Philosophy Weekend: Ayn Rand and the Paul Ryan Budget

Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand’s Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “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,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn’t impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don’t think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn’t care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.

Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He’s the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can’t pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan “marvelous“. Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.

There’s only one reason Ayn Rand has been in the news this year, and it has nothing to do with rationalism or psychogical Egoism or atheism. It has to do with her fervent, enthusiastic belief in free market capitalism, and her firm arguments against taxation of the wealthy and any kind of government involvement in the economy. No other economic philosopher of the 20th Century spoke with such extreme clarity and simplicity against taxation, regulation and centralized economic planning, and in this capacity she has been a major influence behind the economic ideologies of Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and (of course) Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney.

In some cases this influence is indirect, or hard to trace. Rand, a tough lady who kept quiet for nobody, was bold enough during her last years of life to reject Ronald Reagan’s social politics, even as Reagan followed her lead on economics. Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul have both been clearly influenced by Ayn Rand, thjough it’s difficult to explain how the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the author of End the Fed can come from common economic roots. Many Randians have felt embarrassed by their association with the feisty self-taught philosopher, and have chosen to identify themselves as influenced by the Austrian School of economists instead. Mitt Romney has never mentioned Ayn Rand’s name in a speech, as far as I know, but his primary economic platform — cut financial regulations, retain tax cuts for the wealthy, repeal healthcare reform, entrust corporations to look out for future of this country by empowering them to act in their own self-interest — is Randian to the core.

I published a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters) a year ago. I was partly inspired to write this book by my growing disgust for the likes of Paul Ryan, as well as my conviction that we need not fewer but better government regulations on Wall Street to make American capitalism healthy again. I think the case against Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy is rock solid, and I’m gratified that so many readers have shown an interest in exploring these questions in depth with me.

However, the main argument in my book is a psychological one — the case against Egoism — rather than an economic or political one. For readers who would like to examine the current electoral debates involving Randian economics in detail, I recomment a new mass-market book called Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul by Gary Weiss, a business journalist. Gary Weiss’s book is well-positioned for the USA election year of 2012, because it focuses on Rand’s philosophy as the basis of current Republican party economic thought. Here’s how he describes the book’s purpose on his website:

“Ayn Rand Nation” explores the pervasive influence of the Russian-born author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. She has long been dismissed by the intelligentsia as a fringe character. Don’t you believe it.

Her ideology, Objectivism, has been adopted in large measure by a wide swath of America’s opinion leaders, and to a large extent by virtually all of the Republican presidential candidates.

Rand provides the ideological underpinnings for the effort to cut or destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and to drastically shrink the role of government.

She wrote the recipe for deregulation.

Love her or despise her, Rand is a pervasive influence in the national dialogue. To understand the ideological basis for that dialogue, and to comprehend the mindset that led to the 2008 financial crisis, it’s essential to understand Ayn Rand.

I think he’s dead-on about Ayn Rand’s current political influence, and I’m glad his book focuses on the topical and practical aspects of the Objectivist movement. This, after all, is why we’re still talking about a long-dead Russian-American philosopher today. It’s not about whether or not Atlas Shrugged was a well-written work of fiction. It’s about whether or not Atlas Shrugged is going to become the basis of American financial policy next year.

For all we know. Paul Ryan’s heart may actually be filled with warm inspirations from St. Thomas Aquinas (though I’m a little skeptical about this myself). And there’s no evidence that Mitt Romney ever read a book by Ayn Rand, and no reason to think he ever did. But it’s the ideologies that matter, not the personalities, and the Republican party is indeed trying to sell voters on an Ayn Rand nation (with a nice Christian church in front) in 2012. I’m not buying it, and I hope you aren’t either.

18 Responses

  1. From the other side of the
    From the other side of the ocean, I simply cannot understand how “retain tax cuts for the wealthy, repeal healthcare reform” and “fails to cut military spending” can be associated with the Christian religion. How is possible for a sincere Catholic to accept this Republican agenda (as it is also stated by the link inside the blog post: “bishops sent letters to Congress saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church”)?

