Paul Ryan (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
If you don’t know who Paul Ryan is, you better read this profile by Jonathan Chait–or if you don’t like Chait’s style, then try Ryan Lizza’s more nuanced piece in the New Yorker. Same bottom line: Paul Ryan is the sunny-faced embodiment of a naive (or cynical, in Chait’s analysis) politics of selfishness. He is the Republican point man for the old parlor game called “trickle down economics,” and he does it all with a winsome smile and a cheerful disposition–a very potent political cocktail in these fearful times.
Ryan has said that he entered politics as a result of reading Ayn Rand. Most people who admire Rand want nothing to do with government. There are those, however–and Ryan is among them–who want to get close enough to it that they can strangle it with their bare hands…and then kick its corpse. Ryan has been at this his entire adult life, starting his career under the tutelage of the original trickle-down, supply-sider Jack Kemp at a Washington D.C. “think tank” before eventually moving up the ladder to become a U.S. congressman by the precocious age of 28. Before 2009, he routinely proclaimed a great affinity for Ayn Rand’s ideas, even gushing to reporters that he encouraged his interns to read ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ Rand’s fictionalized political manifesto. But eventually the politically ascendant and Roman Catholic Ryan had to downplay Rand’s influence when some members of the press started explaining to the general public just how extreme her views really were. He now claims Thomas Aquinas (seriously) as a bigger influence. But a quick look at Ryan’s budget demonstrates just how little Aquinas and how much Rand there still is in the now 42-year-old chair of the Congressional Budget Committee.
If you are not familiar with Ayn Rand, or haven’t read her since high school–a time in one’s life when she may actually make sense, especially if you are an intelligent and somewhat isolated “nerd against the herd”–I urge you to watch the following interview conducted by Mike Wallace back in 1959. It is a full-throated defense of what she calls at various times “rational self-interest” and, yes, “selfishness.”
Rand’s idea of selfishness is not to be confused with the self-interest of Adam Smith, who in ‘Wealth of Nations’ actually called for a social safety net, as well as for certain government regulations (especially for the banking sector). In the long view of history, his insights into human nature seem considerably more nuanced than Rand’s, and therefore more “objective.” Rand, on the other hand, tends to describe the pursuit of wealth as a zero sum game, “us” vs. “them,” even going so far as to call altruism “evil” unless it is initiated by some act of selfishness. Starting at 4:43 of the video you can hear her defense of this position. Notice that aside from her propensity to create a straw man on one corner and run it over with a bulldozer on the other, almost everything she proposes about human nature is framed in terms of either/or, this or that, me or them–a sign of a very immature philosophy.
We can locate the core problem with “objectivism” in her discussion of altruism and love: only Ayn Rand, or someone with similar values (“virtues” she erroneously calls them), is truly worthy of love and respect. When pressed by Wallace on this, she even admits that by her standards there are very few people who deserve love. Any parent can point out the flaw in this argument, but then again, maybe I’m being selfish.
At 9:36 Wallace moves the discussion to politics, wrapping his questions around a theme I’ve been hearing a lot in President Obama’s recent speeches: are we not our brothers’ keepers? Rand, of course, believes this to be non-sense, a weakness of the will based on sentiment rather than logic. The welfare system and the taxes that support it, she famously asserts, “enslave” us by shackling the ability of our greatest achievers to create, which in turn keeps us all from achieving true freedom. But you could just as easily claim that no one is more creative than a man who has no idea where his next meal is coming from. Just ride the “L” sometime in Chicago and listen to the stories people tell for money. Imagine what they could create if they had it.
But the biggest flaw in Rand’s political philosophy is not that it celebrates self-interest, but rather that it ignores the historical and cultural context in which self-interest arose in the first place. The entire philosophy strikes me as a conclusion in search of a premise: It is good that I am wealthy. Why? Rand’s answer: Because I work harder and am more intelligent than others. The poor resent me for this, and are attempting to force me to support their inferior lives with my hard-earned money.
To use the word “enslaved” (as Rand does) to describe the tax rates of corporate bosses betrays a profound ignorance of the social fabric in which poverty, suffering, and dependence were created in this country. The political and economic context in which certain groups of people have been systematically denied access to the tools of a successful life (“separate but equal,” Jim Crow laws, reservations for American Indians, etc.) is completely ignored in so-called “objectivist” philosophy. It is as if all of our lives are lived in a vacuum of opportunity and dewy mornings in the country–that racism, sexism, greed and corruption don’t exist, only resentment does.
