With Ryan as VP, Rand Seizes the GOP

Over a year ago I wrote a post on Mitt Romney’s new vice-presidential pick and the novels of Ayn Rand. (You can also read a post from 2010 when I first began noticing Rand’s resurgence.)  The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate shows that Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have moved to the center of today’s Republican Party.

Over the weekend, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer posted on all the ways that Ryan has been guided by Rand. Mayer joked that there is a woman on the ticket after all. She acknowledges that Ryan has had to steer clear of Rand’s contempt for Christianity (Rand followed Netzsche, who derided Christianity as a “slave religion” that celebrates the meek), but he continues to talk in Randian terms about “takers and makers.” Republicans, in his framing, are makers while Democrats are takers.

In choosing Ryan, Romney appears to be attempting to change the narrative of his election bid. No longer is this election to be just a referendum on Obama’s performance. Now it is a clash of world visions, between heroic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps captains-of-industry (or at least of finance) capitalism and (in Maurine Dowd’s characterization of Randian attacks) “warmed over, mommy party, it-takes-a-village piffle.” Forget about helping those who are unemployed or experiencing difficulties. They must learn, the hard way, to help themselves, even if it means going hungry.

It’s a break from the establishment GOP who, as Jonathan Chait notes, have long made their peace with FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan wants to undo those programs and go back to the 1920s or, for that matter, to the Gilded Age and the robber barons. As Chait sees it, the selection of Ryan represents the final triumph of movement conservatives in the Republican Party:

What makes Ryan so extraordinary is that he is not just a handsome slickster skilled at conveying sincerity with a winsome heartland affect. Pols like that come along every year. He is also (as Rich Yeselson put it) the chief party theoretician. Far more than even Ronald Reagan, he is deeply grounded is the ideological precepts of the conservative movement – a longtime Ayn Rand devotee who imbibed deeply from the lunatic supply-side tracts of Jude Wanniski and George Gilder. He has not merely formed an alliance with the movement, he is a product of it.

In this sense, Ryan’s nomination represents an important historical marker and the completion of a fifty year struggle. Starting in the early 1960s, conservative activists set out to seize control of the Republican Party. At the time the party was firmly in the hands of establishmentarians who had made their peace with the New Deal, but the activists regarded the entire development of the modern regulatory and welfare states as a horrific assault on freedom bound to lead to imminent societal collapse. In fits and starts, the conservatives slowly advanced – nominating Goldwater, retreating under Nixon, nominating Reagan, retreating as Reagan sought to govern, and on and on through Gingrich, Bush and his successors.

In my post from two years ago, I talked about the mediocrity of Rand’s novels as novels. Nevertheless, I don’t think that her ideas would pack the same punch if they had not been given dramatic enactment. Certainly fewer people would work their way through the hundreds of pages, which include lectures/sermons, if they were not imagining themselves as titanic figures like Howard Roark or John Galt.

In Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells us how novels (he’s talking about good novels) “comprehend the world as a question.” Rand’s novels, by contrast, have “an answer for everything”:

“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.”

As one who lived and wrote in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, Kundera understands how ideology works, and he could add Rand’s Objectivism to Marx and Islam. The fact that Rand enthusiasts have seized the GOP is disturbing. We must continue struggling for a world where good novels have a place.

Added note: Here’s Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic this morning on how William Buckley fought Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and how his brand of conservatism has been rejected by today’s GOP:

Consider Ryan in view of the legacy of William F. Buckley, who is generally considered the founder of the modern conservative movement. Buckley felt that perhaps his greatest achievement was to have repulsed the two principal extremist threats to the movement in the 1960s: the John Birch Society and the “Objectivists” centered around the writer Ayn Rand. As various commentators have pointed out, the Tea Party has revived and re-popularized the Birch Society’s outlandish views, and no Republican leader has attempted to refute them. Now that the party’s vice-presidential candidate is the most prominent Rand-influenced politician in the land—Ryan said in 2005 that Rand was “the reason I got involved in public service”—the other half of Buckley’s achievement has come undone.

It’s true that in the past few years, Ryan has distanced himself from Rand’s philosophy and particularly her atheism, which was Buckley’s principal objection to Objectivism. But Buckley also criticized the materialism, elitism, and scorn for altruism that were essential components of Rand’s philosophy. Rand’s belief that self-interest is the paramount aspect of capitalism, according to Buckley, risked “giving capitalism that bad name its enemies have done so well in giving it.” Ryan, on the other hand, said as recently as 2009 that “Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” 

Another note: And here’s Slate’s Dave Weigel noting how, in the 2005 speech to the Rand revivalist Atlas Society, Ryan cited the importance of a character in Atlas Shrugged, copper mining magnate Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian, in shaping his own vision of the Federal Reserve. Weigel notes that the Fed has a dual purpose—to fight inflation and unemployment–and Ryan wants it to stop using monetary policy to fight unemployment. The first paragraph is from Ryan’s speech at the Rand convention, the second Anconia’s speech:

Ryan: I always go back to, you know, Francisco d’Anconia’s speech, at Bill Taggart’s wedding, on money when I think about monetary policy. Then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises.

