Ayn Rand wrote that The God of the Machine (1943) by Isabel Paterson “does for capitalism what Das Kapital does for the Reds and what the Bible did for Christianity.” The author of Paterson’s first biography (2004) Professor Stephen D. Cox agreed, stating, “No one in the 1930s defended individualism more vigorously and consistently than Paterson.” The other founding mothers of modern libertarianism, Rand and Rose Wilder Lane, freely acknowledged the deep debt they owned to the irrepressible political theorist who also found time to write eight novels, to become a feared literary critic and a prominent journalist.

And, yet, Paterson’s contributions remain largely unrecognized by a mainstream culture in which far more obscure female writers are royally feted. One reason for the neglect is Paterson’s political slant. She unabashedly defended the free market, including hard money. Another reason is that she is often confused for a traditional conservative when, in fact, she was a radical individualist to the core. Mere justice demands that a spotlight be shone on this remarkable woman.

Without question Paterson’s best-known work continues to be her non-fiction book The God of the Machine. She uses the metaphor of a machine as an organizing theme through which to present a unique theory of history. The machine consists of the institutions of a society, especially government. Man and his free will are the machine’s dynamo or God. Free association and trade provide the electricity. In exploring societal principles, Paterson eloquently argues that productivity and freedom sprang from the West’s embrace of a “society of contract” as opposed to the “society of status” which had defined feudalism.

The visceral power of Paterson’s presentation comes largely from her vivid imagery and exquisite turn of phrase. The book’s most frequently quoted chapter is entitled “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine” in which Paterson unpacks the logic leading to that startling image:

Most of the harm in the world is done by good people…. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.[i]n periods when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object…. Something is terribly wrong in the procedure, somewhere. What is it?

She answers: “The means is the power of the collective; and the premise is that ‘good’ is collective.” Thus, “The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.”

It is a delight to present Isabel Paterson because doing so allows me to enter her world. Although she was not an economist, Paterson was an intense advocate of the free market during the rise of socialism and the New Deal in America. She was one of the few prominent voices to speak out against World War I and World War II. With no higher education, her wayward commentaries sparkled with wit and brilliance. For example, while her contemporaries heaped superlatives on Winston Churchill’s famed WWII “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” speech (1940), Paterson dryly observed that the text was derived from a 1849 speech by the revolutionary Garibaldi who had called upon radicals for “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Paterson then commented, “All heads of great states are considered great writers while they are in office. It goes with the job. And we mean it goes with the job.”

In order for you to fully enjoy the extraordinary voice behind The God of the Machine, I introduce you herewith to the full-bodied woman behind it.


“If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be? We wish you then your own wish; you name it. Ours is liberty, now and forever.” – Isabel Paterson

The Canadian-American Isabel Mary Paterson nee Bowler (January 22, 1886 – January 10, 1961) was born into unassuming circumstances on remote Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada. Her father Francis was an abysmal businessman and the family was usually destitute. In search of a living, he moved his wife Margaret and nine children to a cattle ranch in Alberta, then down to Michigan before drifting to the Wild West. The Bowlers finally settled in Canada’s barren Northwest territories. Life was harsh, with tents sometimes being used as their home. At a tender age, Isabel became self-sufficient not merely at the tasks of rural life but also intellectually.

Indeed, throughout her lifetime, Paterson received little more than two years of formal education from age 11 to 14. She had attended school once before for a month in Utah. At seven years old, Paterson was expected to read from books like “The Little Red Hen.” But, as Cox reports, instead she was deep into reading “a consideration of Bryan’s stand on the free silver question.” She was excused from further attendance. Such experiences undoubtedly contributed to her avid advocacy of self-education, and to her celebration of people she called “self-starters.”

