Posts Tagged paul ryan
At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”
Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.
The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.
So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COM, then make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.
I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.
I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:
What if John Galt is right?
The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?
Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.
But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?
This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.
Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.
Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.
Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.
These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.
When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.
But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.
So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?
Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality. There are three major points of comparison and contrast:
1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.
2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.
3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.
These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.
So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.
This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems.
For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:
The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.
And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.
This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable. To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.
Do you guys see just how good this book could be?
In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.
In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.
[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]
So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.
The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.
And if that type of person is evil by his own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.
In the wake of the Republican National Convention last week, I think it’s worth elaborating on something I first described back in January in Hayek Anxiety, the very first post in this Applied Randology series. Quoth myself:
[T]he Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting.
To put it another way, the Republican Party inverts logic and truth in the same way Rand’s fictional progressives do. And GOP CON 2012 proved to be an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon.
Let’s take Paul Ryan, because, obviously. The lies and deceptions in his speech have been well documented (even by Fox News!), but what pushes his lying into “self-contradiction” territory is the fact that all of his major criticisms of Obama focused on problems that Ryan himself is actually responsible for. I don’t want to beat a dead horse by fact-checking the whole thing, but I will flog it lightly.
Most obviously, Ryan himself tanked the fiscal compromises that he blames Obama for not supporting in both the case of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission and the credit rating downgrade — in the case of the debt commission, before the president ever saw the report in question; in the case of the credit downgrade, the House Republicans first held the country’s credit hostage, and then Ryan himself shot down the Grand Bargain on deficit reduction that the president offered to resolve the crisis.
However, even though it’s a less important issue, I want to focus on the GM plant in his district. Ryan infamously blamed Obama for the plant closing, and called the stimulus “cronyism at its worst,” despite the fact that Ryan was one of those cronies, requesting stimulus funds be earmarked for that plant because it would create jobs.
And nevermind that Ryan is undeniably relying on the gullibility and ignorance of voters to keep his case against the president afloat, the real irony in the GM example is how Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s behavior tracks with the story of certain Atlas Shrugged villains. To wit:
At the end of Part One, Dagny unravels the history of “the 20th Century Motor Company,” the Objectiverse’s version of GM. She learns that GM’s last owner before bankruptcy was a Bain Capital-esque investment company that petitioned the government for money to keep GM’s factory open. The government turned Bain down, and GM was kept temporarily afloat by an untenable loan from the private sector upon which Bain eventually defaulted — which is essentially the sequence of events Mitt Romney argued for in his notoriously ill-conceived “Let GM fail” op-ed. Frankly, the thoroughness of the parallel here is bizarre.
Speaking of Romney, I’ve already pointed out that the profile of Ayn Rand’s venal head of state character “Mr. Thompson” is an eerily appropriate description of Mitt, both physically and in political style. But the more relevant critique is on the policy level. Specifically he has promised to reduce the deficit all while raising defense spending, lowering taxes, refusing to cut Medicare, and while considering war with Iran and trade war with China. This is obviously impossible, giving Romney’s platform the same internal coherence as the progressive platform in Atlas Shrugged that argues Soviet-style programs will revive the free enterprise system.
Yet the most apalling example of Republican hypocrisy regards the fiscal cliff coming up after the election. Since no compromise was able to solve the credit crisis that Ryan helped to provoke, the parties agreed to a series of deep spending cuts to be enacted at the end of the year, cuts that will effectively ruin the recovery if no compromise is reached. If the sequestration cuts go through, or even if negotations hit a wall, we could see another series of unnecessary economic shocks.
With that history in mind, it was surreal to me to read an op-ed in Business Insider three weeks ago that argued the best way to avoid any problems with the fiscal cliff was to elect Romney and Ryan. The basic argument presented was that with Romney/Ryan in the White House, congressional Republicans will happily raise the debt ceiling and pass more stimulus bills on top of it — exactly the same obviously sound policies they have decried as radical and un-American when pursued by President Obama.
Furthermore, op-ed author Joe Weisenthal argued, Paul Ryan’s reputation as a fiscal hawk and budget wonk is exactly what gives him the credibility to get his fellow Republicans to… betray those very principles. Like The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti, the price Ryan must pay for the Vice Presidency is the discarding of all the policies that he wants to be Vice President to promote.
So to sum that up, Weisenthal’s argument is that the hostage-taker should be in charge of driving the hostage back to her house, and can be trusted to do so because he has no integrity vis a vis his reasons for taking hostages in the first place.
Peruse that argument again — this is where the insane parody of logic and ethics illustrated in Atlas Shrugged finds its full expression in the real life GOP. The values of truth and good-faith negotation have been completely abandoned, and that is offered up as a reason to support those who abandoned them. The economic crisis depicted in Atlas Shrugged has come to life, they claim, so elect those who believe in the message of Atlas Shrugged, they say, even though that message is that we should welcome economic armageddon so that the rich don’t feel responsible for the middle class anymore. These rationales are perverse in how perfectly they contradict themselves.
Last week Mitt Romney spoke of wanting the president to succeed even as the historical record shows the Republican Party explicitly declaring their goal to be obstructing Obama for his entire first term to prevent his getting a second. Like Ayn Rand before them, the Republicans have created an unreal alternate “reality” in which their liberal political opponents are insane radical nihilists. Like Rand, they claim that everything is horrible because of this. Therefore they oppose everything and promise “real” America they will do the opposite of everything.
