A year ago, when I posted Why I’m Not a Libertarian, I thought I was done talking about my misspent Objectivist youth. Yes, I read Atlas Shrugged six times, and all of Ayn Rand’s other published works at least twice. Yes, I realize how much I could have learned by investing that effort more wisely. Let’s not dwell on it. What’s done is done.
So in April, when Paul Ryan’s love/hate relationship with the Catholic bishops led me to write Jesus Shrugged — Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don’t Mix, I left my personal history out of it. Ryan’s policy proposals were the issue then, not his personality or character, so any insight I might gather from our common obsession was beside the point.
It’s not beside the point now. When you start talking about a person as a potential vice president — which necessarily makes him a potential president — character matters as much as policy, maybe more. Paul Ryan may end up leading our country through challenges and crises we cannot foresee. We need to know who he is.
It should go without saying that I can’t give you the final word on Ryan. I’ve never spoken to him. As far as I know, we’ve never been in the same room. But I can tell you what kind of young man is attracted to Rand’s philosophy, how it changes him, where you can see Rand’s influence on Ryan’s thinking today, and what it says that he carries those beliefs into middle age. Along the way, we may learn something about Rand’s influence on the conservative movement in general.
What Rand stood for: selfishness. In a nutshell, Rand’s philosophy is the anti-gospel. She’s explicit about this, as I have previously noted.
In the gospel worldview, people need to choose between selfishly piling up wealth for themselves and virtuously helping others. So Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and money” and advises the rich young man to sell everything he owns and give the proceeds to the poor.
Rand flips that value system upside-down. To her, selfishness is virtue. All good things, even social goods, come from individuals acting selfishly: Thomas Edison wants to be rich and famous, so he invents the light bulb that benefits all of us.
It follows that capitalism is the only moral economic system, because it best expresses selfish virtue. (If you’re having trouble grasping this, combine the theories of trickle-down economics, the invisible hand of the market, and homo economicus — then multiply by a thousand.)
The relationships between Rand’s heroic characters demonstrate how friendship and even love can be re-interpreted as selfish. Some people make the love-is-selfish point cynically, but not Rand: In her mind she’s redeeming friendship and love by attaching them to the selfishness that she believes is the prime virtue.
Tellingly, there are no hero-parents in Rand’s novels, and Rand had no children herself. Also, the relationship-value of her heroes never crashes, so we don’t know how Dominique Francon would react if Howard Roark developed Alzheimer’s.
What Rand stood for: elitism. In Rand’s telling of history, all human progress comes from a tiny creative elite (think Edison’s light bulb again) and they alone deserve the fruits of that progress. In the speech that epitomizes Atlas Shrugged, John Galt says:
If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.
Rearden the inventor/industrialist not only owns his innovations, he and his fellow capitalists are the sole heirs of humanity’s technological legacy. Workers inherit nothing from the geniuses of the past, except through their employers’ generosity. (I’ve written about that aspect of Rand’s philosophy here.)
The non-creative masses attach to the Reardens like leeches or barnacles. Christianity, socialism, and other philosophies that make selfishness a vice are tricks by which the “parasites” make the producers feel guilty about claiming what is rightfully theirs. The Fountainhead‘s hero Howard Roark voices the eternal victimhood of the creative elite:
Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. … Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build.
The plot of Atlas Shrugged stands the labor movement upside-down: The job-creators go on strike, vanishing with their wealth (even their inherited wealth) and leaving the parasites to suck each other’s blood. “If you desire ever again to live in an industrial society,” strike-leader John Galt says, “it will be on our moral terms.” Naturally, the economy collapses, and the novel ends with the newly-appreciated strikers preparing to return and reinvigorate the impoverished world with their productive genius.
Why this appeals. Like polio, Randism typically strikes in adolescence — for good reasons.
One of the most frustrating things about adolescence is the way grown-ups use your lack of experience to discount your opinions. So teens are particularly attracted to theories that turn experience inside-out: Adults aren’t experienced, they’re indoctrinated. Our corrupt culture looks at everything backwards, so the longer you have lived in it uncritically, the further you are from reality.
The most attractive teen philosophies are bit-flips: The wrongness of the culture can be summed up in one idea, where the culture says true instead of false or yes instead of no. Once you reverse that single bad decision everything becomes clear, so a college student who has flipped that bit is infinitely wiser than any uncorrected greybeard professor.
Second, in the same way that my-real-parents-are-royal is the characteristic fantasy of childhood, my-unique-potential-is-unappreciated is the characteristic fantasy of adolescence. Tell a teen-age boy that there is a hidden aristocracy of talent, and he will start designing his coat-of-arms. The much higher probability that he was born to be a drudge never registers.
Finally, Rand’s ideas are particularly seductive to boys. I’ve never been clear on the exact socio-biological mechanisms, but boys in general have a harder time learning empathy than girls do. It’s not that we don’t care about others, it’s that seeing their point-of-view is work. It doesn’t come naturally. The boy who happily gobbles down the last donut may be honestly distressed to look up and realize that other people wanted it.
To become mature, men need to discipline themselves to imagine how other people’s legitimate interests might conflict with their own. Until you learn that habit — OK, until I learned that habit — I was constantly running afoul of rules that seemed arbitrary and restrictions that I imagined had been contrived purely to frustrate me.
