Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem: Not Atheism, but Selfishness

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem: Not Atheism, but Selfishness

  1. Yeah I lobe how her lack of belief in God is the big problem; not her whole-hearted endorsement of pathology.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      My take is that the Republicans are having enormous difficulty shifting from their angry “liberty” (“don’t tread on me”) Southern outsider rhetoric from the primaries and toward the general election’s necessarily softer rhetoric (which must always entail elements of unity, caring, fairness, compassion, and participation).

      Romney won the nomination by assuring the Republican base that he’s a proudly selfish capitalist that is also callous to the concerns of atheists, gays, blacks, women, the poor etc.

      But now he’s got to show he’s got skin in the game with the nation as a whole–that he’s actually in with all Americans and committed to their best interests, leaving no law-abiding citizen behind. Women will decide this election, and the “rich and secretive liberty guy” with the Randian running mate isn’t likely to fly. At some point, Romney will have to show his taxes and talk about his feelings concerning women’s equality within his Mormon church and without (if he wants to get to where he wants to go).

      If he doesn’t, evolutionary psychology may undo Romney. As an alph-male making a play for the top job, the gossip mill is going to do him in politically if he does not show himself trustworthy, transparent, and altruistic (prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of the tribe). In his whole life, Romney has never shown any evidence that he would ever put anything ahead of his own private self-interest. In this sense, he appears not to be Antigone, but Antigone’s sister. Romney would do well to read Sophocles.


  2. Anne Marie says:

    Interesting that Romney chose Ryan for VP to shore up his base rather than pick a running mate who would help him win the independent or, for that matter, moderate republican vote. Regardless of Romney’s choice of running mate, for whom else would the base vote? Romney had the far right’s vote by default (they’re certainly not going to vote for Obama).

    I’m glad he chose the divisive Ryan. It’s an exclusionary move. And Americans don’t want a corporatocracy or a theocracy. On the whole, we like democracy, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And historical memory may be short, but it’s not so short that we fail to understand the true meaning behind Ryan’s rhetoric. For example, “we promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes” is a nod to Social Darwinism; i.e., there is no such thing as the disadvantaged or disenfranchised. Empirical truth: The history and experience of immigrants, blacks (Jim Crow, anyone?), Native Americans, single mothers, women, LGBT, and others in this country tells a different story, as does the right wing’s current program of voter suppression. When Ryan exclaims, “We Americans look at one another’s success with pride, not resentment, because we know, as more Americans work hard, take risks, and succeed, more people will prosper, our communities will benefit, and individual lives will be improved and uplifted, he is really saying that *true* Americans support trickle down tyranny, eh hem, economics; ergo, those who do not must be un-American. Additionally, this comment carries the following subtext: If you are not in the 1%, it’s your own damn fault; you didn’t work hard enough, because success, as everyone knows, has nothing to do with advantage, luck, bailouts or greed. The empirical truth: Americans work hard, spend, save, take risks in good conscience every day only to have the American dream stolen from under them by crooks who are then awarded bailouts for bad behavior.

    Romney and Ryan are out of touch with middle America and underestimate the will of hard working families who are still feeling the burn of the Bush years. Given the American public something definitive to push up against will not re-position the far right, but it will galvanize those in the middle to defend what little prosperity and security remains.

    • Anne Marie says:

      *reposition (didn’t meant to insert a hyphen there)

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Anne Marie,

      I like your sentence: “Americans work hard, spend, save, take risks in good conscience every day only to have the American dream stolen from under them by crooks who are then awarded bailouts for bad behavior.”

      That’s what’s really going on.

      I think, for example, of the growing number of poor and desperate young students in this country being allured by private college capitalists into diploma mills through Federal grant money, encouraging students to run up huge debts even as those very capitalists lobby Congress to assure that the students cannot ever be forgiven in bankruptcy of those debts. All the risk is on the side of the student who, unemployed, takes the Mephistopheles bait and gets left holding the bag for life. It’s a way of channeling money to crony capitalists–a front-loaded bailout of federal money that goes into their pockets at the expense of some of the most vulnerable elements of our society (the young and unpropertied).

      And I agree that the Paul Ryan pick is clarifying. Voters will have a clear choice in November.

      I have to give Romney some credit here. It seems he made an existential decision. He didn’t fudge it. He didn’t pick someone opaque like himself. This is not a safe move.

      But if he was going to go bold, I naturally would have liked him to have picked an unapologetically pro-choice and moderate woman for the ticket. That too would have sent a signal that he would be his own man, that he’s comfortable with women in leadership positions around him.


  3. Anne Marie:

    Ryan may not be a good candidate for the “moderate” voter; however, he is a good pick for the Republican base and “conservative” independents. Romney, as of early August, still hasn’t connected with “conservative” voters. Sure, most Republicans view him positively. It is election season. However, only 65% of self-identified “conservatives” view him favorably. Obama, by contrast, has the support of 84% of “liberals”. The problem for “conservatives” is that they don’t know what Romney’s for or what he’s against. They’re suspicious of him. Perhaps there was/is a fear that Romney won’t get out enough of the “conservative” Republican vote and capture enough of “conservative” independents–primarily because he doesn’t inspire them to go the polls and vote.

    • Anne Marie says:

      Oh, I understand the reasoning, BB, but not the logic. My rhetorical point was this: If Romney were not to shore up the conservative base, given that it’s a two party system, that base would, what, a) not vote in November or b) vote for Obama? Nah. The answer is neither. The vast majority of conservatives would vote for Romney regardless of whom he picked as a running mate, knowing that to do otherwise would be the equivalent of handing Obama the election–and that, to a conservative, would be reckless. Prior to his VP pick, the election wasn’t Romney v. Obama. It was Obama or not-Obama, which is a much easier political fight to win. In the Democrats favor, Romney’s choice has clarified the opposition, turned it into romney-RYAN BUDGET (with all its social *and* economic pitfalls) v. Obama, a turn which effectively furnishes the left with an unlimited cache of political ammunition. At least now it’s ‘game on.’

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