Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

by Bob Schwartz


A postage stamp honoring Ayn Rand was issued in 1999; that’s the image used in the National Review cover above. It was issued in the usual way, following a roughly three-year process of being proposed, recommended by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, and then approved by the Postmaster General.

The most famous controversy over any stamp concerned the Elvis Presley commemorative. There was disagreement about which Elvis to depict, the younger leaner one or the older heavier one, and disagreement about whether Elvis should have a stamp at all. In the end, the stamp was issued, and went on to become the bestselling in U.S. postal history. There is no record that there was disagreement about Ayn Rand, though there might well have been.

Paul Ryan honored Ayn Rand too, at least until recently. He stated that her books were the most pivotal in shaping his public life. He gave them to interns as gifts. He spoke frequently about how the decline in America looked increasingly like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.

He is not alone among public servants in his admiration for Ayn Rand. Politico reported last April on 7 Politicians Who Praised Ayn Rand.  Among these are Sen. Rand Paul (coincidentally named), Rep. Ron Paul (who should know about Rand Paul’s name), President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Gary Johnson, Sen. Mark Sanford and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas has his new law clerks watch a screening of The Fountainhead (1949), starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, an adaptation of Rand’s second most famous novel. Maybe the most famous acolyte of Ayn Rand is former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in the 1950s was part of her inner circle and a close confidant.

Rand’s novels are overlong, didactic, questionably artful embodiments of her very particular philosophy. It is a philosophy fed by her early experience as a child in Soviet Russia, a member of an intellectual and professional Jewish family that was reduced to dire circumstances by the forces of collectivism, Communism and totalitarianism.

She came to America and created her own ism. The Atlas Society,  one of the intellectual keepers of the Rand canon, summarizes:

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was set forth in such works as her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, and in her brilliant non-fiction essays. Objectivism is designed as a guide to life, and celebrates the remarkable potential and power of you, the individual. Objectivism also challenges the doctrines of irrationalism, self-sacrifice, brute force, and collectivism that have brought centuries of chaos and misery into the lives of millions of individuals. It provides fascinating insights into the world of politics, art, education, foreign policy, science, and more, rewarding you with a rich understanding of how ideas shape your world. Those who discover Objectivism often describe the experience as life-changing and liberating.

One problem with Objectivism, as with the isms Rand left behind and hated, is that pure systems work well on paper and in the mind, as long as you don’t have to wrestle with the complexities and consequences of the actual world. This is probably why Ayn Rand has always had an appeal to younger people, particularly teenage boys and young men, who are empowered by the idea of their individual greatness waiting to explode, ungoverned by the limitations that the world tries to place on them. The world is filled with people who want something from us, who are jealous of us, who don’t understand our specialness, and who will do anything to hold us back and keep us down.

This phenomenon was wryly captured by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter:

As one wag once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Winters was writing in the context of the Ryan Budget. Paul Ryan is devoted to the Catholic Church, which is founded on the sort of collectivism, anti-individualism, self-sacrifice and charity that Rand abhorred and rejected as immoral. This led in May 2011 to questions about how the Ryan Budget, with reductions in government help for the poor and others in need, squared with the teachings of the Church. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who had previously been Bishop in Wisconsin, made clear in a letter to Ryan that the budget was completely in line with the Church’s mission. Winters wrote:

Ryan’s budget certainly reflects Rand’s weltanschauung more than it reflects the vision Pope Benedict XVI put forth in Caritas in Veritate. That is why I think it was a mistake for Archbishop Dolan to write a letter that, however unintentionally, gave political cover to policies that are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. And, whatever frustrations Ryan – or anyone else – has with the modern, social welfare state, I think it can be said that the social welfare state is to social justice what democracy is to government: The worst form of administration except every other form.

Ryan can assert that his budget is built upon Catholic concerns about human dignity, but there is no dignity in Rand’s crimped vision of humanity. There really is no need to wrestle with these so-called ideas.

Paul Ryan’s distancing from Ayn Rand began last spring when he said that his supposed embrace of the author and her philosophy was “urban legend.” (If so, it is the most high-minded and intellectual urban legend of all time, since those stories are usually sordid and lowlife, as in the flushing of baby alligators into the New York sewers.) Then just yesterday he explained that while he enjoyed the novels for a long time, it was only later that he became aware of her philosophy.

As mentioned earlier, Ayn Rand’s novels are not works of art that have to be savored and investigated so that their meaning can be coaxed out. They are pages and pages of speeches and ideas, with some plot and characters hung on them like ornaments on a tree. There are only two explanations for Ryan’s assertion: he is either dull-witted, which he isn’t, or he is…being disingenuous.

Why all this effort to run away from Ayn Rand anyway? Most people, meaning voters, have never read those novels, and all this fuss is not about to move them to throw away weeks of their lives trying to plow through them.

Here’s why.

First, Ayn Rand was an atheist. In her philosophy there is no higher power than man, no life other than the objective life in front of our faces, no morality other than the morality of rational self-interest. There are plenty of atheists who embrace the moral and ethical concepts at the heart of religious beliefs, such as the Golden Rule. Ayn Rand was not one of those. This is more than inconvenient for anyone, especially politicians, who base their lives and careers on their religious foundations.

But there is something deeper and more significant going on. In 2010 the National Review, America’s most respected conservative journal, published a cover story on Ayn Rand.  In it, Jason Lee Steorts writes about going back to reread Ayn Rand, given her renewed popularity following the election of Barack Obama:

Our president seems to have inspired — which is not quite the word — half the country to read Miss Rand, and I wanted to remind myself what she was teaching them. He finds that he can’t get through the books, because he sees the author for who she was and, therefore, what she espoused.

Steorts relates a scene from Atlas Shrugged. The prime movers, those who are literally the brains behind the success of the country, have gone on strike. This leaves the inferior, parasitic people to fend for themselves. In this scene, a train is stopped before an eight-mile unventilated tunnel. There are no diesel engines, no one to properly operate the train. But facing a demand to make it move, the station officials, writes Rand, “call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.”

The passengers comprise an array of losers, including a professor “who taught that individual ability is of no consequence” and a mother “whose husband held a government job enforcing directives.” They are, in essence, riding a train into a gas chamber. “But that isn’t why I stopped reading,” Steorts writes. “I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.”

That is at the heart of this running away from Rand. Rand’s world is not one where unbridled individualism can co-exist with a diversity of other moralities and abilities. It is either/or. There are producers, there are freeloaders, and the immoral role of government is to stifle the producers and reward the freeloaders with stolen spoils. As soon as government is gone, the producers will be free to shape the world in their image, and the others will learn how that world works or they will, ultimately, perish as their punishment.

If that sounds harsh and heartless, it is. If that sounds like an extreme version of some of the rhetoric we may have been hearing lately, it is. But even the softer version, tempered by compassion, still makes us uncomfortable. That is why, hopefully, Ryan and others will distance themselves from Ayn Rand—not just for political show, but for real.  That is why, when Sheorts in the National Review looked to find out why Obama-haters were reading Ayn Rand, he recoiled at what he found. He discovered a bloodless train, and he couldn’t bear to see where it was heading.