Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.
Most voters feel the same way. Ayn Rand remains directly unpopular with the majority of Americans, and the only way an Objectivist can be elected to President or Vice President is if they hide the association and spin the Randian ideas in voter-positive terms. Isn't Paul Ryan young and energetic and full of new ideas? Yes: ideas like dismantling Medicare (which Ayn Rand would have applauded). Dismantling Social Security (which Ayn Rand would have applauded, even though she collected Social Security). Dismantling Obamacare. These ideas are also consistent with the Mitt Romney platform, and Mitt Romney has never been tied to Ayn Rand.
But too much is at stake in this election for voters to take every position at face value, and many Americans observed the same thing I observed when they first saw the secret recording of a private Mitt Romney speech in which the following exchange took place:
Audience Member: For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, "Don't worry, we'll take care of you." How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?
Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
That's some Randian stuff right there. And, really, it doesn't matter whether or not Mitt Romney actually keeps Ayn Rand's books in a place of honor on a private bookshelf, or whether or not a common interest in Ayn Rand explains the "sense of personal connection" that we've heard led Mitt Romney to select Paul Ryan as his running mate. The more important fact, whether or not Mitt Romney is explicitly an Objectivist, is that he is implicitly an Objectivist. His pro-business economic positions are the economic positions of Ayn Rand.
This translates into an ideology of redemption -- the idea that the nation's soul is sick from dependency, and can only be saved by a shock of bold change. The bold change would be to pull the social safety net of Medicare and Social Security and Obamacare away as quickly as the law will allow, forcing every American to adjust to the change or face the consequences.
This would be a bold and frightening move in any circumstances -- but it would be especially cruel to shift to this punishing mode in the middle of a slow recovery from an economic crash caused by the sudden collapse of a bloated Wall Street boom. It would amount to kicking the American people when they are down.
I know many good and smart people who want to vote for Mitt Romney, not because they believe in cruel social Darwinism, but for other reasons: because they can't stand Barack Obama, because they favor the Republican position in general, because they like some of Romney's softer policy proposals. I am sure the American people would not knowingly vote two Objectivists into office. I am concerned, though, that the American people may be about to unknowingly vote two Objectivists into office.
Ayn Rand's primary position was anti-Communism. The struggle against Communism defined her era and gave her proposals an immediacy that helps to explain her great popularity during her own time, as well as her popularity today. But it's important to realize that Ayn Rand's Objectivism shares with international Communism a redemptive extremism and ideological fervency that should be frightening to reasonable people everywhere. Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward was also, like Paul Ryan's blueprint for prosperity, a bold, exciting and redemptive plan.
You can see the ideological fervency in the hilariously ill-conceived cover of the National Review magazine that appears on the top of the page. No, this image is not a joke; it is meant to be a flattering portrait of two conservative heroes -- and Salon and others have pointed out that it is literally a nod to an old Marxist poster.
Even Newt Gingrich has referred to the Paul Ryan (and now the Romney/Ryan) approach to Social Security and Medicare as "right wing social engineering". American voters, make no mistake about it: we are facing a Randian moment in the election of 2012.
We would never vote two Objectivists into office on purpose. Well, we also didn't think we were voting for a new war in Iraq when we elected George W. Bush in 2000, but we were. We would never vote two Objectivists into office on purpose, but we might be about to vote two Objectivists into office because we're not paying attention.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Nanny State and the Nanny Job. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Will Americans Vote Against Trains?.