In a more fact-based world, the centrality of Ayn Rand to Paul Ryan’s perspective on the world would be undeniable. She is, so to speak, the fountainhead from which much of his political thought flows. But rather than take my word for it, listen to Ryan himself, just three short years ago, laying it out explicitly in back-to-back videos prepared by his congressional campaign:
For those unable to watch the video, the earnest Ryan says, among other things:
“What’s unique about what’s happening today in government and in the world and America is that it’s as if we are living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. … I think Ayn Rand did more than anybody to build a moral case for capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.”
Again, Ryan’s voluntary, unprovoked and clearly heartfelt profession of Randian philosophy came in 2009, just three years ago, and it is just one in a long string of public expressions by Ryan of his loyalty to and faith in Rand’s philosophy.
More recently, of course, Ryan has attempted to pretend that none of that has occurred, proclaiming it “urban legend” that he had been influenced by Rand and claiming to “reject her philosophy.” However, if that’s true, this sudden change of heart has not been accompanied by any matching change in Ryan’s political outlook. It remains today what it was when he was still willing to publicly celebrate Rand’s claim to moral authority.
Why is this relevant? Well, Randian philosophy — “objectivism” they call it — is to my mind soft-headed, romantic claptrap that attempts vainly to masquerade as hard-headed, pragmatic economic theory. Its appeal is emotional, not intellectual. And while for individual persons, particularly young people, Rand’s work may be effective as a “self-help philosophy” and motivational tool, as the basis of a society or economic system it would be profoundly impractical and even cruel.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, of course, given that Rand rejected the existence of society in the first place. In fact, she treated the very notion of social responsibility as a conspiracy by which the weak parasites of the world attempt to seize the products of the strong and virile creators. In the video above, Ryan clearly buys into that world view, arguing that Randian individualism represents “the moral foundation of America.”
On that count, I personally find the witness of Thomas Jefferson more convincing, given that he helped to lay the foundation in question. Even back in Jefferson’s day, “self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism” was being proposed by some as the basis of morality, but the drafter of the Declaration of Independence was having none of it.
Self-love, Jefferson warned, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others…. Take from man his selfish propensities, and he can have nothing to seduce him from the practice of virtue.”
Ryan’s background also plays into the problem. Like his running mate, he is a child born into relative wealth and privilege. That does not make either Ryan or Mitt Romney evil, wrong, foolish or misguided. To the contrary, their shared background says nothing at all about their personal character or leadership abilities.
It must, however, affect their perspective, just as being born into poverty or struggle affects the perspective of those who experience the world from that end of things.
Knowing that you have been born into that rarified world, with all the advantage that it confers, ought to make you a little humble about lecturing others about lifting themselves up by their bootstraps. It ought to make you a little less arrogant about your own success, and a little more sympathetic toward those to whom raw luck has been a little less kind. It should make you acknowledge, to yourself if no one else, that you stand where you stand in part because of factors over which you have had no control, and to understand that others stand where they stand in part because of factors over which they too have had no control.
However, in Ryan’s political rhetoric and policy pronouncements there is little evidence of the leavening power of humility. The philosophy of Rand has served to inoculate him and others against such dark thoughts, whispering in their ears the reassurance that that their success is testament only to their own merit, and freeing them of any obligation to assist others.
I don’t accept that argument. It is antithetical to human nature and to thousands of years of human history in which the individual has had responsibilities to the group, and the group has had responsibilities to the individual. The genius of the American system in particular has been its ability to create a workable, ethical balance between those competing responsibilities.
The “morality” that Ryan proposes would toss that balance aside, creating a system the likes of which has never been seen, and which would meet no definition of the word “moral” that I, or Jefferson, would accept.
– Jay Bookman