Decades later, the libertarian publishing mogul Raymond Cyrus Hoiles would credit his discussions with Paterson for influencing his own rejection of public schooling as “socialistic,” destructive of critical thinking and immoral. In a September 3, 1946 editorial in his flagship newspaper the Register, Hoiles quoted a passage from The God of the Machine: “There can be no greater stretch of arbitrary power than is required to seize children from their parents, teach them whatever the authorities decree they shall be taught, and expropriate from the parents the funds to pay for the procedure.” Thus, “[n]eighborly, small-scale socialism in education has expanded and developed until today we are faced with the disaster of national socialism in education.”

In her late teens, Paterson left home to find her own fortune. She worked low-paying, low-status jobs that included the odd coincidence of becoming an assistant to a future Prime Minister of Canada, R. B. Bennett. In 1910, she married a traveling salesman named Kenneth Paterson. It was not a happy union. Paterson once quipped that there was only one “t” in her name because her in-laws were too cheap to buy two. Paterson moved out on her husband within weeks. When they divorced in 1918, she did not appear to know or care about his whereabouts. Nevertheless Isabel retained the cheap name that she would make sparkle.

At the age of 24, the same year she both married and left her husband, Paterson began what would become a series of positions as an editorial writer. Her career started as a secretary at the Inland Herald (Spokane, Washington) where Paterson critiqued her boss’s writing with such passion that he promoted her. In an essay on Paterson from the book Ladies for Liberty, John Blundell commented on the importance of Paterson’s next regular column, which was at the Vancouver World (British Columbia). He writes, “This is where she first really began to spread her wings, flagging up individualist ideas about the economy, regulation, international relations and women. She discussed, for example, the changing nature of the relationship between the female head of a family and her female servants, presaging in early 1911 changes that would come to pass decades later. For example, she chided ladies with servants for having the attitude that these girls should be grateful for their jobs, stating that gratitude had no part in a business contract.” Here she began developing the framework that would evolve into The God of the Machine.

From Vancouver World, she shifted briefly to another paper before moving to New York City where she launched herself. Literally. On November 5, 1912, Paterson’s fascination with technology led her to set an aeronautical record. She flew higher than any previous woman: 5,000 feet. Calling it the “greatest experience of my life,” the 26-year old Paterson climbed into the back of a cloth and wood Wright biplane being piloted by pioneer aviator Harry Bingham Brown.

It took a while longer for her career as a writer to launch. For years, she free-lanced for various journals while completing two autobiographical novels: The Shadow Riders (1916) and The Magpie’s Nest (1917). The themes of both novels expressed her commitment to individualism and to the free market. Blundell observed of The Shadow Riders, “the heroine returns to the Calgary she once fled but this time as wife of a senior businessman and politician. Again she is laying the basis for Ayn Rand’s ideas about political economy with her businessman who is tempted to pay a bribe because he wants the satisfaction of building a new tram line and fleet of vehicles for his city. He declines to pay it but the episode throws up a whole series of questions about the relationship between the state and free enterprise, particularly the state and bigger businesses.”

During World War I and the Great Depression, Paterson’s libertarianism hardened. She later wrote of WWI and its subsequent impact, referring to those who promoted the slaughter on ‘noble’ grounds as ‘uplifters’, “The uplifters got their way” and “immediately wished conscription upon us. Then the demand for a ‘business administration’ was heard, and look at the darned thing now [1932]. After having boasted how well they could run the country, the bankers and business men are asking the government to rescue them from what they did to it. And meantime the internationalists set about saving the world, and what a swell job they did! And the moral legislators sewed us up in a sack with prohibition.”

She was particularly contemptuous of the popular post-WWI notion that society could be engineered by experts or a centralized power. In 1928, Herbert Hoover ran for President. An engineer by education, Hoover was steeped in the Efficiency Movement and he believed that inefficiency and waste within society could be remedied by experts who guided the economy through social engineering. Thus, in 1928, Paterson became a United States citizen. Why? So she could vote against Hoover.

