10/15/2012

Reviewing God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson

 

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God of the Machine is a book I struggled with. There can be no doubt that Isabel Paterson is a deep thinker and contributes much in the way of political theory. However, I found the prevailing theme of this work – comparing society to a machine, paying specific attention to whether the flow of energy powering the machine was moving in a beneficial or harmful direction – to be a bit overwhelming. It’s not that I have any problem with the metaphor per se, it just feels like Ms. Paterson is almost acting as if it isn’t a metaphor at all, but an explanation of historical events and society in general. I’m not sure I agree with her assumptions, but the biggest problem I had was the consistent and repeated attention given to that theme. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable from this reader’s perspective and after reading the first 8 chapters I had enough. At that point I decided to skip ahead to the most highly cited and praised chapters, Chapter 20, "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine” and Chapter 21, “Our Japanized Educational System.” Both are brilliant on their own merits, and coincidentally pay much less attention to the machine metaphor than any other part of the book. Here’s one gem to give you an idea:

The government is thus supposed to be empowered to give “security” to the needy. It cannot. What it does is to seize the provision made by private persons for their own security, thus depriving everyone of every hope or chance of security. It can do nothing else, if it acts at all. Those who do not understand the nature of the action are like savages who might cut down a tree to get the fruit; they do not think over time and space, as civilized men must think.

Reinvigorated by how much I enjoyed these two chapters I read Chapters 22 and 19 only to find myself struggling with the same issues that I found in the first half of the book.

I think the most important point to take away from my reading is that if you read any of the more popular quotes, like the one above, that almost exclusively come from Chapters 20 and 21, be prepared that those chapters are not representative of what the rest of the book is like. That’s not to say that the book isn’t good or that some people won’t enjoy it very much. I didn’t. I found it to be a bit boring, with many pages devoting to discussing historical events in a way that struck me as scattered and not very interesting. One of my biggest issues was the machine metaphor theme that I felt was overall misguided, extremely distracting, and treated too literally at times. For instance, “Private property, money, freedom, engineering, and industry are all one system; they are the components of the high potential long circuit of energy.” or when discussing the fall of Rome:

The structure of the republic was vertical and its source of energy internal. It collapsed from the horizontal drive of an overwhelming current of energy from without. The mechanism of the empire operated horizontally, by a centripetal intake of energy. Given the existent factors, it was capable of wide extension; but its continuance called for positive resistance to the agencies of government from the peripheral parts. It was really maintained by the residual separatist tendency of the component nations.

So be prepared for a tremendous amount of the above in this book, and if you find that style of prose compelling, you will most certainly enjoy God of The Machine. I did not, but the chapters on humanitarianism and education contain amazing passages that are rightfully cited in many other libertarian works that address the respective issues.

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