That Rand was speaking here in 1959, several years before the Civil Rights Act, displays a shocking degree of ignorance (or cruelty). This alone, to my mind, renders her philosophy an intellectual failure. Perhaps “objectivism” ignores history because its truths are too inconvenient–that some people become rich not because of their superior intellectual abilities, but because they have wielded the military, economic, and political power over others that has allowed them to do so. You can’t tell me that if George W. Bush had been born in the 9th Ward of Houston he would have become a wealthy oilman and owner of a baseball team, let alone president of the United States of America. He had a few advantages.
Social context matters, and if your social context is one that tells you that up until 1963 you didn’t deserve the same rights as white Americans (voting, education, business loans, etc.), then you are facing obstacles that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney cannot possibly understand. Contrary to what many conservative politicians claim, liberals, progressives, and Democrats don’t want the government to simply provide handouts to those who do, in fact, game the system. What they want is simply for the system to be fair and humane. Might does not equal right.
A thorough critique of Rand’s political philosophy would take up more space than I care to devote here, but you get the picture. What is truly frightening is that we now have a serious vice presidential candidate in Paul Ryan who wants to implement Rand’s economic vision in this country. He began his crusade during the Bush II years when, along with John Sununu, he gave us the first “serious” proposal for the privatization of Social Security, which would have, in fact, led to its demise if ever enacted. And his current budget proposal should send shivers down your spine, especially if you are, like most of us, one or two paychecks away from the shelter.
To get the gist of Ryan’s budget plan, let’s take a quick look at how it deals with Medicare. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Ryan budget doesn’t at all address the absurd cost of health care for the elderly, but rather rewards insurance companies by simply shifting the financial burden from the federal government to the elderly and their families–and by a significant amount.
The Ryan plan would also replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with premium-support payments to seniors (starting with new beneficiaries in 2023) that they would use to buy coverage from private insurance companies or traditional Medicare. The growth in these payments each year would be limited to the percentage increase in per capita GDP plus one-half percentage point. For more than 30 years, however, health care costs per beneficiary in the United States have risen an average of about two percentage points per year faster than GDP per capita. CBO thus projects that under the Ryan budget, federal Medicare expenditures on behalf of an average 67-year-old beneficiary would, by 2050, be 35 percent to 42 percent lower than under current law.
Under the Ryan budget, moreover, Medicare would no longer make payments to health care providers such as doctors and hospitals; it would instead provide premium-support vouchers to beneficiaries that they’d use to help buy coverage from private insurance companies or traditional Medicare. Therefore, the only way to keep Medicare cost growth within the GDP +0.5 percentage-point target would be to limit the annual increase in the government’s premium-support vouchers. That would very likely cause the vouchers to grow more slowly than health care costs — and hence purchase less coverage with each passing year. Over time, more costs would likely be pushed on to beneficiaries.
And this is just a small sample of how Ryan’s accounting works. Overall, it is estimated that 3/5s of his proposed cuts to federal expenditures are in programs that support the poor and most vulnerable in our society. Yet, given historic lows in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, and historic highs in the percentage of overall wealth held by the top 1%, Ryan does not propose even the slightest increase in their taxes.
This is what happens when an immature philosophy takes hold in an ambitious, powerful, and well-to-do politician’s mind. I imagine it would be hard to develop empathy for the poor when so much of your professional and personal identity is wrapped up in a political philosophy that does not in fact see them as worthy of love. It is possible–and I certainly hope that it is true–that he has more Aquinas in him than Rand, but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. And given Mitt Romney’s recent speeches and political ads emphasizing Obama’s supposed embrace of the “welfare state,” I think it is fair to view his selection of Paul Ryan as an endorsement of his party’s most radical, anti-government, and inhumane ideas. Although we may at times be tempted to dismiss politics as a cynical exercise in power, I don’t think Paul Ryan is cynical at all. I just think he is ignorant, having wrapped himself in a childish philosophy that fails to cultivate empathy for those who struggle to meet their most basic needs. One can only hope that this campaign reveals the truth about this naive and extremely dangerous political philosophy.