Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Isabel Paterson's Political Philosophy (first attempt)

Lately, while eating lunch, I have been rereading portions of Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine in hopes of reducing it to a few succinct talking points.  This is more difficult than I expected.  Below is my first attempt, which is much longer than I wanted, but I plan to take this narrative and reduce it further.  It may take some time, but succinctly articulating Paterson's political philosophy is a worthy endeavor.  This is my first attempt.  A better draft will follow.

I cannot claim that I fully understand Isabel Paterson's political philosophy, expressed in God of the Machine.  However, because she never expresses herself clearly or succinctly, this is my best attempt.  Regardless of its truthfulness, it is a useful system to contemplate in an era where government expansion is debated.  Although the book is frustratingly difficult to read, the intellectual challenge it poses makes it a delight.  Some things are worth the effort, and God of the Machine is among them.
  1. Energy is used as a metaphor for economic wealth and social felicity throughout the book, and the nations that allow individuals economic freedom--largely embodied in the right to own, modify, and protect property--generate the most energy.
  2. Greek democracy stood no chance for energy generation, because democracy without individual rights allows large groups to confiscate the property of others, thereby removing the individual's incentive to create energy.  "Democracy inevitably lapses into tyranny...With the Greeks, the hopeless instability of democracy allowed no security of the individual against the mass."  I caution the reader that she criticized only those democracies without strong individual rights.  She was not against American-style democracy, even if she disliked many aspects of it.
  3. The great breakthrough in political structure emerged in Roman Empire, who required all Roman citizens to obey the same laws, and these laws provided extensive individual rights.  "Rome raised no exclusive barriers, and refrained from granting formal monopolies.  Roman law affirmed private property, and in the circumstances was bound to be most careful of the citizen; this tended toward individualism."  Although she praised Rome's construction of roads, bridges, and aqueducts, she did not frame this activity as an effective government providing valuable public goods.  Libertarians dislike the fact that public goods do exist, and the fact that sometimes governments can sometimes generate great wealth by investing in public goods.  In fact, like Ayn Rand, she denies that public goods exist, claiming the benefits of a good can only be experienced by individuals.  This, however, is semantics.  The communist champions the "collective good" because he believes it generates the most benefits for the individual within that collective.
  4. From this legal structure, two manifestations of power are desirable.  One is the central power, referred to as the "mass-veto" and the other are regional bases.  It is from these two structures the U.S. devised the House and the Senate.
    1. Mass-veto: Before the reformation the Catholic church (in those days, simply "the church") provided the mechanism by which the the masses could exert control over all of Christendom through the power of the Pope.  Would nobles have allowed serfs so many holidays if they were not religious holidays sanctioned by the Pope?  Do not underestimate the power of the Pope, especially in the Early and High Middle Ages.  The Holy Roman Emperor must be crowned by the Pope (or at least approved by the Pope...a tradition that began with Charlemagne), and when the Pope excommunicated Emperor Henry IV the Emperor performed penance by standing barefoot in the snow for two days next to a caste where the Pope took shelter.  When the Pope lost his influence the English replaced it with a more effective institution: the House of Commons.  Mrs. Paterson states, "...the secular government learned from the church how to fix a center, a problem which had been insoluble in the Roman Empire.  The authority (since defined as infallibility) of the Pope existed finally only in ecumenical council and within a prescribed sphere (of faith and morals).  So in the English form of secular government as it evolved, the authority of the king existed only in conjunction with Parliament and within the scope of law.  When Charles I failed to perceive this distinction, it was imparted to him with the edge of the axe."  It is this mass-veto--the manifestation of the entire kingdom's political influence through a single apparatus--that Isabel claims eliminated serfdom (in England).
    2. Regional Bases--Western Europe was in constant flux of power, sometimes held by one autocrat, and sometimes by barons wealthier than the king.  Political intrigue was so interesting because there was this constant conflict between nobles and their kings, especially in England, where the Magna Carta spelled out this conflict explicitly.  Paterson asserts the presents of the regional bases held considerable value for the society because it provided a refuge for the oppressed, and thus limited the ability of one autocrat to suppress the energy of an entire nation. There would also be a competition among the various regional bases.  As each baron sought to acquire more wealth than other barons, there would be competition for which set of taxes and property rights generated the baron the greatest wealth.  To some extent this resulted in a baron bleeding his vassal's dry of wealth, and to some extent the baron must temper his level of taxation, less he discourage all economic activity.  Crosby supports Paterson's depiction of "regional bases" but carries it further to identify other sources of protection: "Western Europe was a warren of jurisdictions--kingdoms, dukedomes, baronies, bishoprics, communes, guilds, universities, and more--a compost of checks and balances."
  5. What is unique about The God of the Machine is Paterson's reluctance to articulate specifically her political philosophy.  Instead she asserts herself through her wide grasp and keen understanding of history.  Perhaps it is wise not to spell-out one's political philosophy word-for-word, and with succinctness.  Anything written succinctly is an easy target for snarky criticism, because brevity precludes thorough justification.  What Paterson does do is narrate the history of American government, and why it is the closest thing to utopia humans will probably ever create.  This is my attempt to summarize her philosophy, reducing the aforementioned remarks to their essence.
    1. The survival of a society is determined by its ability to produce and trade.  Social felicity is a human action, action which will only take place with the proper motivation.
    2. Action is a decision made by humans, which takes place when the individual has economic freedom, including private property and protection from confiscation.  These are individual rights, not the rights of groups.
    3. Economic freedom is best bestowed in a system of laws, where each person is subject to the same laws.
    4. The universality of laws protecting individual rights is best created and preserved in a political system where power is decentralized, allowing the oppressed to take refuge from one group into the protection of another group, and where all individuals can ban together and veto the actions of any one group.
    5. Thus we have the U.S., with a constitution protecting individual rights to property and equal rights, where all presidents serve with the consent of all citizens, and where power is shared not only between three branches of federal government, but state governments as well.
Paterson's reluctance to articulate her political philosophy is compensated for her willingness to address her exact beliefs on the U.S. republic.  In one of the best endings to a book I have ever seen, she states, "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. If Americans should now turn back, submit again to slavery, it would be a betrayal so base the human race might better perish. The opportunity is equally great to justify the faith which animated that long travail, and bequeathed them such a noble and happy heritage."

I recommend God of the Machine to anyone who likes history and politics, and also encourage progressives to study it, as it doesn't take much tweaking of Paterson's theory to allow public goods, despite her resistance to anything called a "common good."

Paterson, Isabel.  The God of the Machine.  1943.
Crosby, Alfred.  The Measure of Reality. 1997.

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