Stephen Cox has pored over Isabel Paterson’s weekly columns in the New York Herald Tribune. He has sifted her novels for autobiographical nuggets. He has tracked down her letters. There are still missing pieces – for example, we know almost nothing about her flighty husband – but about the brilliant and idiosyncratic writer herself, Cox’s biography “The Woman and the Dynamo” is the definitive book.
Cox starts his story with her bold ascent to 5,000 feet in a Wright biplane. But this is mainly a book about boldness expressed on paper. Here was a woman who condemned Woodrow Wilson for “sacrificing the lives of mil- lions· on the altar of his self-conceit”; who called Herbert Hoover “the Fat Boy”; who declared· that the first four years of Franklin Roosevelt were so bad that she was supporting the Republican Party “whether it likes it or not.” In her
Isabel Paterson was such a strong believer in self-reliance that she refused to apply for Social Security.
column, “Turns with a Bookworm,” she was the mistress of the snappy reply. Of the “lost generation” of the 1920s, she wrote, “We wish they’d stay lost. Nobody would go to look for them.”
Here was a woman who was such a strong believer in self-reliance that she refused to apply for Social Security, even though the amount it owed her was subtracted from the private pension she had earned through her news- paperwork.
Commenting on her disdain for government-subsidized jobs, Cox writes, “The political principle was that nothing – certainly not the government – must be allowed to break the ‘necessary connection’ between real work and the individual. This principle, which was as much psychological as political, would provide the necessary connection between Paterson the personality and her libertarian philosophy.”
Paterson, who lived from 1886 to 1960, grew up in the American and Canadian West at the end of the 19th century. Though she read hundreds of books, she seems to have absorbed her bedrock values from the milieu of that time. “To Paterson’s way of thinking,” Cox writes, “Western social equality was a subspecies of American individualism, a way of sizing people up for what they were as individuals and leaving it at that. A practical corollary was a laissez-faire attitude about other people’s business.” Quoting Paterson, Cox goes on to say, “Having ‘lived in a shack’ gave her an advantage over people who grew up in a better environment. It gave her’good reason to know that such an environment doesn’t occur in nature. It has to be earned and invented and made.'” She was for the self-made person and for capitalism.
A few others like her resisted the tides of progressivism and socialism that swept up their fellow intellectuals. Garet Garrett at the Saturday Evening Post was of the same generation, grew up in Iowa, and believed the same things. H.L. Mencken, another of that generation, did, too. All three were autodidacts who spent hardly any time in school and no time being homogenized at a university. All fashioned themselves into journalistic and literary figures of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, with strong libertarian views and distinctive prose styles.
Though Paterson penned novels, some of which Cox says are good, all have been out of print for more than half a century. Most libertarians know just one Paterson book: “The God of the Machine.”
Though I had read it before, “The Woman and the Dynamo” prompted me to read parts of it again. Afterward, one sentence in Cox’s biography caught my attention: “Paterson’s politics was deeply influenced by this essentially literary vision of America” (p. 139). Paterson was a literary person. She had some experience in the first decade of the 20th century working for bankers, real estate people, and the attorney for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, but she led a literary life after that. It was from that base she set out to describe the political theory of an industrial system.
I asked Cox: What did Paterson know about industry? ”As much as most economists, who have never worked in it, either,” he replied. “Sometimes a literary person has the perspective to see things that persons not immediately involved in the process don’t see. . . . Part of this . . . is ‘seeing’ the capitalist system as a whole. Of course, no one can literally do that. But both socialists and individualists have exerted influence by giving people guiding images of the system. That’s what Paterson does in ‘The God of the Machine.'”
Much of her book is an analysis of the political underpinnings of a capitalist econom~explained in terms of engineering. Here is a sample:
“Personal liberty is the pre-condition of the release of energy. Private property is the inductor which initiates the flow. Real money is the transmission line; and the payment of debts comprises half the circuit. An n empire is merely a long circuit energy-system. The possibility of a short circuit, ensuing leakage and breakdown or explosion, occurs in the hook-up of the political organization to the productive processes” (62).
This is an odd approach for a supporter of capitalism. Most supporters of capitalism speak the language of economics. Almost all writers who analyze the economy in terms of engi-
What did Paterson know about industry? As much as most economists, who have never worked in it, either.
neering – and most of these were the architects of Technocracy in the 1930s – have been socialists. And Paterson takes engineering seriously. Continuing the last quotation, she says, I.IThis is not a figure of speech or analogy, but a specific physical description of what happens.”