Her main break as a writer had come a few years earlier. In 1922, Paterson had met Burton Rascoe, formerly the literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, who now filled that function at the New York Tribune, renamed the New York Herald-Tribune. He later described the woman he met as having a “Thackeray drawing-room air about her—when silent, at ten feet away.” Not long after their encounter Paterson went to work at the New York Tribune and soon assumed the job she would hold for 25 years – writing the influential column “Turns with a Bookworm” for the Sunday book section. During the Tribune years she would pen and publish six more novels: The Singing Season: A Romance of Old Spain (1924); The Fourth Queen (1926); The Road of the Gods (1930); Never Ask the End (1933); The Golden Vanity (1934); and, If It Prove Fair Weather (1940).

Paterson’s skill at non-fiction can be judged by the fact her contemporaries believed she would be remembered as a novelist. A brief passage from Never Ask the End offers a taste of her style, “In the Grande Place, the peaked fronts of the old Guild Halls, as rich as wedding cake with tier on tier of sculptured figures, seemed asleep. The rain had lifted. They descended from the motor, walking softly on the wet grey flagstones, as in a cloister. The buildings enclosed their period and atmosphere inviolate, locking the ranks against any modern intrusion. If one went, the rest would crumble, betrayed to the time spirit.”

In her own day, however, Paterson’s greatest notoriety came from her role as one of the most skilled and feared literary critics America has known. “Turns with a Bookworm” mixed literary reviews, political theory and gossip into a potent brew. Paterson dished out opinions with a Dorothy Parkeresque “charm” that made publishing executives and authors tremble. Her bon mots could literally make or break a book. One writer she did not like was the socialist Upton Sinclair. In commenting upon a rave review that given to one of his books by a communist literary magazine, she noted, “The meanest remark in the New Masses is about Upton Sinclair’s new book, ‘Mountain City.’ ‘Style and content are one.’ We kind of thought so, but felt it would be harsh to say it.” When she liked a book, however, she virtually ordered her loyal readers to buy it. Paterson was fond of ending her book columns with lines such as “The committee of one will now adjourn.”

But politics was never far from Paterson’s mind, especially since she lived through one of America’s political watersheds. The Great Depression was a deep economic downturn that started around 1929 and lasted into the late 1930s. In March 1933, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President with the promise of delivering a ‘New Deal’ for the American people. The New Deal was a series of interlocking economic programs that were implemented between 1933 and 1936. Indeed, during his “First Hundred Days” in office, Roosevelt issued a staggering number of laws and executive orders that were aimed at achieving the 3 Rs: relief, recovery, and reform. The federal government’s regulation of business and trade increased dramatically.

Prior to the Great Depression, American society had a general bias in favor of economic liberalism — the economic expression of classical liberalism that champions free trade. During the Great Depression, however, popular opinion began to blame laissez faire capitalism for the economic crisis and another paradigm was poised to arise and offer an alternate explanation of economic causes and cures. From Britain, the economist John Maynard Keynes had been explaining the Great Depression in new terms. Keynes argued that decisions made by the private sector had led to negative and widespread outcomes that require an aggressive policy response by government in order for society to regain stability. In short, he argued for massive government intervention into the marketplace in order to ensure economic stability, if not prosperity.

Blundell observed, “The 1930s were a decade-long education in economics as Isabel read widely and debated vociferously. It was the decade of J.M. Keynes and his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which advocated state intervention in a time of recession, and the decade of the New Deal which acted out these theories….Isabel was almost a lone voice in her praise of individualism over collectivism. She also attacked both Russian communism and German/Italian fascism. To her they were limbs of the same tree…they were both simply totalitarian, using the power of the state to crush the individual.”

In the Great Depression, bankers were especially reviled because their monetary policies were seen as a cause, if not the cause of the economic collapse. Paterson was almost uniquely astute in her analysis of the banking crisis – an analysis that echoes into current times. During the Hoover Presidency, big banks had sunk into debt due to unwise investments and they raced to climb on board Roosevelt’s various rescue plans, including a deliberate inflation of the money supply. Meanwhile, smaller banks that had been fiscally sensible were penalized to subsidize the foolish or corrupt ones. Banks per se were not to blame. Big Banks in league with government were the culprits.

