Three women are often credited with laying the foundations for the modern libertarian movement: the well-known philosopher and author Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane — daughter of Laura Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie fame — and Isabel Paterson, the author of the book The God of the Machine, one of the founding texts of libertarianism.
What is notable from an Alberta perspective is Isabel Paterson — although born in Ontario — was raised in southern Alberta. She is a powerful Alberta link to the origin of libertarianism.
Paterson’s The God of the Machine was republished by Transaction Publishers in 1993, and it contains a new introduction by Stephen Cox, a literature professor at the University of California, San Diego. Cox’s introduction provides a brief biography of Paterson that highlights her contribution to the modern libertarian and conservative movements.
Paterson was born Isabel Bowler on Manitoulin Island in Ontario in 1886. While still very young, her family moved to southern Alberta where she grew up on a cattle ranch. In her late teens, she moved to Calgary where she worked at various odd jobs and eventually became a secretary for lawyer R. B. Bennett who would later become prime minister of Canada. Bennett saw potential in Bowler and offered to have her article as a law student in his office, but she declined.
She married Kenneth Birrell Paterson in Calgary in 1910. It was a short-lived marriage, but she nevertheless kept his surname. During the 1910s she moved a number of times to different cities, mostly in the United States, writing for a number of periodicals. She also began to write novels. Her first, The Shadow Riders, appeared in 1916. The story is set in Alberta and involves intrigue between businessmen and government.
Paterson became the literary editor for the New York Herald Tribune in 1924 and remained there until 1949 when she was fired due to her political views. The Herald Tribune was a prestigious periodical with a national circulation, and due to her position there, Paterson became a well-known and influential writer.
It was during this period that she became friends with Ayn Rand, who Cox describes as Paterson’s “protégé.” Indeed, Cox writes that Paterson “exerted a substantial effect on the individualist philosophy that Rand was evolving; no one else, certainly, had so great an influence on it as Paterson.”
When Rand wrote The Fountainhead, a work of philosophical fiction, Paterson used her column to promote it. Eventually, however, Paterson and Rand fell out. As William F. Buckley later remarked, “Paterson fought over principles; and she had a lot of principles to fight over.”
Paterson’s greatest work, The God of the Machine, was published in 1943. Cox writes that it emphasizes two principles: “an ethical and economic individualism based on the concept of inherent rights, including property rights; and the institutional complement of individualism, limited government.”
Cox further explains that the “individual’s right, in Paterson’s terms, is the right to be left alone, to develop in his or her own way; government should act to protect this right, not to pursue its own schemes of social betterment.” That’s a message that needs to be heard again.
Unlike a great many other journalists of her time, Paterson was not enthralled by the Soviet Union. While many viewed communism as the wave of the future, she wanted people to know that the communists were using starvation and slavery to advance their self-proclaimed “humanitarian” goals.
As Cox notes, Paterson rightly believed that the “real danger to liberty and prosperity is intellectual, not military.” For this reason, K-12 education is a key battleground for the future, and Paterson forcefully opposed public (i.e., government) schooling which she considered to be “a system of state compulsion.”
In the end, The God of the Machine “made a significant contribution to a significant group of people, an isolated band of intellectuals, far outside the mainstream, who were seeking alternatives to collectivist ideals.”
Albert Jay Nock, one of the best-known early twentieth century individualists, stated The God of the Machine and Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (also published in 1943), were “the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century.”
When William F. Buckley founded National Review in 1955 — the flagship magazine of modern conservatism — he eagerly pursued Paterson to write for it. She did for a few years before falling out with Buckley.
The point, though, is that one of the founding intellectuals of the libertarian and conservative movements grew up in Alberta. It’s possible — even likely — her political views took shape while she lived here. No doubt her philosophy would still find wide appeal with many people in the province, especially readers of the Western Standard. Perhaps a new generation of Albertans will read The God of the Machine and benefit from its advocacy for individualism and limited government.
Wagner is a Western Standard columnist