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.