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

Shakespeare, who made America and beat Hitler

Shakespeare, taking names and kicking a**

In modern democracies, politics and popular culture are inseparable. While a small percentage of Americans know what was discussed on Capitol Hill this week, a significant number know who was booted from American Idol, and observing this tableau, a political mind may be repulsed. For the liberal philosopher, turning the minds of an apathetic or propagandized public seems an impossible hill to climb. Average people do not really care to read about the meaning of life, the unnecessary confines of their society, or the causes of human suffering. Average people do, however, enjoy a good show. Since the times of the American continent’s first presses and playhouses, in England and its American colonies, that show was Shakespeare. Long before the Beatles, the prolific poet from Stratford-upon-Avon may have posthumously been America’s first British pop sensation-and its most influential. Shakespeare’s attention to detail in the individual identities of his characters, and his intellect for relative moral standards, infused English and American cultures with an unprecedented appreciation for individual liberty, which led to the American Revolution and United States Constitution. Shakespeare’s cultural legacy is the defense of individualism that pervaded everywhere his work was popular, and in the ways that truly matter to society, Hitler was defeated not by the bomb-dropping Allies of World War II, but by a dead English poet wielding only a feather.

This realization came to me as I was reading The Federalist, the famed series of newspaper publications that circulated in the United States in 1787-88. The carefully constructed papers succeeded in persuading the American people to ratify the newly formed Constitution. In the second essay of the series, one of the mystery authors (later revealed as John Jay) refers to “the poet” without explanation, as if every reader should already know that “the poet” is Shakespeare. This is evidence that, to Jay and his intended audience, the American public of 1787, Shakespeare was an assumption that required no specific definition, like air, earth, moon, sun or divinity, or even humanity itself. There is no comparable figure in 2008. When we hear “the poet” today, we need an antecedent, so as not to be confused as to whether it is Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Donne, Hughes, Eliot, Kipling, or Whitman-we do not conditionally assume one. The same can be said for our other modern influences. There is no modern actor, writer, comedian, singer, musician, pundit, et cetera, whose proper identity is an informal extension of common title, so Shakespeare’s influence on early U.S. culture is, by our standards, immeasurable.

The extent to which Shakespeare shaped America’s early cultural identity is a subject of debate among historians, and each critic brings a unique perspective to the argument, sometimes adding invention to observation. All agree that Shakespeare profoundly shaped England’s language and culture, and most believe the American identity was consequently Shakespearean. Few, however, will go so far as to say Shakespeare was a major factor in American independence. The argument that Shakespeare had little effect on America’s revolutionary founding is centered on the mystery of Shakespeare’s own politics. What Shakespeare’s characters believed was often abundantly clear, but the playwright’s own political opinions will always remain a mystery. It is true that Shakespeare contributed nothing concrete to political discourse. He was an artist. However, the mystery of his politics, along with the variety of characters he created, is actually central to my argument, because as soon as the public learns a writer’s opinions, a large sector of it will ignore his work. We learn, in Shakespeare’s world, that no one’s opinions are right. This realization is the essence of the United States’ liberal individualistic founding, and Shakespeare made it popular in England and the United States. In this way, Shakespeare founded the United States as we know it.

Historians give credit for the modern concept of the self to English philosopher John Locke, who argued that the infant’s mind is a blank slate shaped by experience, but he published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, a century after Shakespeare penned his works containing more than one hundred main characters and thousands of developed side characters, each having unique identities. Locke, they claim, is one of American liberty’s founding philosophers, but Locke may have only been observing what Shakespeare revealed in England a century before. In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998), Harold Bloom argues that “personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.” This seems accurate. We see a multitude of personalities in English, American and French cultures not often seen elsewhere. Distinctive personalities, seen in a positive light in our country, are in non-Shakespearean cultures considered a social obstacle. In talking to a Chinese exchange student, I discovered that in his culture, people have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to restrict the powers of the government. While Shakespeare’s cultures reject government coercion of the individual, collectivist cultures like China’s fear the potential chaos of individual freedoms.

Shakespeare’s influence in America has been taken to the extreme by more than one critic. In 1917, Charles Mills Gayley authored Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America, which argues that Shakespeare had direct contact with liberal leaders in Virginia. Most of his argument is based on a single unpublished letter received by Shakespeare from William Strachey, a liberal member of the Virginia Company. Gayley claims Shakespeare was intimately and directly involved in the beginning of American liberty, but there is little evidence his claim is true. While his assessment that Shakespeare has left a heritage of liberty in England, France, and America is correct, Gayley has-whether imaginatively, vainly, or greedily-overstepped in attributing political beliefs to a political mirage.

The United States and England embraced Shakespeare throughout the nineteenth century, and until radio and television formats revolutionized media, Shakespeare remained dominant in American and British popular culture through print and performance. The individualism highlighted by Shakespeare’s characters remained on the consciousnesses of these nations well into the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century, when other modern societies turned to combinations of socialism, nationalism, totalitarianism, or fascism-and did so with seeming success-England, France and the United States were, for yet unexplained reasons, unable to undo individualism, despite pleas from religious, scientific and interested communities. Germany was not so lucky. Before Hitler’s prominence, German culture had scientists, religions, artists, philosophers, and politicians-all arguably more refined than those of any other nation. For this reason, many intellectuals in England and the United States admired Germany’s Nazi socialism prior to the onset of war.

