Paul Ryan’s taken a lot of heat for his occasional tributes to Ayn Rand. Even before his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Krugman described Ryan as an “Ayn Rand devotee“. The criticism has increased since Ryan’s elevation to the national stage. In the last week, the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post have all run pieces exploring Rand’s influence on the Wisconsin congressman. Reading the press and the blogs, you’d think think that Ryan was a card-carrying Objectivist, or however it is that Rand’s followers identify themselves. An item in U.S. News even suggests that Ryan has a “dangerous obsession” with the author of Atlas Shrugged.
It would be disturbing indeed if Ryan were obsessed with Rand. Like Whittaker Chambers, I find in Rand “shrillness…without reprieve…dogmatism…without appeal.” In the name of reason, Rand reduces the paradoxes of human existence to a simple doctrine. As Rand herself insisted, this procedure is antithetical to conservative tradition. Indeed, it has more than a glancing resemblance to the Bolshevism she rejected.
But the record doesn’t really show that Ryan is a Rand cultist. Here is what he has said, according to a list of quotes compiled by Elspeth Reeve in the The Atlantic:
- “I just want to speak to you a little bit about Ayn Rand and what she meant to me in my life and [in] the fight we’re engaged here in Congress. I grew up on Ayn Rand, that’s what I tell people.”
- “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. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well.”
- “But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
- “And when you look at the twentieth-century experiment with collectivism—that Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did such a good job of articulating the pitfalls of statism and collectivism—you can’t find another thinker or writer who did a better job of describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism than Ayn Rand.”
- “It’s so important that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand’s vision, her writings, to see what our girding, under-grounding [sic] principles are.”
- “Because there is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.”
What do these remarks amount to? On my reading, Ryan does little more than credit Rand with inspiring his career by making “the moral case” for capitalism. By the “moral case”, Ryan seems to mean the idea that producers have a fundamental right to the fruits of their labor. But that idea isn’t original to Rand. It’s also found in an infinitely more serious defense of what the historian of political thought C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism“: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
Nor does Ryan suggest that Rand’s attempts to work out the implications of that idea are the most convincing. At least as far the education of interns goes, he suggests moving on to Mises and Hayek. In short, Ryan presents Rand as a starting point rather than a destination. We’re supposed to be afraid of this?
I don’t mean to suggest that Ryan should be let off the hook for the apparent incoherence of his ideas. Contrary to Brian Bolduc’s defense in National Review, it’s pretty tough to square Ryan’s affinity for possessive individualism with his professed reverence for Thomas Aquinas.
But politics is not a seminar in philosophy or intellectual history. Since he has had only a short and ineffectual career as a legislator and none as an executive, we should judge Ryan on the wisdom of his proposals, especially his signature budget plan. There’s plenty to criticize there without indulging in speculation about his favorite author as a young man.