Did Paul Ryan Throw Ayn Rand Under the Bus?
Seven years ago, at an event celebrating Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, Representative Paul Ryan talked effusively to a crowd of die-hard Objectivists--proponents of Ayn Rand's individualist philosophy--of her influence on his thinking. "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand."
But it's an old rule of politics that when one of your friends rises to prominence, the first thing he will do is to disavow any association with you. And so Paul Ryan recently gave an interview to National Review--a conservative publication that has been hostile to Rand since the beginning--in which he declares, "I reject her philosophy."
Well, I suppose that's how things work in Washington, DC. As they say: if you want a friend, get a dog.
In fact, this news is not quite the blockbuster you might think. When you get through the sensational-sounding teasers, what Ryan is saying about his views is pretty much what we already knew: he is influenced by Ayn Rand, particularly in politics and economics and on the issue of individualism vs. collectivism. But he is not an Objectivist--that is, a consistent adherent of her philosophy. Ayn Rand was an atheist, for example, and Ryan is a Catholic. He specifically names the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas as a greater influence on his own philosophy (though I suppose Rand couldn't have complained too much, since Aquinas was one of the few other philosophers she admired).
Ryan's recent disavowal of Ayn Rand's philosophy is specifically in response to Georgetown University's Father Thomas J. Reese. Speaking for the Catholic left, Father Reese declared that "Chairman Ryan's budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love." This just shows that Reese knows little or nothing about the ideas of Ayn Rand (or of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, for that matter). The fact is that Ryan is not really an enemy of the welfare state. Indeed, his budget proposals are an effort to save the welfare state by reducing it to a more limited, economically sustainable form.
I am an Objectivist and an enemy of the welfare state. I still support Ryan's plan because a limited welfare state is better than an unlimited one. But I don't do so with any illusion that he's working toward the Objectivist ideal. I can accept that, because this is how the influence of new ideas works. It is natural that the impact of Ayn Rand's philosophy will first be partial and indirect, in politics and economics, and it will take longer for most people to accept her more radical ideas on topics like religion and morality.
What is unfortunate is that Ryan's limited understanding of and engagement with Ayn Rand's ideas is causing him to miss out on a crucial dimension of the case for limited government and free markets.
He says that he disagrees with Ayn Rand's philosophy because it "reduces human interactions down to mere contracts." Mere contracts? There's the problem, isn't it? There, in one phrase, is the root of so much of the disdain for markets and economics that drives the left.
In fact, one of Ayn Rand's most important insights was that there is a whole morality implicit in the contract and the business deal. A contract involves mutual consent and mutual advantage. It is based on the principle of trade, of giving value for value. Ayn Rand applies this idea, which she called the Trader Principle, far beyond business and economics. Ayn Rand wasn't just against freeloaders in the economic realm. She recognized that there is such a thing as a spiritual moocher, too.
One of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged, for example, is a businessmen trapped in a loveless marriage with a calculating shrew who uses him for her own social and political advancement. At one point he suddenly realizes that in business, a contract in which one party offers nothing of value, in which all of the obligations are on one side and all of the benefits are on the other, would not be considered valid. Yet he is asked to endure this arrangement for the sake of "love" and "compassion," none of which is ever shown toward him.
Ayn Rand was deliberately setting out to show what terms like "love" and "compassion" have been distorted to mean, in the language of the left, and how they have been turned into tools of exploitation. Behind this is the deepest root of Ayn Rand's defense of capitalism: the idea that the individual's life is an end in itself, that he has a right to live for his own sake and not just to be sacrificed in the service of others. Yet isn't that what the non-contractual morality implies--that you are there to be looted and can't claim the right to any consideration in return?
If you want to see this non-contractual morality in action, the ultimate rejection of the Trader Principle, the Obama campaign has kindly furnished you with an example. Obama's 2012 re-election website features a guide to the life of "Julia," a fictional woman who goes from cradle to grave soaking up benefits from the state, thanks to Barack Obama. The feature has been much ridiculed on the right by those who point out how Julia's existence is oddly lacking in many of the features of an actual human life, as if she were just another of Obama's composite girlfriends. She decides to have a child, for example, but there is no mention of a husband or father, because his roles are filled by the state. What I think is more telling is that there are no milestones in her life between the ages of 42 and 65--the average person's peak earning years and, not coincidentally, the years in which we pay the highest burden in taxes. There is no mention, at any point, of the taxes paid by her or others, no running tally of her share of the federal debt that has been piled up to pay for all of Obama's munificence.
This is no accident. I guess you could say that Julia's human interactions have not been reduced to mere contracts. Instead, her role is to be a passive consumer of benefits. The person who pays for those benefits is irrelevant. Even her own role in paying for them is irrelevant. Julia is, after all, not presented as poor. She is described as having a career as a "web designer," a respectable white-collar job for the hip, educated upper middle class. But there is no mention of any role that Julia has in paying for her own health insurance, saving for her own retirement, or providing for her children's education. Why? Because these are "mere contracts" without moral significance--while the benefits provided to her at the expense of others, unearned and without compensation, those are the events with moral significance. Hence the notion that the ideal woman is a ward of the state.
Representative Ryan got it right the first time around, seven years ago. He did need Ayn Rand's individualist philosophy to spark his interest in economic freedom. He needed it precisely because she regarded contracts and trade as morally significant, as the expressions and necessary conditions of the autonomy of the individual. It's too bad his deeper loyalties--to Catholic philosophy and to political expediency--have prevented him from realizing it.