Stop Calling Paul Ryan a Randian

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The label doesn't accurately describe either his record or his proposals or the way that he would govern if elected.

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If you're a liberal who rolls his or her eyes every time you hear someone on the right describe President Obama as an Alinskyite or a Marxist, understand this: That's exactly how libertarians feel when Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice-presidential candidate, is described as a devoted Randian.

I understand that Ryan has described himself that way. In fact, I mocked him at length for doing so, pointing out that if he were a character in Atlas Shrugged, he would doubtlessly be a villain.

But the comparison keeps getting made.

Says my colleague Robert Wright, "Ryan's Randian attack on America's already meager safety net for the poor stands in stark contrast to the Affordable Care Act's improved access to health care for low-income Americans." But Ryan has never made a Randian attack on America's safety net. He has neither proposed eliminating it nor said that its recipients are morally reprehensible moochers. That isn't to say that he hasn't proposed significant cuts, or that they might not harm poor people. It is only to say that there is no reason to label cuts Randian when neither the reasoning offered for them nor the end results are anything Rand would endorse, consistent with her philosophy, or even a half-hearted attempt to carry out its precepts.

Says Andrew Sullivan, "I don't share some Obama-supporters' contempt for Paul Ryan. That's in part because he comes across as a sincere, decent, fine fellow -- whose Randian worldview has produced a reformist zeal known most intimately to an adolescent male. Indeed, he reminds me most of all of myself in my teens -- dreaming of how to cut government in half, relishing schemes to slash taxes and slash spending and unleash revolutionary growth which, in itself, would render all other problems more manageable. There is no libertarian quite as convinced as a teenage libertarian. And it's the adolescent conviction of Ryan that shines so brightly."

But Ryan's years in Congress and the voting record he has amassed there are indisputable evidence that he is nothing like a naive teenager who is stubbornly unwilling to compromise his ideological beliefs out of reformist zeal. His convictions have been proven malleable.

He is, in fact and metaphorically, a middle-aged career politician, trying some combination of pushing policy in the direction he thinks best and emphasizing an agenda popular at this moment in his party.

Lisa Miller tries to figure out how Ryan can claim to be an adherent of the teachings of both Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ. But there is little in his record as a legislator to suggest that he takes the politically relevant sermons of John Galt or Jesus Christ seriously. Are there counterexamples?

Let me know in comments if I've missed one.

There are writers who more accurately characterize Ryan's philosophy, some of them in complementary language, others with an eye toward his hypocrisy. Here's Will Wilkinson doing the former:

Mr Ryan's favourite proposals for entitlement reform are sincerely intended to improve the system by saving it from unsustainable fiscal imbalance. One may honestly believe that if Mr Ryan has his way, America's seniors will be dining on Tender Vittles and expiring in the streets on their rusted, no-longer-Medicare-subsidised Rascal scooters. But there is nothing in his voting record or current proposals to suggest that Mr Ryan intends this result, or that he believes there to be anything at all objectionable about receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits, much less an education at State U. Indeed, Mr Ryan seems to me intent on repairing defects in the system so that the system can survive to go on delivering benefits.

Said a Peter Lawler interlocutor:

I've never heard of a Randian who wanted to stabilize government spending at 19 percent of GDP for the next 30 years as Ryan's current plan does. Nor do I think increasing total Medicare spending every year and preserving Medicare completely intact for everyone over 55 constitutes an attack on an already "minimalist" welfare state.

In every speech, talk, or interview I've heard him give, Paul Ryan has not come across as a libertarian crusader out to repeal every social program passed in the last 100 years. Rather, he soberly and consistently makes the case that our entitlement programs are unsustainable in their current form and that we have to trim them back to preserve them for future generations.

And here's Glenn Greenwald:

Whatever one wants to say about Ryan's record, it is the very opposite of constraining the power of the federal government to intrude into the lives of individuals; indeed, it's a testament to massive expansion of intrusive federal government power in almost every realm.

That's all correct.

So is there any way that Ryan is like Ayn Rand? Indeed, just as there are ways that Obama is like Alinsky and Marx. How is Ryan most like Rand? Here's an excerpt from a 2009 profile of Ryan that appeared in Reason. Wrote Brian Doherty, the author of the piece:

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's impulse to make moral arguments for the free market is perhaps his greatest similarity to Rand. (Dave Weigel plausibly argues that his stance on monetary policy is another contender). Of course, his arguments are not the same as hers, nor are his policies always consistent with the moral case for capitalism, as his support of TARP most clearly demonstrated. 

As far as I'm concerned, Ryan is preferable to a Randian on some issues and would do much better to adopt Randian positions on others, but the point isn't whether the label gives him too much or too little credit, or whether it's good or bad to be a Randian.

The point is that the label is inaccurate. And anyone who comes away believing that if elected he'll govern like an Objectivist is being severely misled about his past actions and present proposals.

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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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