    Maybe it is just that I am unable to understand how does Catholic religion works on your side of the ocean…

  2. Sigma, here in the U.S. we’re
    Sigma, here in the U.S. we’re supposed to separate church and state. Emphasis on supposed to. I don’t know how some of these puppets can call themselves Christians.

  3. Imagine that you have a
    Imagine that you have a business, and the business is struggling.
    To bring the business back to health, you cut spending (so far so good). And you cut revenue
    (Cut revenue?)
    How long would a business like that last?
    Imagine the business in the US Government
    The above plan is what the Republicans want to do to the Federal government.
    They want to reduce spending for all but the military and they want to decrease revenue (taxes) to bankrupt all other parts of the government.
    But the government is for the people
    When we the people pool together our resources (taxes) we expect that the government, through economies of scale, will provide transportation, safe food and water, an enviroment as free as possible of pollution, and yes, decent health care for all.
    This is what most countries in what used to be called the Free World have.
    The right wing social engineering of Paul Ryan as Newt Gingrich calls it does absolutely nothing for we the people. It is part of an effort to roll back the US to the 1920s or the gilded age where, in the words of Ray Davies “sex was bad and obscene, and the rich were so mean”.

  4. I like the etch a sketch — I
    I like the etch a sketch — I get the reference and its great!

    Of course the political commentary is ill informed, distorted and one-sided, but, hey, that’s partisan politics.

  5. Well, TKG, I didn’t intend it
    Well, TKG, I didn’t intend it to be. One-sided, maybe, because I’m not interested in arguing for the side of economic exploitation of American citizens. But I really did not intend to write anything ill-informed or distorted.

    I’ve given serious thought to every point I’ve made here — please tell me what you disagree with.

  6. Can’t you be happy with the
    Can’t you be happy with the Etch-a-Sketch shout out. Romney the etch a sketch candidate.

    I don’t feel compelled to argue democrat left canard talking points.

    I really don’t care what sort of irrational things people think.

    Vote for more government, more taxes, and government intrusion and control of personal lives, or vote for slightly less of it.

    We’ll see who comes out on top come November.

    Personally I think the less people that rely on the government (or any one or any thing else other than themselves) the better the person will be and consequently there will be a stronger society.

  7. TKG, I’m sorry that what I
    TKG, I’m sorry that what I wrote seems to you like democrat/left talking points. These are nothing but my own sincere and heartfelt words.

    I also think it’s a terrible thing for people to rely on the government. Unfortunately, in the past decade, healthcare costs have skyrocketed (as insurance companies have reaped the profits). So has the cost of a college education. Hardworking middle class Americans who try to earn a living are finding themselves unable to pay for basic necessities like healthcare and education. It’s not because they’re not trying, or because they’re not working. I think that’s a myth.

    If Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney were offering serious economic reform, I would be open to hearing about it. There does not appear to be anything serious about Paul Ryan’s budget. It would allow the wealthy to grow wealthier and cause the poor to grow poorer, and would not balance the budget or cut the deficit. And, again, it wouldn’t even cut military spending. I’m sorry I seem to you to be spouting talking points, but I’m not going to keep silent as politicians lie to my face.

  8. Hi Levi, I was really
    Hi Levi, I was really referring to the comments more than what you wrote.

    There’s an op-Ed in the WSJ by William McGurn related to your topic. Here’s the link and three snippets. It’s worth reading.

    Now, even a Georgetown professor ought to understand that, for the most part, we’re not talking about “cuts” at all; we’re talking about the rate of increase in spending. Under Mr. Obama, the increased spending would go to 4.5% a year. Mr. Ryan’s “radical” reform proposes to keep it to 3%.

    . . .

    That’s just what Mr. Ryan asked for at Georgetown. He put it this way: “If there were ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now.”

