I originally posted this piece at Talk to Action in May when Paul Ryan spoke at Georgetown. Events warrant its publication here.
This past week we learned that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has had an Aquinian epiphany of sorts. The former Ayn Rand acolyte has essentially thrown the controversial author and her philosophy of Objectivism under the bus because of "her atheism."
But Ryan seems to have changed little except the labels he uses to disguise his economic philosophy of miserliness.
With the possible exceptions of Ron and Rand Paul, no other elected official has more openly embraced the philosophy of Ayn Rand than Paul Ryan. There is the well-known YouTube video wherein he gushes over the "morality" of Rand's laissez-faire capitalism. Ryan's fandom for Rand was so hot that he would even give copies of her dreary tome, Atlas Shrugged as Christmas gifts.
But as voters have become increasingly aware of Rand's toxic philosophy -- one in which selfishness is elevated to a virtue; where state assistance to the disabled is equated with enslaving taxpayers; and self-sacrifice is derided - Ryan has had second thoughts. Indeed, in apparent anticipation of his recent Georgetown University appearance, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee has attempted to repackage his economic philosophy as if it were a product of Catholic Social Justice teaching.
A Revisionist Personal History
The repackaging of Ryan began with several puff-pieces suggesting that when asked about his history of Rand adoration he will now reply, "Ayn who?"
On April 10, 2012 The Brody File column at CBN.Com News posted an interview with the congressman. He used the opportunity to announce that his economic views were informed by the Catholic Doctrine of Subsidiarity -- which he defined in a highly stilted fashion (more on that below).
Two days later, a National Review Online column by Brian Buldoc extolled Ryan as "a practicing Catholic" and not a Randian. Oddly, the same article describes the congressman's remarks at a 2005 dinner hosted by the Atlas Society, an organization dedicated to developing Rand's philosophy.
This was followed by an April 23, 2012 Washington Post op-ed ("A Bishop's Unjustified Attack on Paul Ryan") by Marc A. Thiessen. The former Tea Partier-turned-pundit criticized Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, who recently pointed out that Ryan's budget "fails to meet [Catholic] moral criteria" and does not require "shared sacrifice." Thiessen continued with the meme of Ryan-as-theologian by casting him as "a good Catholic layman."
A fourth piece, entitled "Ryan Shrugged," also courtesy of the National Review Online soon followed. In it, Ryan dismisses his alleged obsession with Rand as "an urban legend." The author of the article claims that "his [Ryan's] faith and moral values shape his politics as much as his belief in freedom and capitalism does." Ryan is quoted as saying:
"I reject her [Rand's] 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.
These articles essentially set the stage for the Congressman's April 26, 2012 speaking engagement at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, and a bastion of progressive economic thought. But prior to his appearance, Ryan received a letter signed by ninety faculty members that bluntly stated, "In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
But does Paul Ryan really reject Rand?
Ryan seems to reject Rand's neo-atheism and not much else. There is no record of Ryan openly refuting Rand's eschewing altruism, self-sacrifice for others or her endless praise of laissez-faire.
While what was called the economic liberalism of the 19th Century has been long scorned by the Vatican, that brand is very different than the economic liberalism of the New Deal. Indeed, the latter was heavily influenced by Rerum novarum and its progeny and is not to be confused with libertarian-drenched Benthamism. The only two issues where Ryan can claim consistent adherence to Church dogma is in his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
There is, however, an extensive public record of Ryan's effusive praise of Randian capitalism. There is the above-linked video and the afore-mentioned Atlas Society dinner appearance where he stated: "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."
Not Jesus Christ, not Thomas Aquinas, not Monsignor John A. Ryan, but Ayn Rand. If Ryan's devotion to Ayn Rand is indeed "an urban legend," then it is a legend of his own making.
This leads us to the obvious question: Do his economic views square with Catholic social teaching?
If anything, Ryan's take on Subsidiarty is more like an Acton Institute talking point statement than a serious theological explanation. His premises are easily dismissed.
Here is what I mean.
Ryan offered a rather narrow and misleading definition of the doctrine in his interview with CBN.Com News
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that's how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
In contrast consider the correction put forth by the Georgetown faculty:
Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help -- "subsidium"-- when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: "Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa."
Nevertheless, Ryan's Georgetown address centered heavily on a favorite GOP meme: debt. There was no talk of distributive justice nor of a a society with full employment. Ryan made no mention of Pope John XXIII's teaching that "In a system of taxation based on justice and equity, it is fundamental that the burdens be proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing." There was also nothing in his speech that even hinted at the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. And yet, there was still much that echoed the spirit of Ayn Rand.
Rand's influence is still present in Ryan's Medicare plan, which is basically a voucher program, with fewer options for the most vulnerable. Little or no investment is made in the American people. And for all his talk of crushing debt, the deficit would not be paid off for many years. It is all a charade to lower taxes for the very wealthy; those for whom a tax cut will not increase their propensity to consume and thereby stimulate the economy. This is the psychology and program of a Randian miser.
"Though a miserly man may not be generous," Aquinas wrote, "he could undertake to perform works of generosity and begin to acquire the proper virtue." Ryan's actions reveal a man who still chooses not to undertake such required works.