Applied Randology #4: Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm

Well, Our L’il Aynie got her first (probably not last) dose of media attention this election season when potential Romney Veep Paul Ryan disavowed his formerly effusive love for her, an image-moderating act that signaled he wants on the ticket.

But the Atlas Society, which advocates for Objectivism, made sure the world knew it still supports Ryan’s budget proposals, and released audio of Ryan calling Rand his number one philosophical influence and the reason he became a politician (which is an… interesting interpretation of her text).

Nonetheless Ryan now claims he rejects Rand’s atheist philosophy: “On epistemology,” he says, “Give me Thomas Aquinas… Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

Of course, as far as Ryan’s job as Chairman of the House Budget Committee is concerned, the relevant tenets of Objectivism are in economics and politics, not the more abstract area of epistemology. So that’s really a clever elision on his part — in reality it makes sense that Rand’s true believers can blithely dismiss his epistemic apostacy; his policy agenda is strictly by the book (in this case, Atlas Shrugged).

So to speak, anyway. It’s worth noting that in the book pretty much every single person who actively spends time or money on democratic political processes is a despicable soulless monster. In the Randverse, those involved with governance either preach liberal ideas as a form of denial about the damage they inflict, or are completely cynical two-faced operators.

To be fair, Paul Ryan might be a two-faced operator — all politicians are — but he’s not cynical. He, like Rand’s archetypal ‘evil progressive,’ is an ideologue in denial about the danger of his ideas; Ryan just comes by his ideology honestly.

And there are some other notable discrepancies between Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand: Ayn believes all religion is an exercise in covert nihilism; Paul is a well-read Catholic. Ayn believes all politics is an exercise in corruption; Paul is a politician. Ayn believed Objectivism as a whole “single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle” (atlassociety.org); Paul thinks he can selectively accept her conclusions about politics while rejecting the deeper philosophical premises on which those conclusions are based.

I think all this speaks to the factional tensions in the Republican party quite well. The party of old time religion has an economic agenda based on the philosophy of a radical atheist! Rather than render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17), the theocratic wing of the GOP would render Caesar unto God, and the Rand-friendly wing would make a God of those things that ought be rendered to Caesar.

Rand, in her absolutism, poses a serious problem for those such as Ryan who would pick and choose from Objectivism like it was a buffet and not prix fixe. Hell, she poses problems for those like myself who would agree to disagree and just appreciate her as a champion of innovation, progress, and the spirit of willful individualism. The problem is summed up nicely by the caption on this XKCD comic:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.’ -Randall Munroe, xkcd

Commenting on that comic, Ari Kohen, who’s read Atlas, offers this critique:

Rand understood her novels to set the table for her Objectivist philosophy and, as a result, she intended for people who read her books to live their lives like [John Galt] … to think of other people as parasites and reject the idea that a political community binds people together in some morally meaningful way… One must be careful with this sort of thing because novels present their commentary and their conclusions without argument… she attempts to shape the way that people think about and interact with the world around them — to do political philosophy — without actually making any arguments for what are, ultimately, policy preferences with serious personal and societal consequences.

This is what is so alarming about the modern Republican agenda. It’s like the party is campaigning to bring about the Randverse, except the Randverse climaxes in economic apocalypse! To go back to a point I’ve made before (not to mention earlier in this post), politicians who employ rhetoric about restoring economic growth and making America great again even as they pursue policies that they must at least unconsciously know will cause society to collapse? They’re represented in Atlas Shrugged. They’re the villains.

You may say that this is painting with an extremely broad brush, but if you combine Paul Ryan’s draconian budget proposals with Grover Norquist’s perverse approach to tax reform (which he leads from an office at ‘Americans for Tax Reform’ in truly Orwellian fashion), the inevitable consequence is not fiscal responsibility but reckless debts and deficits, even default, that will provoke political and economic crisis. You cannot starve the beast and put it on a balanced diet at the same time.

To paint with a finer brush, it’s worth nothing that liberals too have grand thinkers who consider their approach the natural evolution of Western political philosophy. John Rawls, for instance, is a hugely influential high liberal philosopher who advocates for a low- or no-growth socialized economy to better realize an ideal of justice as fairness.

Except no real liberal politician would dare hijack American institutions in the name of a radical socialism, no matter what Fox News wants you to believe, because capitalism is too well-loved in our democracy for that to be politically viable. The ideological reverse, however…

There is a sane middle ground here. An overlap between the merits of libertarian economic efficiency and the virtues of the liberal commitment to democratic legitimacy. This space is explored in John Tomasi’s recent book Free Market Fairness.

Tomasi’s goal is conceptually ambitious but modest in its particulars and prescriptions. He builds a philosophically coherent argument that economic liberty and the democratic social contract need not be mutually exclusive propositions, need not be in contradiction. In fact, as the historical record shows, they are two great tastes that go great together.

Down that middle path lies the potential for compromises superior to either side’s unilateral positions, and that will be the subject of the next Applied post. But for now, I think it must be stated firmly and without equivocation that objectively speaking, it is the radical ideological purity demanded by Republicans, even as they insist that the compromising, weak-willed Democrats are the covert ideological radicals, that is the primary cause of our inability to achieve civic reforms and a stronger economic recovery. Furthermore, in their obstructionism the Republicans are performing the role of the looters from Atlas Shrugged, only with an inverted looter ideology that loots from the public coffers of a legitimate democracy, rather than from private coffers in the name of an illegitimate kleptocracy.

And Paul Ryan exemplifies this problem in that he is substantively committed to Objectivist values even as he maintains nominal adherence to a religion with a doctrinal tradition of social justice. Although he would make a great Republican VP candidate with his rep for fiscal responsibility, his specific plans (particularly in conjunction with Grover Norquist’s monopoly on tax reform) are not fiscally responsible. And that is what actually makes Ryan the perfect poster boy for today’s Republican Party: he seems like what’s right about it, when in fact he’s what’s wrong.

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