I encourage all to bookmark the website and watch it grow and develop into a large and peaceful online community.

Tale of Ben Yehuda Street (05.19.08)

Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street is Jewish Gatlinburg.  They sell overpriced jewelry, sunglasses, food, and souvenirs to tourists.  No rational economic participant would wish to go shopping there, and it is safe to assume that no native of Jerusalem actually shops there.

I walked around Ben Yehuda Street with a delightful group of girls, including Ivy Lynn, the Schneider sisters, and Perri.

Israel Trip

I apologize for the post scarcity.  I went to Israel for two weeks and kept a journal there.  I will be posting relative portions of it here to make up for lost blogging time.  I think my usual readers will find it thought-provoking and balanced, if not entertaining.  Enjoy.

Government submits to God, who wants to leave us alone

God at his computer.

This story is, of course, fictional.  If you see this headline in the newspaper tomorrow morning, you will need to pinch yourself–and if that does not wake you–realize that you have in fact died and gone to heaven.  As I imagine it, there are no tax collectors in heaven.  Upon entry into heaven, I could pick up the Times and read the following:

Today God announced major cutbacks in everything government. 

God called for an immediate end to all hostilities in Iraq, and condemned George W. Bush for lying to His people and killing His children without just cause.  “You’ll burn in hell for this,” God ordained matter-of-factly, in an unusually calm damning ceremony.  Taking questions after the announcement, God explained the departure from the usual thunderbolt display.  “Our traditional ceremony was a little over the top, and we’re trying to cut expenditures in these ceremonies anyway.  After the Falwell incident, I don’t really trust the lightning machine anymore–he wasn’t supposed to burn until he actually got to Hell.  I am not one to deprive Lucifer of his fun, but I am told he has still had plenty of it with Falwell.”  He then belted maniacal laughter for over three minutes.

God’s announcement expectedly drew some disfavor from President Bush, who backwardly believed he was doing God’s work.  “But God–” he started to say, but The All-Knowing knew what was coming and responded before Bush could finish.  “I do my own work, thank you,” God thundered.  “Love thy neighbor.  It’s simple, really.  Why couldn’t you just do it?  Jesus!”

The military will be mostly dissolved by mid-year, much to the dismay of the military industry.  Sources tell us that one CEO was particularly opposed to God’s will.  God quieted his argument, saying, “I never intended for you people to go around killing one another because of your petty arguments about me.  I’m going to let you keep fire and subsequent technological advancements.  Don’t push your luck with this fighting fetish you’ve developed.”

God called for the immediate dissolution of the CIA, FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and all government secrecy.  He said His “reasoning here is simple: if people really want to be free, information must be free to them.  Besides, there is no reason for a good government to have secrets.  Good governments do not need protection, because people find no fault in them worth attacking.  If anything is going to be mysterious in this world, it’s going to be Me.”

No more personal taxes or tax identification numbers.  God seemed particularly frustrated by these human measures.  “I don’t know what nation is before me now, when I look at these income taxes,” God offered.  “Soviet Russia? Nazi Germany? Oceania?  Certainly not one nation, under Me, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  There’s no liberty in assigning everyone a number and staking claim to their labor–it’s as if you’ve modeled your society after Hell.”

God ended drug laws as well, and allowed all non-violent drug offenders to leave prison.  He called for a cutback of over 85% of the nation’s local police forces.  “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” He reprimanded Congress.  “Do you think I put cannabis on this planet so that you could spend your days trying to destroy it?  It’s not going away.  I put it here for your enjoyment.  Don’t tell people what they are allowed to do with what I put here.  I ought to damn you all to Hell for this!  As I look around, you’re all headed there anyway–oh, except for you, Dr. Paul of Texas: the Lot of Washington D.C.  What’s that, Ron?  Alright, you can bring Duncan along too.  No, Kucinich burns with the rest of them!  Alright, you may rescue Barney Frank from damnation as well, as we cannot fault the mentally handicapped.”

In perhaps related news, the Federal Reserve Board has disappeared.  No one can find any of them anywhere.  God did not explain where they went, but did say they will not be back.  “Gold and silver will always back the currency, to protect My people’s savings from confiscation.  The market, which I created, will determine rates of interest.”

To cap off His day of governing, God smote Mike Huckabee.  “Huckabee is a false idol,” decreed God, “almost as bad as the pope.”  The Almighty went on to relate Huckabee to the ancient Golden Calf, and his followers to ancient pagans because of their lack of respect for what God called “civic virtue.”

Fear is Tyranny was able to catch up with God during an evening prayer session.  We asked Him if He was done with governing for awhile.  “Absolutely not,” He said, “this is just the first day.  I’ve got five more to go before I rest.  My motivation here is very basic and has never changed: I gave people the capacity to think so that they might use it to guide themselves, and I am simply taking steps to encourage individual thought.”  Pray for similar results tomorrow.