Eager to brush up on the new Republican vice presidential nominee and the inspiration behind his budget-cutting “Path to Prosperity”? Dust off your library of Ayn Rand – “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” will do – and settle in.
Paul Ryan, the boyish young representative from Wisconsin who is injecting Romney’s presidential bid with fresh conservatism, is an ardent Randian who often cites Rand as his inspiration for entering public service and the philosophical basis for his economic vision for America.
“[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said in a 2005 speech to the Rand-devoted Atlas Society.
“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are,” he told the group, adding, “It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
In fact, two years earlier Ryan told the Weekly Standard, “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents.”
Rand, “an atheist with a tartly Darwinian world view,” as the LA Times recently wrote, was a Russian émigré, author, and the philosophical force behind objectivism, the idea that people should pursue their own rational self-interest rather than the good of others. As such, laissez-faire capitalism is the ideal economic system according to Rand’s views, and the only system that embodies the Randian philosophy.
Rand rendered her philosophies into the bestselling “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” two books which form part of the modern conservative canon, books which helped inspire generations of conservatives and libertarians like Ryan. (Incidentally, Ryan’s mentor, Jack Kemp, the New York congressman and Bob Dole running mate, was also a huge fan. So was five-time US Senator Barry Goldwater, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.)
But Ryan took his Randian devotion further, using it as the inspiration for his “Path to Prosperity,” his controversial austere budget plan that calls for ending Medicare as a mandate and replacing it with a voucher system.
You see, Rand abhorred social welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security (though she reportedly signed on for both when she reached eligibility). She frequently spoke of “makers” subsidizing society’s “takers,” and warned against such “parasitic behavior.”
“What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” Ryan said in a series of videos posted to Facebook in 2009. “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”
Now here’s the funny thing. After years of praising Rand, assigning Rand readings to subordinates, and gifting friends and colleagues “Atlas Shrugged” for Christmas, Ryan has recently taken pains to distance himself from the conservative matriarch.
The congressman from Wisconsin characterized his Rand-devotion as “urban legend” in a recent interview in the National Review.
In fact, his romance with Rand was nothing more than a youthful dalliance, Ryan told the National Review. “I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” he said. “…[but] I reject her philosophy.”
Why the sudden about-face?
The atheist Rand, as the New Yorker pointed out in a recent piece, “is something of a philosophical wedge issue on the right, dividing religious conservatives from free market libertarians.” As such, continued the piece, “Ryan’s sidestep from Rand was politically essential. As a Mormon, the last thing Romney needs is to alienate the Christian Right further by putting an acolyte of an atheist on the ticket.”
And let’s not forget the sting of social Darwinism, a no-no in these tough economic times. As the LA Times suggests, “[B]y the time he introduced his austere budget plan this year… Ryan was being depicted as a harsh absolutist. He did not need to be tied too closely to Rand and her sink-or-swim imperatives.”
Which brings us to this, uttered by Ryan in the same National Review article. “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told the Review. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.”
And so, when push comes to shove, Ryan has shrugged off Ayn Rand. The only thing more insightful than Ryan’s devotion to Rand, it turns out, is his rejection of her.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.