So my elders told me that selfishness was a vice, but Rand flipped that bit and made it the essence of virtue. What a relief to know that my basic wiring was right all along, and that the only point-of-view I ought consider was my own! All those authority figures lecturing about respect for others were just trying to enmesh me in the culture’s fundamental corruption.
In addition to being male, I was white and healthy, and (though not as well-to-do as Ryan) I grew up with all the opportunities middle-class kids used to take for granted. Liberals might try to call me to account for my privileges — how did I justify them? what social responsibilities did they place on me? — but Rand set all that aside. Instead, I could identify with a victimized upper class of Roark-like geniuses.
Why it fades. Eventually, teens get the life experience their elders faulted them for not having. You meet people of many types, see how they approach life, and how (over time) it works out for them. As I did that, here’s what I noticed:
- Self-interest is a really crappy model for love and friendship. I force-fit it for a while, but eventually I noticed that the people whose relationships I envied didn’t live that way.
- Greed is ugly. When I look back on things I did out of greed, I’m rarely proud of myself.
- Life is complicated. No One Big Idea explains what’s right or wrong with the world.
- There is no aristocracy of talent — most people are good at something — and while the correlation between wealth and talent or hard work is positive, it’s not that high.
Most of all, as I got into life and began to have my own modest successes, the need to think of myself as special or tortured (like Rand’s mythical discoverer of fire) lost its power. The world will little note nor long remember what I do, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been important to me, so I’m content to let other people’s lives be important to them. I don’t need to see others as an undeserving mass trying to usurp the glory that is rightfully mine.
Rand and Ryan. Like me and so many others, Ryan found Rand as a teen-ager. He told the Atlas Society in 2005:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.
He tries to play his Randism down when he would rather appear Catholic, but it never really goes away. In 2009 he said:
It doesn’t surprise me that sales of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have surged lately with the Obama administration coming in. Because it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now. And I think a lot of people would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.
Ryan buys into Rand’s framing of the great fight between individualism and collectivism, and he admires her for laying out “the moral case for capitalism”. That moralism is what makes compromise impossible: Good cannot compromise with Evil. Any compromise between Purity and Corruption is a victory for Corruption.
Rand’s villains never have a legitimate point of view. Some are evil incarnate, while others refuse to understand the truth because of its inconvenience. But always, the truth is readily apparent to anyone who wants to know it.
I can see that mindset working in Ryan in more than just his pro-1% policies. In his Atlas Society talk, Ryan notes that unreformed government spending is projected to grow eventually to 26% of GDP and concludes “Autopilot will get them where they want to go.”
Them? The conspiring collectivists — Dick Gephardt, Nancy Pelosi, and Ted Kennedy. They’re not trying to solve any social problems, they’re just trying to make government bigger for its own sake. So if Medicare costs more, they win.
Similarly, in a 2010 anti-abortion article he says “we cannot go on forever feigning agnosticism” about the full human rights of fertilized eggs. Pro-choicers can’t really doubt the infinite moral value of zygotes or the government’s competence to make that judgment, we’re just “feigning”.
But most of all, Rand is the source of Ryan’s Makers vs. Takers worldview. Like many other Republicans, Ryan has connected two statistics: that about half the population doesn’t owe income tax and half live in a household getting some kind of government assistance to paint a false picture of two fixed and separate classes: those who work and those who mooch.
In reality, the two groups overlap and flow into each other: People who paid into Social Security while they had jobs are now retired and drawing out. The hard-working minimum-wage WalMart clerk needs food stamps to feed her children. In another household, one spouse works while the other collects unemployment, or both work while their college student gets a Pell grant or S-CHIP helps care for their sick toddler. Only in Randist mythology does society divide into Makers and Takers.
Why didn’t it fade for Ryan. This is where I can only speculate. But three explanations make sense to me.
First, even at age 42, Ryan hasn’t had much life experience. He went to Washington as a congressional intern at 21, and he has lived in the conservative echo chamber ever since. During that time, he hasn’t made a product or had a customer. Since 28, when he entered Congress, he hasn’t had a boss.
Second, the company he keeps. One of the most interesting chapters in The Audacity of Hope has senate-candidate Obama riding to a fund-raiser on a private jet. He contemplates how much time he spends raising money from the very wealthy. How much, he wonders, is this constant need to appeal to the rich changing the way he thinks?
I don’t believe Ryan has that level of introspective intelligence. As the Koch brothers’ favorite congressman, Ryan spends more time with richer people than Obama ever could have. Plutocrats love his high-school convictions, so why change?
And finally, in many ways Ryan is living his adolescent dream. He can put out a budget full of holes, with numbers that don’t add up, and read about how brave and brainy he is. He is the ideological leader of the Republican caucus, the true star of the 2012 convention. If he grew up wanting to be Howard Roark, lots of people are telling him he succeeded.
Ryan does remind me of some fictional characters, but not Roark or Galt. To me, Paul Ryan resembles David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, the middle-aged rockers of Spinal Tap. Probably they were good boys once, but the rock-star life has robbed them of the experiences they needed to grow up. Proclaimed as geniuses at an early age, they enter their 40s believing that the puerile thoughts of their teens are still deep and weighty.
[This article completes my Ryan trilogy: I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To and Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women are the other parts. I hope I can move on now.]