    . . .

    Thus we are left with the familiar pattern. Conservatives assert that liberals have a naïve faith in government, and that this leads them to advocate policies that ending up doing more harm than good. 

  9. Thanks for that good article,
    Thanks for that good article, TKG. It doesn’t make me like Paul Ryan’s budget any better, but it does help me understand where you’re coming from.

    Liberals may sometimes have a naive faith in government. Likewise, conservatives often have a naive faith in the honesty and responsible leadership skills of corporations, banks and military leaders. Most liberals I know (certainly including myself) don’t have a taste for government per se, but feel that government regulation is a necessary balance to the unchecked power of dishonest corporate, banking and military executives.

  10. Thanks to TKG and Levi for
    Thanks to TKG and Levi for explaining better the scenario.

    So, the main issue for me is here:

    “Liberals may sometimes have a naive faith in government. Likewise, conservatives often have a naive faith in the honesty and responsible leadership skills of corporations, banks and military leaders.”

    I will rewrite it like this:

    “Liberals may have a naive faith in the honesty and responsible leadership skill of government and politicians. Likewise, conservatives may have a naive faith in the honesty and responsible leadership skills of corporations, banks and military leaders.”

    So, going to the roots, this is the main question, in my opinion:

    Is there any mechanism, positive or negative, that pulls politicians, or corporations, toward “honesty and responsible leadership”? History is full of examples of dishonesty and irresponsible leadership, both from politicians and industrialists.

    Recently, on this side of the ocean, we are more worried about politicians, but I can well understand how it is possible to be equally uneasy about corporations.

    Which mechanisms may help a politician, or an industrialist, to keep his honesty? How can a system (like the State) focus the will and the energy of politicians and/or industrialists toward good objectives and honesty?

  11. Subject Sigma, in theory,
    Subject Sigma, in theory, there are regulatory boards that act as “watch dogs” on both government and big business. But all a government has to do to get around them is go to war. Then we all get scared and say, “Good God, pull out all the stops! Do what you gotta do! We don’t care what it costs, protect us from other countries!” Big companies start churning out nylon rope and kevlar vests.

  12. Bill, you are talking about
    Bill, you are talking about “negative” reasons (making them afraid of doing the “wrong” thing), that are similar for politics and corporations, so there should be no difference; I am interested in “positive” reasons (making them interested in doing the “good” thing).

    Regulatory boards, very often, are just controlled, or heavily influenced, by political, or corporative, interests.

  13. Sigma, I think I get what
    Sigma, I think I get what Bill Ectric means, though he makes an unusual connection here.

    Every society tries to do a good job of bullshit detection — and, most of the time, hopefully, we do a decent (if not ideal) job of vetting our leaders. What brings out the worst in any society, though, is the institution of war, and the mindset of suspicion, paranoia and vengeance that a militant and embattled environment always creates. A peaceful society will do a better job of choosing its leaders than a militant one. I think the history of the past few centuries bears this out very well.

    It’s not a direct answer to your question, Sigma, but I do think it’s a very relevant point.

  14. Sigma, I see what you mean,
    Sigma, I see what you mean, and yes, I agree we should try to think of some positive ways to make people interested in doing the right things. Sadly, I can’t think of any external influences within the power of citizens to make their politician want to do the right thing. I mean, we elect people who we think will do the right thing, but by now, they have all learned to talk about God and their conscience and their Mamas, so it’s hard to tell if they mean it.

  15. Of course war is to be
    Of course war is to be avoided and a peaceful society has (usually) more freedom to select the leaders and to get a more equilibrated government, I think we are on total agreement about this very important point.

    Maybe it is difficult to influence politicians to do “the right thing”, and maybe it is a bit less difficult to influence other peoples like workers, employeess and industrialists.

    In any case, it is important to create a culture of honesty, where people are not only discouraged to do criminal acts because of the punishment, but they are willing to be honests because honesty is seen as a good principle (and sadly “on this side of the ocean” it is not always like this…). This requires a precise and neutral work of the justice system.

