The Trouble With Philosophy

For the last couple of years, Paul Ryan has been touted by everyone in the Republican party as a star, a smart, telegenic up-and-comer who represents the future of the party. Worship of Ryan probably reached its apogee last May, when Newt Gingrich began his presidential campaign by calling Ryan's budget "right-wing social engineering" (among other things, Ryan's budget slashed benefits for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and privatized Medicare). The condemnation of Gingrich's words from conservatives was so immediate and so furious that you would have thought Gingrich had spat on a picture of Jesus or insulted Ronald Reagan Himself.

Ryan is, among other things, a longtime fan of Ayn Rand, the philosopher/novelist/quasi-cult leader whose philosophy of radical selfishness and vision of heroic capitalists being held down by the parasitic masses is, one can argue, well reflected in Ryan's work. It wasn't some kind of secret—Ryan has 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." He has recorded videos praising Rand—here's one where he says, "Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism." In 2003 he told the Weekly Standard, "I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it."

Ever since Ryan came to national attention, liberals have been trying to get people to notice Ryan's appreciation for Rand, with only marginal success. But some kind of switch has obviously gone off for Ryan because he's now claiming that his appreciation for Rand is nothing but an "urban legend":

"I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand's novels when I was young. I enjoyed them," Ryan says. "They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman," a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. "But it's a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist."

"I reject her philosophy," Ryan says firmly. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas," who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. "Don't give me Ayn Rand," he says.

Well then. Looks like someone is beginning to think about how the words "Vice President Ryan" sound. Maybe Ryan is showing Mitt Romney that he can flip-flop with the best of them. The natural question to ask is, if you were such a huge fan of Rand's that nine years ago you said you were making all your interns read Atlas Shrugged, at what point did you have your change of heart about her, and why?

One of the difficulties of being a politician is that the higher up you go, the more responsibility you're given for the ideas and people you surround yourself with. Some associations are easier to minimize than others; when somebody who works for you or someone you took money from does something wrong, you can say you had no idea and hope to put it behind you. But philosophy is different. It isn't as though scholars just recently unearthed a new Ayn Rand text that reveals her to be a purveyor of a radical and despicable worldview. That worldview was always clear. It's the thing that has drawn generations of lunkheaded frat boys to her books. And it's the very thing Paul Ryan has been lauding all these years. He can't claim he had no idea what she stood for.

Ryan obviously wants to keep going higher; he's only 42, and it would be a real surprise if he didn't eventually run for president. Distancing himself from Rand may be the first step in a long-term moderating of his image. But he's going to have an awfully hard time convincing people that he never considered Rand anything more than an amusing novelist.

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