The Echoes of Ayn Rand in Paul Ryan's Budget Plan

Jonathan Chait examines the intellectual underpinnings of the movement to slash budgets -- and especially programs that serve the poor, elderly and weak -- in a Newsweek piece, and argues that this is no accident:

...the furious Tea Party rebels and Ryan the earnest budget geek ... both spring from the same source. And it is to that source that you must look if you want to understand what Ryan is really after, and what makes these activists so angry.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration's subsidizing the "losers' mortgages." Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt--in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but "at the end of the day I'm an Ayn Rander."

Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard--a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand's totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.....

When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit--the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--Ryan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand's almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert.

Viewed as an effort to reduce the debt, Ryan's plan makes little sense. Many of its proposals either have nothing to do with reducing deficits (repealing the financial-reform bill loathed by Wall Street) or actually increase deficits (making the Bush tax cuts permanent). It relies heavily on distant, phantasmal cuts....

Ryan's plan does do two things in immediate and specific ways: hurt the poor and help the rich. After extending the Bush tax cuts, he would cut the top rate for individuals and corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent. Then Ryan slashes Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, and low-income housing. These programs to help the poor, which constitute approximately 21 percent of the federal budget, absorb two thirds of Ryan's cuts....

Ryan casts these cuts as an incentive for the poor to get off their lazy butts. He insists that we "ensure that America's safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency." It's worth translating what Ryan means here. Welfare reform was premised on the tough but persuasive argument that providing long-term cash payments to people who don't work encourages long-term dependency. Ryan is saying that the poor should not only be denied cash income but also food and health care.

The class tinge of Ryan's Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we "reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water." Ryan won't say so, but that's exactly what he's doing.

Read the full story at Newsweek.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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