But the 1930s also brought reasons for optimism. During that period, Paterson presided over informal groups of young individualists and conservatives who assembled for evening discussions at the Herald-Tribune. One of them was a young Russian emigre named Ayn Rand.

Notoriously, Rand read little in philosophy (beyond Aristotle), political theory or economics. Notoriously, Paterson read omnivorously. In late night conversations that lasted for hours, Rand absorbed the lifetime of book knowledge and the inherent common sense of Paterson, who served as a mentor. The two became fast friends, promoting each other’s books over the course of lifetimes, calling each other “sister.”

Indeed, in his biography of Paterson, Cox describes an organization that they women planned together to “advance an alternative vision of economic and personal liberty.” Alas, it never materialized. Another idea did, however. It was during a phone conversation with Paterson that Rand conceived the plot line of the best minds in America going on strike. Atlas Shrugged followed.

In 1948, a bitter argument ended their personal relationship. Some say the schism was over religion. Paterson was a deist; Rand was an atheist. Some say it was because Rand believed Paterson had ‘used’ some of her ideas. Both interpretations may be correct. Nevertheless, Rand continued to recommend The God of the Machine to friends and acquaintances. Indeed, Rand’s promotion of Paterson’s work continued after the latter’s death. When The God of the Machine was posthumously republished, Ayn Rand gave it a lengthy and generally positive review in The Objectivist Newsletter, October 1964. When Rand’s former secretary Robert Hessen established the Palo Alto Book Service in California, he too republished The God of the Machine, with Rand’s earlier review serving as a preface.

When World War II erupted in 1939, Paterson adamantly condemned both sides of the conflict. When the U.S. entered the fray (1941), Paterson objected to America’s war effort on the same grounds that she had objected to the central planning of America’s economy. Namely, America should not assume an international quest because no one could co-ordinate and guide the world; it was social engineering writ large.

Paterson’s anti-war stance and defense of free markets made her increasingly isolated. Blundell notes of 1930s and 1940s America, “Believers in a laissez-faire approach to economics…were a small, isolated group….There was Albert Jay Nock, the editor, writer and publisher; there was Garet Garrett the great novelist, social and economic critic, political theorist and financial journalist; H.L. Mencken the critic; Felix Morley of Human Events and finally Frank Chodorov, the writer and publisher. Matching these five men…were four women: Isabel herself, Willa Cather, Rose Wilder Lane and writer Suzanne La Follette. Later they were joined by a fifth woman, a very young Ayn Rand, and then a sixth in Taylor Caldwell. It was a lonely path they trod.”

1943 was a stellar year for the lonely band. Three pivotal books issued, all from the women: The God of the Machine by Paterson, The Discovery of Freedom by Lane, and The Fountainhead by Rand. Nock wrote that the Paterson and Lane books were “the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century.” Perhaps from jealousy, Paterson made only one passing reference to Lane’s book in her 1943 columns whereas she made 14 references to The Fountainhead. By contrast, it was Lane who recommended The God of the Machine to R.C. Hoiles who became a huge fan and supporter of Paterson.

Nevertheless, a tipping point had occurred in American politics and within the New York Herald-Tribune. In 1943, America was waging all-out war in Europe and the Pacific; at home, a surge of patriotism dominated all of society. Paterson’s perspective grew increasingly unpopular. Indeed, Paterson believed her position at the Herald-Tribune was sustained only due to the approval of the publisher and owner Ogden Reid. Reid died on January 3, 1947. As an alcoholic, for years Reid had allowed his wife Helen, a liberal Republican, to provide the paper’s leadership. Helen became convinced that Paterson was a liability who deterred conservative subscribers. In 1949, Paterson was abruptly told that she was “being retired” or, as Paterson put it, “fired.”