Except that it really isn’t. Ayn Rand, who recommended I.IThe God of ·the Machine,” pointed out the problem with Paterson’s engineering theory: “To be fully demonstrated, such a theory would have to define the exact socio-political equivalents of the engineering concepts it uses. This, unfortunately, Mrs. Paterson has not done; she uses the literal terms of mechanical engineering in regard to political systems, thus creating the impression of a merely metaphorical discussion. But it is obviously not intended as a metaphor . . .” (The Objectivist Newsletter, October 1964, p. 42).
As metaphor, it is sometimes assigned more weight than it can hold. For example, in a chapter called I.IThe Fatal Amendments,” Paterson discusses the 17th Amendment, which took the elections of senators out of the hands of state legislatures. I.ISince then,” Pater- son writes, “the states have had no connection with the federal government; representation in both Houses of Congress rests only on a dislocated mass. The simultaneous abdication of both Houses in 1933 was the result. They were not thrust apart, they did not even fall apart, because they were no longer in any structural relation whatever, neither to mass nor to each other nor to the superstructure. They had simply ceased to function. The immediate appearance of an enormous bureaucracy was the natural phenomenon of the structureless nation” (161-162)
And that is all she says of it. It may be profound and it may be wrong. We don’t know.
There is nothing wrong with metaphor as such, and some of Paterson’s metaphor works well. When she writes of “the long circuit,” she means exchange conducted across distance, among people who don’t know each other, and through time, by use of finance. Other parts of the metaphor don’t work as neatl}’, which she admits. On page 82, she writes, “In mechanical engineering, which is confined to material terms . . . every factor is capable of measurement . . . [But] physics has no name for the exact function which is delegated to government. It is something which does not exist in any manifestation of energy through inanimate material. It is peculiar to living creatures….”
Why use engineering terms, then? Cox says she was doing this in her columns from the early 1930s, the time of the Technocracy fad. Paterson may have come up with her theory after arguing with the Technocrats.
1.11 think that Technocracy was a big influence.” Cox says in correspondence. “She saw certain concepts that [Stuart] Chase and the other Technocrats were using, checked them out, turned them upside down, and developed them much farther than they did. But I would insist that she fully understood certain other economic ideas that they didn’t, or that they didn’t believe in: the subjective theory of value, the use of money and profits in directing investment, etc.”
There is much else in “The God of the Machine.” Notable is Paterson’s argument for propert}’, which begins with the statement, I.ITwo bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time” (180). Further, she writes, property is bound up in liberty. I.IPrivate property,” she writes, l.Iis the standing ground of the citizen” (131). In a collective society, “civil rights cannot exist because there is no place in which they can be exercised and no materials on which they can take effect” (184).
Scattered through the book like hard nuts of steel are Paterson’s dismissals of common phrases and statements. Here are a few:
On the common good: “Is not sunlight a common good? No; persons do not enjoy the benefit by community, but singly. A blind man cannot see by community” (90).
On equality: “Equality in itself signifies nothing, implies no values; two zeros are equal. Liberty attaches value to it” (119).
On profit: I.IIf profit is denounced, it must be assumed that running at a loss is admirable…. When any institution is not run for profit, it is necessarily at the cost of the producers” (221-222).
On production for use and not for profit: “As if there could be any profit if the product were not used; did Standard Oil pour its products down the sink?” (176).
What Cox calls Paterson’s aphoristic style makes I.IThe God of the Machine” one of libertarians’ favorite and most underlined books. I open my copy and consider these statell1ents, written 61 years ago:
“When racial groups are recognized in law, they can be discriminated against by law” (234).
I.IThe phonetic alphabet is one of the greatest labor-saving devices ever invented” (254).
‘IIf the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate goal requires that others shall be in want” (241).
There are times, however, when the literary Paterson misses an elementary fact. Criticizing public utilities, she says they”are not available to the public as owners. Any citizen who wishes to obtain electricity from a municipal plant must pay…. He is not the owner; an owner does not have to buy the product of his own property” (182). But a stockholder in a private utility is an owner, and the stockholder also has to pay.
Paterson rips into the wartime propaganda for “sacrifice”: “When a motor truck is needed, one cannot ride around in a sacrifice” (270). It is a neat
When racial groups are recognized in law, they can be discriminated against by law.
point, but she probably knew that if the people made certain sacrifices, like agreeing to rubber rationing and buy- ing war bonds, it would be easier for the government to get the truck.
There are some big things she gets wrong. She thinks an advanced economy cannot exist without gold money. Not true so far.
