There was a time when Rep. Paul Ryan made a Christmas gift of Atlas Shrugged to staffers in his congressional office. The vice presidential nominee made no secret of his admiration for the author of that book, Ayn Rand, and her distinctive ideas about freedom and capitalism, individualism and collectivism. In fact, he credits Rand’s writings with inspiring him to take up public service as a calling. “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,” he told The Atlas Society in 2005.
But in recent years, Ryan has been tip-toeing away from Rand. He says it’s because of Rand’s atheism.
I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told the National Review in April. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. …Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
Is this a flip-flop? Sort of. What Ryan objects to is the rhetoric of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which is a cross between the rantings of Scrooge and Simon Legree. And the Russian writer’s aggressive atheism has posed a big problem for many religious conservatives.
Ryan made that statement in April, just as Romney was in the process of becoming the obvious choice in the primaries and the congressman’s prospects for the second spot on the ticket began to take shape. But it is significant that Ryan mentioned Thomas Aquinas as an alternative to Rand’s passionate and absolutist libertarianism. (Aside: Rand rejected libertarianism, but modern libertarians embrace her.) Catholic school children are exposed early and often to the writings of Aquinas, whose elegant strands of logic regarding faith and belief in man’s ability to glimpse God’s intent without divine inspiration so hugely influenced Western civilization.
If both philosophers taught us how to think, it was Aquinas who supplied the moral basis for action. Aquinas’s identification of the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude echoes down to us today in the writings of many conservative philosophers. And Aquinas’s belief in “natural law” as man’s discovery of God’s “eternal law” by reason alone helps integrate Ryan’s Catholic beliefs with his conservative philosophy.
This is not quite the antithesis of Rand, who also believed reason led to knowledge, but obviously Rand’s atheism precluded an understanding and acceptance of the divine as a basis for moral action. It may be a political convenience for Ryan to de-emphasize his admiration for some of the tenets Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — including those that celebrate the notion that capitalism is the only way to ensure human freedom — but that doesn’t mean that Ryan is turning his back completely on her.
Rand is seen as a prophet by many conservatives. She is also seen as evil incarnate by many liberals. The attacks are already coming from the left highlighting Ryan’s “dalliance” with the ideas of Rand, and taking some of the philosopher’s more problematic statements about the poor out of context. Writes Jane Mayer:
While Ryan may be distancing himself from Rand now, the Democrats will surely argue that her views on the virtues of selfishness have left a more lasting legacy in the policies that he and Romney embrace. In his début today, Ryan stressed that “We promise equal opportunity—not equal outcomes”—a philosophy that telegraphed a tough message to those who are worst off. Ryan also signalled a Rand-like celebration of the winners, and dismissed complaints from the losers, saying, “We look at one another’s success with pride, not resentment.” Rand’s language was tougher still. She used words such as “refuse” and “parasites” to describe the poor, while celebrating millionaire businessmen as heroes. She abhorred government social programs, such as Social Security, at least until she reached the age of eligibility, and reportedly signed on for both its benefits and those of Medicare.
Rand’s rejection of “ethical altruism” as a basis for government assistance to the poor will no doubt be thrown in Ryan’s face as the left desperately seeks to portray the Wisconsin congressman as a heartless monster, willing to leave those less fortunate behind. But, in truth, Ryan himself has eschewed much of the hard-edged social philosophy of Rand, embracing her defenses of individual rights and capitalism in the abstract rather than as a concrete or literal interpretation of her writings. This makes Ryan a symbiote, not a soul mate, of Rand.
Expect to see a lot of quotes from Rand’s writings juxtaposed alongside Ryan’s statements in the next few weeks. This will be a rich vein to tap when attacking the nominee, but it ultimately will fail. Ryan is no more an Objectivist than he is a heartless radical willing to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class.
The problem is, everyone knows that it’s easier to win votes if you present yourself as Santa Claus and paint the other guy as Scrooge. And that’s a game the Democrats have always played very well.