Magazine article The American Conservative

Finding Atlas: Before Ayn Rand There Was Isabel Paterson

Magazine article The American Conservative

Finding Atlas: Before Ayn Rand There Was Isabel Paterson

Article excerpt

THE ECONOMIST recently reported that Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, is back on the bestseller lists. A week before the president's inauguration, more people were buying it than Obama's Audacity of Hope.

For the uninitiated, Atlas explores a future world in which the nation's economy is collapsing because of government interference. The theme developed out of Rand's own era: she started planning her novel in 1943, in the midst of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But it's no wonder that it seems relevant today. New Deal activism, which was principally responsible for prolonging the Great Depression, guides our current economic stimulators.

Rand's disciples are a devoted lot. A recent issue of the New Yorker profiled one local group--the dentist with "John Galt," the hero of Atlas Shrugged, on his license plate; the wealth manager who piously intones, "I've been a follower of Ayn Rand for five years"; the helpful fellow who suggests, "When civilization collapses, we'll just have to organize an Objectivist gang."

Mention the name Isabel Paterson in such a gathering, and you're likely to draw blank looks. For all the fervor that Rand inspires, little notice is paid to the woman who most inspired her.

Paterson (1886-1961) was a novelist and literary critic. She was slight, just over five feet tall, with a delicate taste in food and drink, a deep love of nature, and a nationally famous sense of humor. Stubborn and sharp-witted, she was also one of the New Deal's fiercest foes.

Paterson grew up in poverty on the Western frontier. She had only two years of formal schooling. But she learned from her own experience, as well as her encyclopedic knowledge of history, that economic success results from individual initiative, not federal management. As an author, she also knew what makes a plausible story and could see that there could not possibly be a happy ending to the government's efforts to fix everything that was broken in the 1930s.

Both Roosevelt and his hapless predecessor, Herbert Hoover, tried to inspire confidence by keeping unsuccessful enterprises afloat at the expense of successful ones. Strangely, prudent investors declined to be stimulated, no matter how fervently they were exhorted to trust the government's programs. For Paterson, that result was tediously predictable. She told readers she was "tired of being told that 'credit depends on confidence.' Fudge. Credit depends on real assets, sound money and a clean record.... When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind."

Then there was the issue of government planning. To Paterson, the notion that federal experts can plan to ensure the people's welfare was a ridiculous projection of childish fantasies--"a mother's boy economic program with a kind maternal government taking care of everybody out of an inexhaustible income drawn from mysterious sources." Perfect planning requires perfect foresight--and who possesses that?

Paterson's Golden Vanity, one of the few good novels about the Depression, focuses on reputed experts' outrageous failures of foresight. Its climactic scene is a confrontation between an investor and the financier she entrusted with her money--a man who worked, with the government's assistance, to create a baffling maze of bad investments. When she hears him admit, "We could not foresee...," she has finally had enough. "Why couldn't you foresee?" she demands. "If you can't foresee, what are you paid for?" She is wrathful, and there is dignity in her wrath.

The fundamental problem, Paterson proposed, is confusion of the economy with politics. In 1932, when Hoover was still in office, she said that "our 'best minds' ... have already got the political machinery dangerously entangled with the economic system, disrupting both; and they are now demanding that the government should save them from what they've done to it. …

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