But as Ayn herself points out in delineating between Objectivism and nihilism, the opposite of everything is nothing. And if nothingness is at the heart of your ethics and your agenda, you aren’t the Objectivist party. You’re the nihilist party.
In a post from last week Gwynn Guilford of The Dish starts out exploring Paul Ryan’s monetary beliefs and ends up curating arguments about Ayn Rand. Not that surprising, right? On the relationship between them, Gwynn points out (and isn’t the first) that Ryan’s “rejection of Rand’s philosophy has mainly emphasized his disagreement with her atheism,” and that his economic ideas are textbook Objectivist — something I also highlighted in my “Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm” post from May.
How can Ryan back Rand’s second-order political beliefs when her first-order metaphysical beliefs directly contradict his own? Easy: Rand’s metaphysical position is not actually atheistic, and her claim that it is is self-deception. As David Foster Wallace once put it (again, hat tip to The Dish),
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Rand chooses to worship money; her nominal atheism is superfluous. So the incisive quote I want to focus on today is Ryan’s from 2009, claiming that Ayn “does the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism.” This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about the free market. But it does tell us something important about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about morality.
First things first: there is a far better moral case for capitalism than anything Ayn comes up with. The simplest argument is the consequentialist one. Of all the economic systems in recorded history, capitalism has clearly produced the most wealth in the fastest amount of time, and done the most to raise living standards and promote widespread opportunities. In this way it is self-evidently superior to, say, mercantilism or feudalism or communism (let’s table the issue of democratic government’s role in capitalism’s success, for now).
Despite that bit of common sense, Ryan and Rand are libertarians, and as Ron Paul has said (and as I discussed during the GOP debates), libertarianism is indifferent to outcomes. The historical record is immaterial; moral justice comes from a set of first principles that are objectively right, such that when these principles are put into practice, whatever the results are, they’re fundamentally just too. From this position of moral absolutism, consequentialist arguments are moot exactly because they are consequentialist.
And under this moral accounting, consequentialist arguments aren’t just impotent, but are in themselves a symptom of moral degradation. Rand constantly pegs her villains as moral relativists who declare their actions immune to moral judgment because morality is a social construct or simply unknowable. Any departure from an absolute morality is a heresy intimately tied to society’s overall moral bankruptcy.
This philosophical posture extends to Ryan too; you can see the moral absolutism in his “no rape exemption” stance towards abortion (another issue getting press lately). You also see it in the quote I emphasized above: Ryan prefers Rand’s convoluted faith-based justification for capitalism over the basic consequential argument that it makes peoples’ lives better.
Yes, Rand’s love of capitalism is faith-based, and for proof I refer you to Francisco’s speech about the value of money, as I recapped here (Dave Weigel also examines this passage in his Ryan-Rand coverage, excerpted in the Dish post I linked to above). In that recap, I explicate how Frisco isn’t just saying “greed is good,” he’s saying that there is an objective moral law at work in the universe bringing inevitable justice to human affairs. For the atheist materialist Rand, this sounds dangerously metaphysical, so Francisco adds a logically independent premise, that money is an empirically measurable mechanism by which this karmic market operates. Rand thus uses money as a literal token of objectivity, a fig leaf disguising the fact that her premises can’t be reached by logical deduction or induction: they are purely subjective value judgments.
But the strongest psychological glue between Rand and fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the prosperity gospel, it’s the false equivalence they posit between moral relativism and modernism in general.
In a great post at Boingboing, Maggie Koerth-Baker explores why Christian fundamentalists vilify set theory in their math textbooks, honing in on an important point about the fundamentalist worldview:
Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you’re a modernist and you know there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they’ve bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn’t matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.
More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz … are all just traps. They’re ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time.
And that paranoid dynamic is found all over Atlas Shrugged. It’s baked right into Rand’s thinking. Just look at the last chapter I recapped, in which the innocent Cheryl comes to understand the nihilism of her relativist husband. Driven mad by his cruelty, she stumbles through Manhattan, seeing only that same nihilistic philosophy implicit in the eyes of everybody she encounters. Rand very explicitly claims the world is overrun with a perverse value system that lures the innocent masses to moral depravity. She explicitly cites art and culture as contagious symptoms of this rot. She denounces the false consciousness of religious thinking, but her train of thought runs on a perfectly parallel track.
This psychological sameness is what keeps intellectual contradictions from tearing today’s Republican party apart along religious v. economic lines. Both sides are united against the world — or more accurately, a shared dehumanizing misconception of the world.
I already discussed Paul Ryan in an overly verbose post here, but for anybody who stumbles across the blog today because he just won the Veepstakes, here’s a few bullet points:
*Paul Ryan is an extremely competent, charismatic politician who knows the in’s and out’s of budget policy inside and out.
*Paul Ryan’s greatest influence is Ayn Rand. He gives out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staff.
*Atlas Shrugged is an inspiring story with an overt ideological agenda about rich people who embrace economic apocalypse and the collapse of society so that they don’t have to worry about the middle class anymore.
More thoughts to come next week, when I discuss why Ayn Rand’s militant atheism and conservative Christian fundamentalism actually go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.
So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.
First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.
Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?