    In second stance, if peoples are given the possibility to have a productive and honest life, and to enjoy the fruits of their efforts, that will be for sure a positive thing. If the “goals” of the State and the “goals” of the citizens are the same, there is no fight and no law-breaking.

    And the same may be true also for corporations and industrialists: if the honest way is privileged and facilitated, if the payment of taxes is not an extreme burden and is rewarded with services received, they will be pulled toward “the good way”, improving the country conomy and creating work opportunities for peoples.

    Of course if the State does not provide a reasonable wellfare, medical care and instructions, poor people will never have the possibility of becoming productive and integrated into the society; on the other side, a “too heavy” welfare that provides layabouts with undeserved support, discouraging them to become productive and burdening the true workers with high taxes is the main recipe for economical and social stagnation. For example, “on this side of the ocean” there are many instances of industrial groups helped by the State (to avoid company bankruptcy and employees dismissal) that managed to barely survive for many years, burning statal funds coming from taxes, and at the end went bankrupt the same, with worse effect than the initial crisis.

    So for me the question is “how much” is the “correct” State support that allows poor people to have possibilities, does not burden too much the productive people and does not make enterprises and industrialists running away.

    So in my opinion a strong culture of honesty, the “correct” level of wellfare, the responsibility of every individual (and company) for their own success, and limited state intervention are some elements that may help to “turn everyone into the good direction”.

  16. Simply put, Republicans would
    Simply put, Republicans would prefer to weaken government and strengthen the private sector while the Democrats believe in a strong government to protect our rights, environment, security, etc… programs that cost the government money, which can only be paid for thru taxation that the Republicans are adamantly opposed to.

    Today’s politics has boiled down to those two viewpoints and there appears there is no compromise or give on either side.

    The Republican’s want to cut all social programs and anything else except for the military and use that money to pay off our incredible National Debt, which is enormous (15.7 TRILLION and growing). The combined debt of the National and all other U.S. debt equals 57.4 TRILLION and growing. Clearly the amounts we as a country are indebted to will NEVER be paid off no matter how many threats and demands each party shouts. How can America pay off this huge debt load by eliminating jobs of every imaginable wage earner, i.e. teachers, police, firemen, waste haulers, Postal People… the list goes on to slash jobs to ‘save money’ at the expense of people’s futures.

    The 20th Century ended with a bang that literally destroyed the personal wealth of millions of Americans. It’s akin to a Monopoly game where it ends with one (1%) holding all the wealth. The (5) largest banks hold more wealth than ever before… the keepers of money for the few Multi-Billion Dollar Corporations that to this day buy and sell each other out until there will be one in control.

    We cannot trust any politician to guide us out of that debt load. Nobody has an answer that will favor the majority. I venture to say that there is no answer for that amount of debt. It is obvious to me that Capitalism as we knew it has collapsed and will eventually take us all down. How can the very concept of capitalism survive when the people have no capital to use? Like that monopoly game, if you’re a player and don’t have money or property to play the game, what good are you AND what good is the game?

    Is this a time, here in the 21st Century, to reinvent our economic system that favors the majority of people worldwide? We are definitely linked globally. With that many minds working together surely a future for all is a possibility. It is either that or ….?

  17. Subject Sigma, I’m pondering
    Subject Sigma, I’m pondering your question and your proposed answer, but I feel your proposal assumes incorrectly that the basic structures of society must remain the way they are: gigantic global entities known as “nations” or “federal governments” that maintain currencies and tax their citizens by the millions. One thing I think both liberals and conservatives agree on is that gigantic federal governments have become alienated from the people they serve. Perhaps the best answer to your question is for societies to evolve into smaller, more flexible and more dynamic societal groupings that can create laws and regulations, maintain peace and safety, and manage taxpayer funds on a more human-to-human level. That’s one likely positive direction for the future.