Paterson retreated to her home in Connecticut. In the 1930s she had built a house in Stamford to which she sought sanctuary from the pressures of New York City. The rise of Connecticut’s popularity as a ‘suburb’ of NYC, however, had brought a rise in property taxes. In the early 1940s, Paterson shifted base to the more rural Ridgefield, Connecticut. This is the home to which she retired. She moved to Princeton, New Jersey in the early 1950s.

“Retired” is not an entirely accurate word. Paterson remained active in writing and disseminating ideas, largely through articles including those published within William Buckley’s National Review. Famously, she refused to accept any Social Security because she did not wish such entanglement with the government; she never even opened the envelope in which her Social Security card had been mailed to her.
Isabel Paterson died at the home of friends on January 10, 1961 and is buried in Saint Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard, Burlington, NJ. In a final twist of irony, Paterson’s papers are held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library at West Branch, Iowa.


Ayn Rand summed up what she believed to be the main theme of The God of the Machine. “If a political system is properly constructed, it protects freedom and creates ‘a long circuit of energy’—of production, communication and trade—required to develop and maintain civilization. If it is improperly constructed, it can ‘short-circuit’, blow up and destroy a human society.”

A passionate defense of the free market and human creativity, The God of the Machine argues that the material and spiritual well being of man requires the free flow of energy through structures of society that encourage individualism. If government regulation blocks the flow, then human progress is devastated.

Paterson believed that government properly existed in order to protect the life, liberty and property of all men. The protection of private property was of particular importance. She rooted the need for private property in physical laws, specifically in the laws of time and space. She explained, “two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.” The political implications of this simple statement are immense. Paterson pointed that no one would cultivate a field, build a home or construct a factory if anyone and everyone were permitted to make use of them at the same time. No one would build a house for his family if strangers could cook in the kitchen or sleep in the beds at will. Something must give the creator an exclusive right to use them “for his own private purposes.” That something was private property. Thus, since private or individual ownership was based on the “conditions of physical phenomena”, public ownership became a contradiction in terms, a violation of nature, and a political fiction.

In a world that accepts the political fiction of public property, such as socialism, a man uses a field or house only with the permission of society. If he is a member of a privileged class, then he will access fields and houses with ease. If he is a mere individual, he will be barred from the necessities of life even if he creates them himself. In fact, he will cease to create them because he will cease to own and control them. Thus, a government that wishes to encourage the creative, productive man who is the basis of a creative, productive society will guarantee that life, liberty and property are inalienable individual rights. Why? Because the individual is not allowed to think, produce and own is not allowed to live. And the death of that individual is the death of society itself.

Thus Paterson consider the four purposes of proper government to be: protection of man’s person and property; the safeguarding of contracts; the representation of a nation in foreign relations; and, the rendering of impartial justice.

Controversially, Paterson presented the relationship between individuals, government and progress in mechanistic or engineering terms. For her, “energy” was “the medium of life.” Energy could not be created but it could be converted into productive form by the work and innovation of man. In The God of the Machine, government and social institutions were the mechanism through which man expressed his dynamic will or had that will crushed. Free association and economic exchange provide the electricity that made the machine function. Civilization was the net result of the “long circuit of energy” that was human history.

But it all began with the individual. Paterson wrote, “Personal liberty is the precondition of the release of energy. Private property is the induction which initiates the flow.” Limited government was analogous to inhibitors, like brakes, that “are set to operate only if the motor and transmission goes wrong…they are not preventative controls, but corrective; they are not primary but secondary.”

Paterson also offered a less mechanistic explanation. In essence, she asked a question. In reviewing The God of the Machine for Cato Institute, Mike Bayer explained, “Paterson asks a devastating question…. Why have some societies had enormous scientific and material development while others stagnated? Or, as education scholar Andrew Coulson has wryly put it, why did Athens give us philosophy, mathematics, literature, and the natural sciences, while neighboring Sparta gave us little more than the names of a few high school football teams?”

