Paul Ryan, as is well known, has recently attempted to distance himself from Ayn Rand’s influence on his thought, most specifically her atheism, but if he becomes Mitt Romney’s running mate, it’s not Rand’s atheism, but her advocacy of selfishness–one of her nonfiction books is titled, The Virtue of Selfishness–that may make him a liability for Romney. Here, for example, is what Paul Ryan said in a 2005 talk to the Atlas Society:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. […] [Her fiction] inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that.
This, at least in this election cycle, is very near to being a kiss of death for any politician aspiring to the presidency or vice-presidency. Why? Two reasons:
- No skin in the game. The Obama campaign and his other opponents in the blogosphere and elsewhere are depicting Mitt Romney as a man without skin in the game–as a man who doesn’t pay his fair share of taxes and who has a lifelong habit of general selfishness and insularity. In the 1960s, for example, he neither served in Vietnam, nor protested the war, nor participated in the civil rights movements on behalf of blacks and women. Instead, he was in France missionizing on behalf of a secretive sect that, at the time, was unapologetically racist and patriarchal. Choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate reinforces this narrative of Romney as a man disconnected from the American team he would lead, for Ryan’s intellectual mentor, Ayn Rand, was also emotionally disconnected from the public realm–and what appears worse, she was proud of it. The pinnacle of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, is the withdrawal of the rich and talented from the rest of suffering humanity into a utopian enclave called “Galt’s Gulch.” This elitest fantasy of escape, akin to the Christian fundamentalist’s longing for the rapture, inspires Paul Ryan. Imagine the attack ads that would come of this fact: Romney-Ryan want to lead a people they actually have little emotional connection to. They not only have little skin in the game, they’re animated by the idea of leaving the vast majority of them behind.
- Human beings evolved in tribes. As such, we are exquisitely attuned to hierarchy, cooperation, and fairness. If we’re going to give an alpha-male our “votes” to lead the tribe, that male has to be self-evidently deferential to the group as a whole and concerned about the group as a whole. He cannot be domineering, not in it for himself, not in it for his cronies. He’s got to be one of us and have real skin in the game. He must be forthcoming (or at least appear to be so). He must listen and show vulnerability. He does not have the luxury of setting liberty against the tribal family: he must somehow show a determination to balance them, not obliterate one in the name of the other. He cannot appear to want to separate himself from the life of the tribe; he cannot appear to want to leave members of the tribe behind (unless they clearly deserve to be left behind). Romney cannot, therefore, wisely select a Randian like Paul Ryan as his running mate.
What alternative to a Randian egoist might Mitt Romney put forward as a running mate? How about a VP candidate who professes to have been influenced by George Gilder? (Is there one in the running with this reputation?)
Gilder frames capitalism as an altruistic system based in “benevolent creativity”–a form of paying it forward. You amass wealth and immediately plow it into a new investment “in others.” “Creativity,” he writes, “is the foundation of wealth,” and creativity arrives in the form of surprise. You’ve got to keep trying things–experimenting and investing–to see what will prove to be of value to others and what they’ll give of value in return. If everyone plays, it can be a happy, cooperative, mutually benificial, and nonzero-sum game. Therefore, each dollar taken from an entreprenuer and spent by a government on a definite and unsurprising purpose interrupts capitalism’s pro-social, creative, and growth-producing experimentation. Gilder’s ideas may or may not be bullshit (Rand thought they were and spoke against them at the end of her life), but if Romney wants to win, he’s got to break the no-skin-in-the-game selfishness meme that has attached to him, and not keep reinforcing it. He has to persuade the public that capitalism is more like what Gilder says it is and not what Rand says it is.
For the curious, Gilder has an excellent essay in the most recent edition of National Review (August 13, 2012) defending his altruistic interpretation of capitalism. It’s where I’ve extracted the above quotes from Gilder.