    Sigma, you speak of the problem of lazy people living off the work of others. I hear about this situation often on Fox News or in Ayn Rand novels, but I really don’t think that entitlements to the nonworking poor are even a big part of the USA’s economic problem (perhaps it’s different in your Italy — I can’t speak knowledgeably about that). Here in the USA, certain propagandists like to talk a lot about the terrible lazy working people who are wasting taxpayer money, but in fact most Americans who are struggling with the economy work 40 hours a week or more (as I do, and my wife does too, and still we both have a hard time just paying our monthly bills and health care costs and education costs for our kids). I’m pretty sure the basic equations of the American economy need a kick in the ass — and this is what a smart government ought to do. I have no sympathy for the idea that the federal government should stay out of the economy. I want the federal government to make smart decisions that fix our problems. What a concept!

  18. In reply to mtmydn, the
    In reply to mtmydn, the “basic” question (playing “by the rules”, keeping the premise of the same society structure) is if it makes more sense to put trust into politicians or industrialists.
    My “feeling” is that industrialist, if kept in the very strong condition of an honest society, will have more “positive” reasons to steer toward the common good, because their “natural” aim is to produce, and to do this they need a market to sell, so a society able to buy. So, if properly steered, the “greed” of industrialists may contribute to the society – but only under a very honest system.

    In reply to Levi: a society made of smaller, more dynamic and flexible groups is possible reducing the power and influence of central state, and giving more power to smaller administrative units. But without a central state holding the international political weight, it is impossible, in my opinion, for the smaller units to “float” in this world of sharks.

    About our condition, just to make an example: in Greece, if you work in a barber shop, when you become 50 years old you can retire and get a statal pension because you worked with “dangerous chemical substances”; if you are a public employee, your daughter get a monthly wage untill she finds a job or get married. In Italy, untill a few years ago, if you worked for the statal railway, all your first grade relatives and your grandsons could travel for free on any train, also in first class if there is any place still free. And if you get a statal employment, in Italy, it is almost impossible to be discharged, so for many people getting a statal work is the aim of a life: if you reach that, you can stop worrying, as no one will be able to discharge you also if your working performances are terrible. Of course not everyone is like thin, and not in every place is the same, but this situation does exist.
    If you are a politician elected into a regional council (a region may be as small as half milion inhabitants), you get something like a 10 thousand dollars monthly wage, for two days of work per week – seven to ten times the wage of an employee working 40 hours per week.
    I let you imagine how many young daughters of public employees in Grece are searching for a work…

    For sure a smart government can give a “kick in the ass” to the economy, but my question is: what is the possibility to put into the right place a complete set of smart politicians, and what is the possibility that the place is occupied by “not-so-smart” ones? Because, if the second possibility has more chanches to happens, a government that remains out of economy will do less damages.
    Will not be better if the government tries to create proper, better, simpler regulations, to steer industrialist toward the “good direction”, influencing them “from the top”, “like a referee”, instead of increasing taxes and spending them trying to “play the industrialist” and influencing them “from the bottom”, “like a player”?
    Again, our local experience show that, if the services are held by privates, a not-so-smart but honest industrialist will try to give a good and efficient service, to be competitive. If the services are held by public, a not-so-smart but honest politic will not have the “positive” motivation of the industrialist (because, in contrast with the industrialist, his personal gain has nothing to do with improving the efficiency of the service). This is not always true, especially on strategic services (power, transportation, health), but is almost a constant about statal participation to industry and TLC.

    I realize that we are speaking about very different experiences: my idea of “smaller” wellfare, with an european reference, maybe is still greater than the most statalist idea of “heavy wellfare” in USA. Here, taxes are around 45% (except for political parties…) and, because of taxes, fuel costs almost 2€ per liter (more than 8$ per gallon)…
    But Levi, I want to remember you the economical history of those States used to influence and control heavily their economy…

    (I am sorry I will not be able to reply to this discussion for at least four days)

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