F.A. Hayek describes the evolution of Germany’s national socialist thought in The Road to Serfdom (1944), which is considered among the most important social criticisms ever written, and is a warning to politicians in all individualistic societies. In it, we learn Germans believed that in realizing the advantages of socialism, they had discovered an advantage over Anglo-American individualism. He quotes German Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald saying, “I will explain to you now Germany’s great secret: we, or perhaps the German race, have discovered the significance of organization. While the other nations still live under the regime of individualism, we have already achieved that of organization.” This reveals the cultural difference between Germany and England during World War II: individualism. For some reason, English culture cherished individualism while German culture esteemed organization. Germany had an advanced scientific and artistic society; what German culture was missing was the Shakespeare effect. The underlying presence of Shakespeare explains the awareness that standards are relative to the individual (and not society as a whole), to which the inhabitants of England, France, and America so desperately clung during World War II.

Germans felt socialism was the answer to their economic woes. However, implementing socialism required the unscrupulous denial of certain individual rights, and Hitler was the only leader strong enough to make it work. It was not until after the outbreak of war that we became acutely aware of the dangers of Germany’s collectivist thought. Their patriotic socialism, though it may seem favorable in concept, becomes an uncontrollable and brutal beast in practice, because socialism can only be implemented by means most socialists detest. With its comfort in conformity, corporate interest in government, promises of safety, and mystical faith in the benevolence of power, socialism is more similar to the tyranny of the past than the prosperity of the future.

Although we did not formally recognize the evils of Nazi socialism until Hitler showed them to us, something in our culture told us it was wrong-and that something was Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s redefinition of the English language throws a wrench into the very notion of “organization” in society. It was Shakespeare’s personalized characters that instilled individualism, which made American independence seem so right. It was the same individualist lens through which socialism seemed so wrong. Everywhere his work is popular, individual liberty is Shakespeare’s legacy, and in the absence of his popularity in America today, we should realize we are at greater risk of internalizing collectivist ideals; in the spirit of Shakespeare, let us not be governed by them.

A frightening parallel: European Jews and the FLDS sect

“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.” – Martin Niemoller, on the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power.

It seems appropriate that this post should come on Passover, the day that Jews all over the world celebrate the exodus from enslavement in Egypt, because for Jews like myself, today is a day to be thankful (and vigilant) for religious freedom. Today is also a day to remember the way a group of humans in Europe mistreated (and eventually began exterminating) other groups of humans, simply because they did not live in a manner deemed proper by mainstream culture. Today we remember the Nazis, and their ideas of a perfect society and a final solution. Today we watch the news, and we hear about a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) accused of–at the very least–child abuse and gender discrimination. We rush to judgment, which we base on what is considered mainstream, proper, or even perfect, about our own society.  If we are to learn anything from history, we must constantly compare our society to the facts of the past, and we must continue to utter, to declare, to yell and scream and burn into the hearts and souls of anyone who will listen, “NEVER AGAIN!”

When I read the headlines, and watch the cable news clips of these people, I am reminded of my Jewish grandmother, whose Passover Seder I attended this evening. She is 86 years old, an immigrant from pre-World War II Poland. Her family lived in a small town that was separated from “mainstream” European culture. Everyone there was Jewish, and everyone spoke Yiddish–think “Fiddler on the Roof”, where arranged marriages, traditional clothing, and gender roles were simply a way of life. Families were generally happy there, as they are in any society, but their way of life was very different. Dotting the landscape of southeast Europe before World War II were hundreds of towns just like hers, where free and good people–Jewish people–lived in relative peace, away from the bustle of liberal European philosophy and culture, which was probably most advanced in Germany.  Despite its destruction, the world of my grandmother’s childhood was a unique but legitimate society, with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, morals, customs, and respect for laws and tradition, where young boys played games and young girls exchanged meaningless secrets, and the individual lived, loved, smiled, laughed, cried, and felt the growing pains of youth, and the debilitating pains of age–a culture that lended to its subscribers a different but normal life. It was a self-sufficient bubble, soon to be burst by German tanks and train cars, eventually thrust behind the now infamous fences of concentration camps.

The Jews were just a little bit too indoctrinated, too oddly clad, too nostalgic, too stubborn in their matrimonial traditions to see the enlightenment of proper German culture, and so they had to be dealt with coercively. 

Could it happen here?  It is happening here.  It’s happening to a fundamentalist mormon sect in El Dorado, Texas.   That our own government imitates the beginnings of Nazi oppression is as shocking as it is true.  Although they seem trifling when reflecting on the state-sponsored kidnapping of several hundred children, the media’s headlines reveal the coldness of the collective American soul today, and do great harm to the reputation of our nation’s many good individuals.  Among the top stories in major metropolitan newspapers:

“Sect children will undergo genetic tests” (This headline is Holocaust Museum material.)

“Cult kids will remain in state custody” (It’s strange how the press only refers to their ranch as a “compound,” while the state is the entity actually keeping them locked up.

“Polygamist sect indoctrinated girls” (There is irony when commercial media accuses anyone of indoctrinating girls.)

“400 children saved from Mormon sect amid allegations of child abuse”

“Texas authorities must protect children” (From their parents? Are their parents Meth addicts?)

Taken at gunpoint without explanation, herded to a government facility, and detained endlessly without any presentation of evidence.  As it turns out, the phone call that led authorities to them now appears to be a hoax, and the abused teen girl, “Sarah,” may not even exist. 

Never again to the Jews, the FLDS, or any group.  Never again destroy a peaceful and free people.  Never again assume that people who live differently are living incorrectly.  Never again allow a government to forcefully shape the individual soul.  This is not America.  This is totalitarian hell.  Let these people go.  If you stand with the government on this one, you stand with Hitler.  Sit down.