If Paul Ryan Were an Atlas Shrugged Character, He'd Be a Villain

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I've read Ayn Rand's book. I know her protagonists. And Congressman Ryan, you're no John Galt.

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The strangest detail in Rep. Paul Ryan's biography is a 2005 speech he gave at The Atlas Society, where he extolled author and philosopher Ayn Rand, particularly her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. What liberals always seize on is his statement, "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." That doesn't bother me in the least, for when I was 11 or 12, I plucked Atlas Shrugged off the family book shelf, where it sat beside The Lord of the Rings, Trinity, Tai-Pan, and Watership Down, and it taught me quite a bit, by which I mean that I gleaned useful insights from it, not that I took its every word as gospel. Too many Ayn Rand critics react to the mention of her name in the way that John Birch Society members react to an academic citing Karl Marx. (Ayn Rand sycophants and her most vociferous critics are the two groups in the world who think that the controversial author's ideas must be embraced or rejected in their entirety.)

So I don't mind the idea that the Russian emigre's books shaped Ryan's word view. I just think he wasn't a very discerning reader. The first clue came in that same 2005 speech. "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," he said. There is a term for characters in Rand novels that proclaim a desire to spend their lives serving the public. They are villains. Or as she put it in one of her works of nonfiction:

Since there is no such entity as "the public," since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that "the public interest" supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others. If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as "the public."
Perhaps describing himself as a Rand-inspired public servant was merely a poor choice of words. I cannot recall a politician in a Rand novel who wasn't written with contempt, but she didn't think there was anything inherently wrong with a man representing his fellow citizens in Congress.

But a congressman with a voting record like the one Rep. Ryan has amassed? He'd be banned from Galt's Gulch, the invite-only alternative society where the heroes of Atlas Shrugged congregate, by unanimous vote. Even Eddie Willers, the novel's only sympathetically written squish, would've seen Rep. Ryan's career from 1999 to 2009 as indefensible. "If we're going to actually win this we need to make sure that we're solid on premises, that our principles are well-defended, and if want to go and articulately defend these principles and what they mean to our society, what they mean for the trends that we set internationally, we have to go back to Ayn Rand," Rep. Ryan said. Now let's look at what he did.

How would Ayn Rand feel about the Department of Homeland Security and the federalization of airport security? Had an unusually canny infiltrator carried out a successful terrorist attack on Galt's Gulch, does anyone see a scenario where the book's heroine, Dagny Taggart, starts submitting to genital pat-downs by agents of the state before being permitted to board a plane?

How would Lawrence Hammond, the capitalist automaker, and Dan Conway, the upstart who out-competed an entrenched corporation, feel about Rep. Ryan's 2009 vote for the auto-industry bailout?

Do you think Francisco D'Anconia would've felt admiration for Rep Ryan's TARP vote? I think the copper tycoon would've eviscerated him with slyly cutting remarks during a Georgetown cocktail party.

What line from Ayn Rand's work did Rep. Ryan return to before voting for the prescription drug benefit? As Dave Weigel notes, Rep. Ryan has explained many of these votes to fellow conservatives by insisting that he hated casting them but felt the need to be a team player during the Bush Administration. But that isn't an explanation that helps him in the moral universe of Atlas Shrugged. Characters who act contrary to what they know is right in the name of loyalty to others are considered moral monsters. All the worse if their immoral acts involve redistribution of wealth. If Rep. Ryan existed in Ayn Rand's word he'd get chewed out by Ragnar Danneskjöld after he hijacked shipments of subsidized drugs and dumped them into the ocean. And he'd probably vote to fund Project X and entrust it to some executive branch analog of Robert Stadler.

This isn't just about the past.

Don't think that circa 2009 Rep. Ryan became a Randian. His positions are still wildly inconsistent with Objectivism. Said John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, in the overlong, gratingly repetitive speech that Ryan says he returns to, but that I always skip when re-reading the novel:

So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate -- do you hear me? no man may start -- the use of physical force against others.To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force-him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man's capacity to live.
No surprise that Ayn Rand was opposed to the War on Drugs. Rep. Ryan? He's for it, among many other instances of the state initiating force against citizens. "I think a lot of people would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking," Rep. Ryan observed in 2009. If so, I'd advise him to avoid any Acela rides that traverse long tunnels.

It's convenient for liberals to cast Rep. Ryan as an Ayn Rand apostle, for her ideas are held by a small minority of Americans; and it is convenient for some on the right to play up his affinity for Rand, both because she has a well-deserved reputation for being uncompromising, a quality the Tea Party likes, and because some of the insights in Atlas Shrugged do in fact resonate in this era of decadent political elites, immoral collusion between big business and government, and economic stagnation. But neither horrified liberals nor hopeful libertarians should fool themselves into believing that Rep. Ryan would govern America according to the ideals of Ayn Rand.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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