D’Anconia:  The problem, says d’Anconia, is that statists — looters and moochers — see dollar signs and think they can, must redistribute them. “Whenever destroyers appear among men,” he says, “they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it becomes, marked: ‘Account overdrawn.'”

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  • This essay has just given me a whole new way to worry about the coming election.

    As a Canadian, I have neither vote nor voice, but my friends and I are still following this with great interest and not inconsiderable anxiety. The link to Ayn Rand’s poisonous philosophy explains a great deal.

    I follow Maurine Dowd’s column, but had forgotten about that one. Thank you for the reminder.

    And thank you, as usual, for a very stimulating blog

  • JRS

    It is unfortunate that both Ayn Rands supporters and detractors take the wrong things away from parts of the book, resulting in the belief that she is pro-rich and anti-poor. If Paul Ryan were to read Francisco’s money speech a bit more closely he would probably 1)realize there is no Bill Taggart, it is Jim Taggart’s wedding and 2)He would see people getting rich off of influencing the government as the bigger threats. People who get rich off of defense contracts that the military doesn’t even want but congress procurs. People who use their influence to win no-bid contracts from the government at inflated prices(Halliburton) or get obscenely large loans that they will never repay(Solyndra).

    In the speech, Francisco is critical of two groups, the moochers and the looters. The moochers are the ones who believe society should take care of them, that they are entitled to the fruits of other’s labors. Ayn Rand only spends a few paragraphs on them yet this is the part that most people laser in on.

    The real villians in the speech are the looters. These are the ones that use their influence in the government to pass laws and directives. In today’s world we would refer to them as “crony capitalists”. The ones who get rich off of government contracts. The ones who get laws passed to restrict the competition. The ons who place speculative bets on the stock market and then lobby the government for “stimulus” to make the markets pop. Or place bets against the market and lobby the government to remove stimulus. Modern “captains of finance” would be no friend of Francisco D’Anconia. In the pages prior to the money speech D’Anconia is critical of the people at the party who have bought stock in his copper company. His is is critical of them because they have no knowledge of the copper industry. They consider such knowledge superfluous. They only want to come along for the ride.

  • Sean

    If find the left’s obsession with tying Ryan to Ayn Rand as entertaining as the right’s obsession with tying Obama to Saul Alinsky.

  • Robin Bates

    JRS, I very much appreciate what you point out about Francisco’s speech. You are right, Rand is going after what has become known as “corporate welfare” as well as welfare in general. I think the interesting thing about Rand is how people read her the same way that Jonathan Swift says that they read satire: they see every face but their own. Thus people imagine themselves as heroic Howard Roark entrepreneurs even while they have benefited from privilege. What puzzles me is that rightwing populists focus more on the moochers and leftwing populists on the looters. Can we agree to go after both. (But so that we don’t set up a false equivalence, can we also acknowledge that the looters grab a far greater portion of the public pie than do the moochers. And could we also say that moochers are the tiny portion of people who could work and refuse to, not those who can’t find jobs or who are infirm.)

    Sean, It’s hard not to see Ryan see Rand coming out out Rand’s ideas when he said as recently as three years ago, “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 the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” I wouldn’t have any objection to tying Obama to Saul Alinsky if I thought he really came out of that “Occupy Wall Street” type of mentality–I wouldn’t even be disturbed–but I don’t see Obama as a civil disobedience type of guy (much to the distress of some on the left). When he was a community organizer, his way of operating was to bring different parties to the table and try to negotiate differences. I think Alinsky would have seen him as naive.

    Tell me if this gets at your own position, which I’ve been trying to figure out from several replies you have sent in. You strike me as someone who subscribes to the Jeffersonian ideal of independent yeoman farmers (I guess we’d see them as yeoman businesspeople today), who is against both large corporations (I remember what you said about banks) and large government. I can imagine you, like JRS, inveighing against both moochers and looters. As the father of a small businessman, I’m very sympathetic. I don’t want him overwhelmed by unnecessary government regulations or crushed by large corporations. But the challenge for us all, I think, is what to do in a world that has become so large and so complex that Jeffersonian individuality has a hard time surviving, when economies of scale dwarf small entrepreneurs. Can the George Baileys (of It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that I believe you like) still make it in our world? Anyway, do I have any of this right?

    Here’s yet another article about Ryan and Rand, Colleen. From The New Republic.

  • Sean

    Hey Robin, I too have been trying to get a handle on your position 🙂 Of course, I have the benefit of reading many of your blog posts (mostly the political ones), and now your book.

    I’ll try to post something on this thread in a few days with more background on my position and how it relates to my impression of yours. I think you are fairly close.

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