In answering, Paterson divided societies into two categories: Societies of Contract and Societies of Status. Societies of Contract consisted “of individuals in voluntary association. The rights of any person are limited only by the equal rights of another person.” Societies of Status are based on classes of people, rather than upon individuals. Some classes claim ‘rights’ that actually privileges and powers enjoyed at the expense of other classes. Bureaucrats are an example of such a class. When the privileged class(es) became too large, the amount of energy drained from productive individuals made the society stagnate. Then the privileged class(es) engaged in social and economic engineering – that is, regulation – in order to drain more from the declining productive sector. One way to accomplishe this was through currency manipulation, especially through inflation that debased the value of every dollar in the individual’s possession.

Cumulatively, the regulations sought to control the productivity, the energy of the individual.

Paterson believed Societies of Status violated nature since “[t]he vital functions of a living creature do not wait upon permission” but act autonomously. Moreover, such Societies were “geared to a lower potential of energy than the Society of Contract.” This caused lower economic output and could even short-circuit the electricity, killing the economy.

In his review of The God of the Machine in Reason Magazine, Cox explains the book’s progression. “Paterson traces the history of the engineering principles from Greek science and Roman law to the system of limited government created by the founders of the American republic. She then describes the subversion of that system by collectivist ideas and practices. She presents a withering analysis of the managed economy, public education, state-sponsored “security” schemes, and the supposedly humanitarian impulses that lead people to favor the welfare state.”

Actually, Paterson began the journey through human history at 4th century B.C. She assumed a God-like stance that looked down at the flow of human history from then to World War II as others might look down at a river. She pauses at the founding of the United States as the pinnacle of man’s attempt at a Society of Contract and grounds America’s unprecedented prosperity in that experiment.

There are many such provocative stops in Paterson’s odyssey. She offered brilliant critiques of the collectivists popular in her day. In a May 1964 review of The God of The Machine for The Freeman, the conservative-libertarian journalist John Chamberlain explained, “Mrs. Paterson operated in the field of logic…. Her attack on the fallacies of socialism, for example, began by holding Proudhon’s maxim, ‘All property is theft,’ up to the light. Theft, said Mrs. Paterson in swift rebuttal, presupposes rightful ownership, for ‘an object must be property before it can be stolen.’ After such a succinct and powerful demolition of the whole bent of Proudhon’s thought, is there anything more that need be said?”

Indeed, many of Paterson’s chapters have been praised for their ability to stand alone. Indeed, “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine” (Chapter XX) and “Our Japanized Educational System” (Chapter XXI) have been reprinted independently. In his book Power and Market, the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard pays tribute to Chapter XVI “The Corporation and Status Law.” Stating that “[o]ne of the few cogent discussions of the antitrust principle in recent years has been that of Isabel Paterson”, Rothbard quoted a passage from her chapter,

Standard Oil did not restrain trade; it went out to the ends of the earth to make a market. Can the corporations be said to have “restrained trade” when the trade they cater to had no existence until they produced and sold the goods? Were the motor car manufacturers restraining trade during the period in which they made and sold fifty million cars, where there had been no cars before.… Surely … nothing more preposterous could have been imagined than to fix upon the American corporations, which have created and carried on, in ever-increasing magnitude, a volume and variety of trade so vast that it makes all previous production and exchange look like a rural roadside stand, and call this performance “restraint of trade,” further stigmatizing it as a crime!

Even critics of Paterson’s mechanistic approach to human history receive full value from The God of the Machine through its critique of Keynesianism and collection, through its analysis of monetary theory and antitrust laws or its scathing rejection of public education and the ‘humanitarian’ state.

As Ayn Rand declared, “It is a sparkling book, with little gems of polemical fire scattered through almost every page, ranging from bright wit to the hard glitter of logic to the quiet radiance of a profound understanding. Paterson’s wit, logic, and understanding still cast light today, and The God of the Machine remains a source of illumination for modern readers seeking a better understanding of the preconditions for development and freedom.”