We saw it with George W. Bush. Liberals would lose all sense of balance and proportion, falling into patterns of bitter denunciation. Now it seems to be happening with Paul Ryan. A recent issue of the New Republic features an extended tirade of sorts in which Leon Wieseltier sets out to show that the Paul Ryan “likes his capitalism cruel.”
Wieseltier’s main rhetorical strategy involves turning Ryan into Ayn Rand with a congressional committee appointment. He reminds us that Ryan’s father’s death was a life-defining moment, one that forced him to try to figure out the meaning of life. In this period of searching he read Ayn Rand and developed his lifelong enthusiasm for her work. Out of this fact Wieseltier makes his case.
To do so he collects some of the most egregious quotes from Atlas Shrugged, creating the impression that they are Ryan’s touchstones. For example, Wieseltier cites one of John Galt’s proclamations (Galt is the hero of Atlas Shrugged): “A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions is acting on the motive and standard of death.” It’s typical Rand: to act for the sake of others is a kind of spiritual death. This rules out any sense of collective responsibility that might lead us to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good.
Having conjured this repugnant view, Wieseltier immediately reminds us that Ryan told the audience at the Atlas Society in 2005 that he often returned to John Galt’s speech, as well as other passages in Atlas Shrugged, “to make sure that I can check my premises.” The implication, of course, is that it’s exactly this passage that Ryan is savoring on a regular basis. Wieseltier leaves unmentioned the fact that John Galt’s speech, which comes at the end of Atlas Shrugged, is sixty-four rambling pages long.
Wieseltier works this and other rhetorical tricks in order to create the illusion of evidence for his grand assertion: “Ryan’s philosophy represents a demonization of need and diabolization of weakness.” Precisely this philosophy of life, he argues, is behind Ryan’s various budget plans. A grand and global rejection of need and weakness, and an affirmation of Rand’s mystical embrace of the “radiant selfishness of the soul” explains the Ryan’s efforts to try to limit the federal government to 17 or 18 percent of GDP. Shifting Medicare in the direction of government-funded support for paying insurance premiums does not flow from a belief that hard choices about controlling health care costs are best made by individuals and families rather than a panel of experts, but instead rests on a “demonization of need.” Ryan isn’t a policy wonk; he’s a nefarious metaphysician.
Faced with this performance, where does one begin?
First, let’s not overplay Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Wieseltier thinks of her as the sort of writer, who, like Herman Hesse, tends to thrill the impressionable adolescent in search of Big Thoughts. That’s quite right, and it’s also right to point out, as he does, that a reflective person grows and sees that these writers and their ideas are too cartoonish. Apparently Ryan hasn’t done so, as his continued enthusiasm for Rand suggests.
True, but in his attack on Ryan, Wieseltier takes pains to show that Ryan isn’t all that sophisticated when it comes to moral, social, and political philosophy. If that’s the case—and Wieseltier is probably right—then why assume that Ryan was a careful, exacting reader of Rand as a teenager? Why suppose that he zeroed in on Rand’s metaphysical individualism and her most strident assertions of selfish egoism?
Why not assume something a good deal less theoretical? Ryan, whose father had just died, was no doubt feeling an acutely vulnerable and fearful of an uncertain future. Then he read Rand and saw in her the rather commonplace wisdom that a healthy, intelligent young man ought to try to make his own future, even against bad odds? That’s the broad “can do” Americanism that most young readers take from Atlas Shrugged, not Rand’s hyper-individualism and anti-Christian ideology of unrestrained self-assertion.
The second thing to say concerns Wieseltier’s highly theoretical approach. Ryan is questioning the current configuration of the modern welfare state. Wieseltier concludes that this dissent from the liberal consensus reflects a “terrible fear of dependence.” Such hyperventilation is sadly typical of our time. It’s the progressive version of the conservative impulse to see European-style welfare state policies as soul-destroying collectivism. Both substitute apocalyptic fantasies for clear-minded discussion of moral difference between modern conservatives (who rightly worry about excessive dependence on government) and modern liberals (who rightly worry about our weakness and vulnerability in the face of social, economic, and personal pressures that can overwhelm and destroy). These are differences of emphasis along a continuum, not antinomies in a cosmic moral conflict for the soul of Western civilization.
As Whittaker Chambers observed long ago, there are no children in Rand’s novels. It’s a telling omission that accurately reflects the implications of her exaltation of selfish egoism. Today, it’s the places dominated by progressives like Wieseltier that are also largely childless. Manhattan is a good example. Meanwhile, places like my former hometown of Omaha that are sympathetic to the political philosophy of Paul Ryan are more fertile. The difference should give one pause. Perhaps it’s the progressive mentality, which tends to outsource responsibility for others to government, and not American conservatism that creates the most congenial environment for Ayn Rand’s unappealing philosophy of life.
Finally, a word needs to be said about Leon Wieseltier’s own Randian tendencies. With great hauteur he points out Ryan’s intellectual failings. With slashing rhetoric he cuts and wounds. His moral outrage annihilates. As a public intellectual he’s pure John Galt: high, mighty, and superior, disdainful of the weak-minded, and quick to destroy those who disagree with him.
Paul Ryan and American conservatism represent a range of moral and social ideals: ordered liberty, limited government and private initiative, a restored sense of moral authority and personal responsibility, and so forth. No doubt these ideals are imperfectly expressed and are in some respects distorted and perverted by the hyper-individualism of Ayn Rand, as well as free market libertarian fantasies that imagine the withering away of the state. But whatever their defects, when it comes to conservative ideals, Leon Wieseltier is a typical member of the liberal establishment. He’s too morally and intellectually superior to actually engage them. From his heights it’s sufficient simply to denounce them.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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