Paul Ryan’s Tragic Love Affair with Ayn Rand

REMEMBER WHEN GOOD-HEARTED Christians used to favor bracelets that read “WWJD,” meaning: “What Would Jesus Do?”

Well, then, what should “godless” liberals make of GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan today? Not too long ago, Ryan told anyone who cared to listen that he loved the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a notorious atheist.

(Imagine what Fox News would do with that kind of story if President Obama said he had ever read Rand.)

Now, Congressman Ryan has ditched his WWARD bracelet, because he’s running for national office, and some right-wing types certainly wouldn’t like it. Still, we know by his own statements that he wore it for years:

…Ryan made no bones about his philosophical influences just a few years ago. He told the Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gave his staffers copies of “Atlas Shrugged” as Christmas presents. Speaking to a group of Rand acolytes in 2005, Ryan said, “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.”

Even three years ago, Tim Mak of Politico noted, Ryan channeled Rand. “What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” Ryan said. “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”

Suppose we give Congressman Ryan benefit of the doubt–unlike the far-right folk who see Vladimir Lenin behind everything President Obama does, including flossing his teeth. Let’s assume Ryan never fell head over heels for the atheism in Rand, and figure Rand’s moral case for capitalism and against collectivism is perfectly sound.

A BIT OF FULL DISCLOSURE, FIRST. Like Ryan, I read Rand when I was young, both Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead while serving in the Marines.

To sum up her ideas simply, Rand was champion of a philosophy know as Objectivism. She was against all state interference in economic affairs, which is where Ryan would have you believe he now stands. Rand believed human rights were best safe-guarded in a free market system, which I suspect is true, and a concept, simply framed, which serves as foundation for most Tea Party thought. Rand, on her part, placed full faith in the individual, free to stand alone, arguing that each of us should rely, first, second, and third on ourselves, and not expect handouts from anyone else. I liked that idea, when I was young, and as a liberal, as far as it really goes in real life, I still do today. I took away from Rand, like Ryan (or so I suspect), the idea that we should stand on our own two feet and do all we can.

That still doesn’t mean her books are very good–or that her philosophy, or the philosophy of Paul Ryan and the extreme conservatives, stands up well in the end. I tried to read Atlas Shrugged again two or three years ago.

I couldn’t do it.

First, the writing is pretty bad. Even worse, her characters, especially the villains, are caricatures. John Galt, for example, in Atlas Shrugged, is a paladin of unfettered capitalism. He asks help from no one, scorns meddling government types. Galt desires only to be free to run his business, to create, to follow his own path. Hank Rearden is the same kind of man, intent on building a great steel company and turning out the best product he can.

Eventually, Rearden falls in love with Dagny Taggert, lithe, leggy, sensual, daughter of another capitalist hero, a railroad builder, if memory serves. And all Ms. Taggert wants is to be free from government intervention, to exercise her talents, despite her sex, a character who undoubtely reflects Rand’s view of herself. By Rick Santorum’s or Rush Limbaugh’s standards, though, Dagny’s kind of a slut. She sleeps with Rearden without taking the time to marry him. Then, when she meets John Galt, she sleeps with him and they have torrid sex.

It’s Fifty Shades of Gray, only with economic implications.

It’s the villains, however, that make these books ridiculous, and it’s this fetish for finding all kinds of villains that makes much conservative philosophy seem shallow today. In Rand’s works half a century ago, and on Fox News every day, the bad guys might as well be cardboard cutouts, for all the nuance Rand or Fox display. In Atlas Shrugged, which helped Paul Ryan learn how to think, they are creepy and weak. They’re craven business types, with minimal talents, who work in tandem with sleazy bureaucrats, and leach off the success of individuals like Rearden and Galt. Our only hope, Rand wants us to think, is a system free from government interference, where capitalist heroes create wealth, innovate, and, as a by-product, lift the rest of us up, carry us along, like Atlas, on their broad shoulders.

(It’s Mitt Romney, working at Bain Capital, Hercules performing the Seven Job-Creating Labors. And, no, mythic heroes don’t have to show us their income tax forms.)

The problem, of course, is that villains and heroes in real life are much harder to tell apart; and so simplistic logic just won’t quite do. There are all kinds of crooks in business, for example, who skirt government regulations, and rig the whole system. (Did we mention that we’d like to see Mitt’s tax returns, just to be sure what kind of business type he is?) And there are noble and good people serving in government, members of all parties, in all times, some on each side, some running for office today.

Take Ryan, for example. In 2009, from his comfortable seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, he blasted the “wasteful spending” of the Obama stimulus plan. He was the perfect Ayn Rand hero, standing up against all those interferring government types. Unfettered capitalism must triumph.

The true individual stands alone.

And, oh yeah, Mr. Ryan wrote to ask Obama’s Secretary of Energy soon after, could you please send a little stimulus funding to the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation, in my district, while you’re handing out checks?

Paul Ryan, guardian of economic truths, justice, and the American Way, wanted the federal government to give his constituents a helping hand. Suddenly, a little butting in, where business was involved, looked good:

“I was pleased [Ryan wrote] that the primary objectives of their project will allow residents and businesses in the partner cities to reduce their energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate the local economy by creating new jobs,” Ryan wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on December 18, 2009, on behalf of the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation.

So:  there it is. Our buff, blue-eyed hero, bold defender of individualism, darling of the farthest-of-the-far-right, railed against government intrusion, stood by his values, and voted against the Obama plan.

Then he stuck out his hand and asked for a cut.

What other fiscal skeletons might we find if we looked under his Objectivist bed?  Who is Paul Ryan, to put it the way Ayn Rand might? Ryan’s work in Congress isn’t any worse than most members of that august body; but it’s not much better in the end. Like all those sleazy elected officials Rand describes, Ryan was less than noble when core values and beliefs got in his path, when not doing favors and helping grease a few constituent palms might interfere with his core purpose of getting reelected.

Remember earmarks, which conservatives railed about during the 2008 campaign? In 2005, Ryan voted for a $712 million transportation bill that included the “Bridge to Nowhere” which Sarah Palin (another conservative hero) was all for and then all against when she ran for VP. As an elected official, Ryan managed to sneak in a few of his own, small potatoes by comparison, but still govern-ment potatoes, a total of $5.4 million in taxpayer monies. “The requests included $3.28 million for bus service in Wisconsin, $1.38 million for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, and $735,000 for the Janesville transit system.”

And what do you know! Ryan voted for the auto bailout, the same bailout conservatives labeled a bold move by President Obama to move us all down the road to socialism. Ayn Rand would have freaked.

According to a report this week in the Boston Globe:

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, a business advocacy organization, said that Ryan’s support of the auto bailout should be considered in the context of Janesville’s devastating loss when General Motors closed its assembly plant there in 2008. An estimated 5,000 jobs were lost from the plant and supporting businesses.

That’s right, far-right folks. Consider the bailout “in the context” of various towns, like Janesville, Wisconsin, Ryan’s hometown, and hundreds of others across this great land. And then tell us, right-wing Ayn Rand fans, and VP candidate Ryan, and, oh yeah, Mitt “Let the Auto Industry Die” Romney, when is it wrong for government to be involved in the economy and when is it right?

Ryan solicits stimulus funds.Fans of unfettered capitalism and Randian individualism weep.

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