She also believed the Soviet and Nazi economies could not sustain themselves after World War II. Writes Cox, “She had utter contempt for the Nazis and believed that both they and
There are some big things she gets wrong. She thinks an advanced economy cannot exist without gold money. Not true so far.
the Japanese imperialists would collapse soon after they had used up all they had acquired from ‘the Western production circuit'” (250). In 1940 she said, “The machines are going to break up the German army.” In “The God of the Machine” (1943) she says, “Machine production cannot be developed or sustained in any planned economy” (269).
In the 1970s and 1980s the communist economies did visibly run down, and by the 1990s Cuba was a backwater and North Korea was in a famine. That would have surprised most of the intellectuals of the 1940s, but not Paterson. It might have surprised her, though, how long it took, and how little the decay seemed to affect the military. As for Nazi Germany, its industry produced the best artillery gun, the best tank, the first jet fighter, the first cruise missile, and the first ballistic missile of World War II.
Rose Wilder Lane made the same mistake of underestimation, telling Garet Garrett in 1939 that Germany could not sustain a war. Garrett had been a financial writer and had seen this argument disproved in World War 1. He knew his subject, and warned Lane not to underestimate the enemy. He said, “Your thesis that Nazism will wreck itself by wrecking production at last may be sound, but if it is, it comes later.” There is a difference between identifying a principle and having a sense of its strength and effects.
Similarly, Paterson argued that conscription makes an industrial country militarily weaker. It was an audacious argument when she made it, and probably not true, but it is true now for the advanced economies, and probably will remain true. Paterson saw the changes that would make it true but did not have a sense of their measure.
In her chapter on education, Pater- son was right about phonics and read- ing decades before that argument was settled. Her bigger argument for the overthrow of state education, however, was impossibly radical then and remains radical today. However, there are many more supporters of it today than in 1943.
The final test of any book is surviv- al. Publishing is a Darwinian business, with thousands of titles scattered each year like seeds in the forest. Most of the serious books published in the 1940s have decayed into dirt. But “The God of the Machine” lives. Putnam printed it in 1943, Caxton reprinted it in 1964, and Transaction reprinted it with Cox’s introduction in 1995. Paterson’s radical book has never been a bestseller, but it keeps sprouting back into print.
Her way of radicalism, however, inclined her to isolation. Unlike Mencken, who was merciless in print but a gentleman in the flesh, Paterson “was often accused of possessing no manners” (Cox, p. 89). She paid a price for that. Paterson broke with Ayn Rand in the 1940s, which might be dismissed because Rand was such a porcupine herself. But Paterson also broke with Lane, with humorist Will Cuppy, with public relations man H.M. Griffith, with conservative Russell Kirk, and with libertarians Leonard Read and John Chamberlain. A fascinating part of Cox’s book is the importuning of Paterson by a young William F. Buckley, who was starting National Review and didn’t want her to get all fussy with him.
“I admire you …,” Buckley wrote. “I know all about your reservations, your conditions, your prejudices, your rights, your pride, and the rest of it, but I still want you to write for the magazine and am willing to pay the top rate for your copy…. Madame, I have had a very tough time among our pygmies. Please don’t come back at me with a thousand conditions and qualifications….” (345).
Paterson wrote several pieces for Buckley, including one on the political investigation of Robert Oppenheimer (Paterson hated the Bomb, and also the Reds), one on religion and author Lecomte du Noiiy, and one on teaching children to read. But when she wrote a jeremiad on big-business supporters of capitalism in which she ridiculed DuPont executive Jasper Crane (whose correspondence with Rose Wilder Lane was made into “The Lady and the Tycoon”), Buckley wanted to take Crane’s name out. Her answer to him was, “Goddamit, NO.”
I used to admire that attitude. It was the attitude of Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.” He was saying, in effect, “Build my building exactly as I designed it, or I’ll blow it up.” It made for a fine story, but it is not a practical way to live. There is a place for intransigence, a place for compromise, and a place for letting things go. I am not going to burn my Social Security checks.
Paterson died a lonely woman, living in the home of her friend Muriel Welles Hall and, to the end, reading lots and lots of books. Cox contrasts this with the last years of Rose Wilder Lane, who, as an anarchist, was even more radical in her views than Paterson. Lane, he writes, “was friendly with Herbert Hoover; she was friendly with DuPont executives; she was friendly with counter-cultural activists of the 1960s…. [she] taught at Robert LeFevre’s libertarian Freedom School in Colorado, where she was worshiped
There is a place for intransigence, a place for compromise, and a place for letting things go. I am not going to burn my Social Security checks.
as a god, and was sent to Vietnam as a war correspondent for Woman’s Day. She died in 1968, a reasonably happy woman” (286-7).
That is worth a lot. But then, Lane’s opus, “The Discovery of Freedom,” is unreadable. I have read “The God of the Machine” probably four times, and I have opened it so often the pages are falling out.