Libertarian History/Philosophy

Vice President Paul Ryan Would Not be Vice President Ayn Rand

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Yes, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, is frequently accused of being an acolyte of the always-dangerous Russian novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, a grand influence on modern libertarianism. Ryan talked to me about Rand for my December 2009 Reason magazine feature on Rand's revival post-economic crisis. Here's the parts about Ryan: 

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who gives out copies of Atlas Shrugged to departing interns, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who says Rand inspired his political career, both have said recently that the age of Barack Obama reminds them of the statist dystopia portrayed in the novel. Ryan—who stresses that, as a Catholic, he is not a full-fledged adherent to Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which embraces atheism as well as laissez faire—says that as he looks around Washington these days he can't help but think he's seeing a lot of Wesley Mouch, the sleazy lobbyist in Atlas Shrugged who rises through his connections to become a de facto economic dictator.

"What's happening now is Americans are awakening to see [that] this enduring principle of self-government and individualism is being taken away," Ryan says. "I really believe the entire moral premise of capitalism is being shaken to its core because of the acceleration of government right now, and that's waking people up."…..

Rep. Ryan thinks the GOP needs to embrace Rand's particular approach to politics—not merely stressing the practical benefits of freedom but arguing for its moral necessity. "We have an opportunity," he says, "to make a choice clearly once and for all in the next two elections, and we owe it to the American people to give them a clear choice: Do you want a collectivist welfare state or do you want to get back to being a free market? We need to make a moral, not just practical or statistical, case." Ryan admits he's not sure the Republican Party as a whole is ready to make that argument with Rand's uncompromising passion.

Ryan began denying Rand earlier this year. Here's what he said to National Review in April:

"I reject her philosophy," Ryan says firmly. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas," who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. "Don't give me Ayn Rand," he says.

"Real conservatives" have always hated Rand, although many intellectual historians don't understand this, both for her militant atheism and her uncompromising views on proper politics, which, despite her own personal bizarre endorsement of Nixon, leave little room for the typical pusillanimity of nearly all Republican politicians when it comes to keeping government strictly limited to defense of people's life and property. They are, as the subtitle of my 2009 article put it, not radical enough for (true) capitalism.

Jesse Walker already explained all the reasons why a libertarian or Randian should reject Ryan: bad on civil liberties and military spending and policy, immigration, drugs, indefinite detention, and even despite the exaggerated reputation for budget sense, bad on many important budget-busting votes. Buzzfeed made much hay over finding two people from libertarian-identified D.C. think tanks to say nice things about him (in the fiscal context), but that far from supports their misleading headline "Libertarians--Finally--Embrace the Republican Ticket."

Ryan, from his twisty TARP endorsement, is the worst sort of Rand villain: a man whose knowledge and understanding embrace free markets, but who traduces them for reasons of phony "practicality" or belief that one has to go against one's values to defend them. This is especially disappointing for a man who told me in a quote from that interview in 2009 I didn't use in the article that "I think the practical arguments are considered the political path of least resistance and easier to make politically and always in the short term the preferred option. I am of the belief now that's totally insufficient."

Alas, making a moral case for capitalism--which is the same as the moral case for human liberty--requires a voting record that shows an actual belief in the notion that government has, if any, only the powers that the individual can rightly grant them. That's the power to defend one's individual right to life and justly acquiered property. That does not include many, many things Ryan as congressman has supported, from TARP to Medicare Part D to auto bailouts (as un-Randian as you could imagine, as Conor Friedersdorf noted in his article rightly dubbing Ryan a Rand villain) and the Patriot Act. 

There is another Ayn Rand-admiring politician on the scene, the last man standing running against Mitt Romney. His name is Ron Paul, and he rightly saw even Ryan's alleged fiscal toughness as not nearly good enough. Paul was right, and serious conservatives or libertarians who are cheering the Ryan pick are wrong.

Something else Ryan said to me in my 2009 interview with him that didn't make the article will undoubtedly be the mantra of those of libertarian sympathies who will say good things about the Ryan choice: "You don't get perfect choices in politics, but you have to get in the arena and fight and make choices as best as possible and going in the right direction."

I can't be excited enough, as a Rand fan and libertarian, about Ryan to even think a choice of him is the "right direction," for the reasons Walker detailed. Rob Lowe may be right, as he so often is, that loving Rand is no disgrace. But saying you love Rand and having the political career of Paul Ryan is.

Ryan appears in this Reason.tv video on Rand:

My defense of Ayn Rand's enduring value on her centennial. My 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism tells the story of Rand's life and work at length in the context of libertarian intellectual history.