I will admit, it when I read Atlas Shrugged several years ago, I got caught up in the scrawling epic with bigger than life characters. Apparently, Paul Ryan enjoyed it too; so much so that in 2005, at a banquet honoring the author, he 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.” While he has since tried to walk back from those remarks, it’s clear that the Vice Presidential candidate’s political ideology has been heavily influenced by Alisa Rosenbaum, the Russian immigrant otherwise known as Ayn Rand.
What I initially missed in Atlas Shrugged was the underlying themes of superiority of the successful and a disdain for the less fortunate. In Ms. Rand’s novels, the poor are basically lazy dullards who deserve their lot in life. Actually, they deserve worse, if only the government would get out of the way and stop propping them up with hand-outs. The Paul Ryan budget proposal, which propelled him to national prominence, reflects the same basic belief system. If the Ryan plan were passed, it would deny eight million people food stamps, thirty million people access to healthcare, and send two million kids into poverty; all the while giving even more tax cuts to the wealthiest in society.
Behind Mr. Ryan’s budget is the ‘Ayn Randian’ notion that taxes and regulations reduce the incentive for the best and brightest in our society. What we have actually seen is that reduced tax rates on the upper end of the economic scale have only created wider ‘wealth chasms.’ We got a tiny taste of laissez faire capitalism when an under-regulated financial industry nearly took down the whole economy. And post-Katrina New Orleans gave us a glimpse of life without government intervention. While the notion of carving out our destiny without government interference may sound rugged and romantic, in the real world, it would be a pretty chaotic place.
Even more difficult to defend than the economic feasibility of Paul Ryan’s budget is its morality, or lack thereof. When Mr. Ryan (a Catholic) spoke at Georgetown University, 90 Georgetown professors wrote a letter protesting his “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” Mr. Ryan responded by saying, “I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.” That begs the follow-up question, if not from the government, from where will the needed assistance come?
That question, at least in part, is what prompted four nuns, who have devoted their lives to working with the poor, to get on a bus and take their message to the heartland of America. It was outside of Ryan’s office in Wisconsin that Sister Simone Campbell told her audiences that if every church and synagogue and faith community in the nation were to try to do what federal programs now do, it would cost them each an additional $50,000 a year for the next 10 years. While Ryan would not want to admit it, the only logical conclusion to his plan is that millions of struggling Americans will slip through the cracks.
Ayn Rand was much more open and honest about her belief system; publicly condemning the notion of ethical altruism, preferring her own “virtue of selfishness.” A self-described atheist, she accepted this was contrary to Christ’s teachings to ‘take care of the least of these.’ Her religion was capitalism, and she unabashedly wrote that the individual “should exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself.” Of course, Jesus did not “shrug” off the world like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged. Instead, he became the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life for everyone. That’s a very different message than the one you will find in Ayn Rand’s books or Paul Ryan’s budget.