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A Woman With Impact

"What can I do? I can't have any impact!"

It's a remark one often hears. I hear it from myself, on those dark winter mornings when I pick up the daily newspaper and see nothing on the front page except new evidence of governmental encroachment on individual lives.

"But what can I do, anyway?"

It's more than a political question. Most people have been educated to believe that the individual is simply an atom lost in mass society. So why bother anyone else with any ideas you may have about ethics, religion, or the conduct of life? You can't have any impact.

If you ever feel like succumbing to this kind of defeatism, consider the following story.

There once was a woman who was born in a log house on an island in an obscure part of Canada. When the house burned down in a forest fire, the little girl was shuffled out in a bureau drawer. After that, the girl's shiftless father carried her and her eight siblings from one frontier of civilization to another, always complaining that he could never succeed because he was "born too late for opportunity." His daughter "lavished" two and a half years on education in one-room schools. Then she went to work.

She started as a hotel dining-room girl (salary, $20 a month). Then she taught herself shorthand, became a secretary, worked in a bank, sold real estate, and was hired as an assistant to a newspaper publisher. He soon got tired of hearing her object to his prose style and told her to go write editorials instead. So "by accident" she had become a journalist.

She drifted from paper to paper, working mainly as a drama critic and reporter. Sometimes she did other things. She joined a company that made newsreels. She helped out around the studio of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore. "How careless this country used to be," she wrote, doubtless recalling her unusual career path. "Pretty soon it may be all regulated and planned."

In 1912, when she was 26, she set a record for high flight by a woman – 5,000 feet in a tiny biplane, wholly unregulated by government action. (If airplanes had been regulated, as she knew, there would not have been any airplanes.) When she was 30, she published a novel, the first of eight, several of which became best-sellers. When she was 36, she joined the New York Herald Tribune, a nationally circulated paper for which she served as weekly columnist and literary critic, and as full-time "personality." For 25 years she was the fearless chronicler and conscience of the literary world, and an important influence upon it. She was said to have more to do with determining which books would be popular than anyone else. Not bad for the little girl who was rescued in a bureau drawer.

But the best was yet to come. By the late 1920s, Isabel Paterson was using her columns, articles, novels, and personal contacts to present some of the most advanced ideas of individual freedom to be found in America. Her watchword was "liberty, now and forever." Her platform was laissez-faire. The American government, she argued, had not been created to manage the economy, educate the young, censor the press, support farm prices, bail out incompetent businessmen, enhance moral uplift, or police the world. Here's the way she put it: "A lot of American principle is contained in the two words: u2018Just don’t.' Much of the rest is encompassed by the suggestion of minding one’s own business. The whole is summed up in the word u2018liberty.'"

To her, the pursuit of liberty meant something very different from the policies of foreign and domestic meddling to which both the Republicans and the Democrats became addicted. When other intellectuals maintained that "the United States used to be isolated, but is so no longer, and must now develop the international mind," she reminded them that "when it was founded the United States had Europe in the back yard and on both sides"; it had adversaries in Florida, Canada, and the West; and it had seen European wars fought on its own soil. But as the Founders counseled, military adventures were to be avoided whenever possible, because of the danger that the warfare state has always posed to liberty.

Paterson's opposition to the state's intervention in the domestic economy came partly from her belief in individual rights and partly from her understanding of economics, an understanding that was a good deal more advanced than that of most professional economists of her time. In her day, as in ours, economic planners were bewailing impending shortages of natural resources. She insisted that such gifts of "nature" actually expand in response to inventors' and investors' incentive to discover and make use of them. The solution was more private enterprise, not more government management.

Like Ludwig von Mises and the other economists of the Austrian school, she understood that planners can never know enough to "run" an economy; they can only wreck it. As a working woman, a self-styled "proletarian," she took the danger personally: "We feel toward Planners as the heroine of the old-time melodrama felt toward the villain. After having pursued her through four acts with threats of a fate worse than death, which he emphasized by shooting at her, setting fire to her home, and tying her to the railroad track just before the down express was expected, he inquired reproachfully, u2018Nellie, why do you shrink from me?'”

When the New Deal came, Paterson confronted its redistributionist schemes with deadly irony: "Destitution is easily distributed. It’s the one thing political power can insure you." She took the same unerring aim at the kind of altruism that always cries for increased political power: "The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people – and you can guess for yourself which is likely to be done."

Paterson's approach to politics got her into trouble with almost everyone – the communists, the New Deal liberals, the big-government conservatives, and everyone who simply wanted to stay in the middle of the road, wherever the road happened to be going. "Right now," she said, "it is a terrible thing to be a rugged individualist; but we don’t know what else to be except a feeble nonentity." Yet despite the scorn directed at her by the intellectual elitists of the time, she held her popular audience. Observers of the press still said that "everybody reads her!"

In 1943 she published The God of the Machine, a work of political and historical theory. The book elucidates the principles of individual liberty, explains their operation in the United States Constitution, traces their historical relations to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek science, and Roman law, shows the mutual dependence of capitalism and freedom, justifies minimal government, analyzes the errors of "progressive" education and public "welfare," attacks conscription as counterproductive and wrong in itself, and expounds a unique theory about the "long circuit of energy" involved in free exchange, and the ways in which economic and political institutions can either protect or disrupt the flow of productive power.

The ideas of The God of the Machine were too challenging for the general public, but it was known and loved by intellectuals who sought a path beyond the increasingly complacent New Deal consensus. Paterson's admirers were a diverse group – Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Russell Kirk, John Chamberlain, R. C. Hoiles, Leonard Read, Ayn Rand. The great economist Murray Rothbard called The God of the Machine "this wonderful book . . . Mrs. Paterson is sound as a bell." The wonderful book has been published in five editions and has never ceased making converts to liberty.

Isabel Paterson died in 1961, just before her 75th birthday. Though eligible for Social Security, she had never accepted its payments, relying instead on modest investments in real estate. She meant to demonstrate through personal example that people could survive without asking the government to "help" them. She did so. And she demonstrated a great deal more. She provided rich evidence for her thesis that there are no social conditions to which individuals automatically have to submit: "Progress is always possible. . . The most extreme fallacy is to believe that nothing can be done."

The individual can't have an impact? "Such a lot of nonsense!" she would say.

November 30, 2004

Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (Transaction Publishers, 2004), a comprehensive account of Paterson's life and thought.