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In the Liberal Tradition

Whoever is fortunate enough to be an American citizen came into the greatest inheritance man has ever enjoyed. He has had the benefit of every heroic and intellectual effort men have made for many thousands of years, realized at last.

Journalist, philosopher, and literary critic Isabel Paterson may have faded into obscurity in the last few decades, but she is one of the greatest classical liberal thinkers of her time. She is lauded as one of the three women (along with Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand) who launched the libertarian movement in America.

Paterson is probably most well-known for her 1943 book The God of the Machine, a treatise on political philosophy, economics, and history. Ayn Rand said this book “does for capitalism what Das Kapital does for the Reds.” This book is especially significant because it was not written by a rich industrialist looking to justify their own wealth accumulation, but rather, it was written by a passionate, struggling writer. Paterson was deeply appreciative of Lord Acton’s work. Toward the end of The God of the Machine, she calls him the “most profound scholar of the past century.”

Born Isabel Mary Bowler in Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Paterson and her struggling family relocated to the United States when she was young. She became a U.S. citizen when she was 42. She received no formal education, but taught herself by reading prolifically and spent her early life working various odd jobs. This time instilled in her a sense of self-sufficiency and a strong work ethic.

In 1910, Paterson married Kenneth B. Paterson. While the two quickly separated, she did keep his name. She moved to New York City after World War I and began writing frequently, becoming the literary editor and a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. Paterson’s column “Turns with a Bookworm” featured any topic she felt like writing about—often economics and politics. She also gained prominence in 1912 for riding in a plane with Harry B. Brown while he broke the American altitude record. She called this “the greatest experience of [her] life.”

While working for the Herald Tribune, she often held discussions with young writers. Paterson is credited with shaping Rand’s thoughts on government and teaching her American history; however, by 1948 the two had a falling out. While Paterson was not a Roman Catholic, she was sympathetic to Catholic philosophy and believed that morality was necessary for an economic foundation. “The Christian idea,” she said, “was necessary to the concept of freedom.” Rand, who famously believed that religion and capitalism were incompatible, strongly disagreed with Paterson and the two no longer saw enough overlap in their beliefs to work together.

In her later years, Isabel Paterson was profoundly influential on American conservatism, most notably on Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley. She contributed to the National Review for a time. Paterson and Kirk kept up a correspondence after he read and was inspired by The God of the Machine. After she retired, she notoriously did not claim any social security and, supposedly, kept her social security card in an envelope marked “Social Security Swindle.”

While her name may not gain much recognition today, her influence on classical liberalism in America is important to remember, and anyone interested in free market economics can benefit from becoming familiar with her work.