Back in 2009, Jonathan Chait wrote a substantial article about Ayn Rand for The New Replublic. In particular, he discussed how Rand has changed the modern conservative movement, even as she was never a part of it.
As most people know, Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand devotee. On the surface, this seems kind of strange because Ryan is a Roman Catholic and Rand was a hardcore (and not very thoughtful) atheist. But as I think you can tell from Ryan’s famous budget, he has much more faith in Ayn Rand than Jesus Christ.
Paul Ryan is the perfect person to illustrate the influence of Ayn Rand today (although Chait doesn’t discuss him in the article—probably because Ryan wasn’t that notable in 2009). I say this because he is the very embodiment of these two aspects of Ayn Rand’s thought that live on.
Rand didn’t believe that capitalism was necessarily the most efficient economic system (Efficient Markets), nor did she necessarily believe that capitalism was better for our species in the long run (Social Darwinists). To her, capitalism was a moral system. Ludwig von Mises once told Rand, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” And this is exactly what Paul Ryan and his conservative peers believe. Chait writes:
The association of wealth with virtue necessarily requires the free marketer to play down the role of class. Arthur Brooks, in his book Gross National Happiness, concedes that “the gap between the richest and poorest members of society is far wider than in many other developed countries. But there is also far more opportunity . . . there is in fact an amazing amount of economic mobility in America.” In reality, as a study earlier this year by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts reported, the United States ranks near the bottom of advanced countries in its economic mobility. The study found that family background exerts a stronger influence on a person’s income than even his education level. And its most striking finding revealed that you are more likely to make your way into the highest-earning one-fifth of the population if you were born into the top fifth and did not attain a college degree than if you were born into the bottom fifth and did. In other words, if you regard a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence or hard work, then you are economically better off to be born rich, dumb, and lazy than poor, smart, and industrious.
Rand’s other great contribution to modern conservatism is her use of hysteria. You know the stuff: “The government wants to ban machine guns; if they can ban machine guns they will ban all guns; if they ban all guns we won’t be able to protect ourselves; if we can’t protect ourselves the government will put us in concentration camps.” Observation: government suggests banning machine guns. Conclusion: Nazi Germany.
What we most see—including from Paul Ryan just about anytime he speaks at length—is to jump from “I disagree with that policy” to “Socialism!” Again, Chait:
What is so striking, and serves as the clearest mark of Rand’s lasting influence, is the language of moral absolutism applied by the right to these questions. Conservatives define the see-sawing of the federal tax-and-transfer system between slightly redistributive and very slightly redistributive as a culture war over capitalism, or a final battle to save the free enterprise system from the hoard of free-riders.
Some people may wonder about my keen interest in Ayn Rand. There are a few reasons. One is that I have read the majority of her work. And I have given it serious and prolonged thought. It is, on the whole, shockingly bad. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that liking Any Rand depends not on being intelligent and thoughtful, but just the opposite. Rand offers mediocre and undisciplined minds the choice to shut down and parrot her easily understood dogma. And I am most definitely talking about the supposed intellectual Paul Ryan.
I wish to understand why Rand has been so successful, and that is my main reason for being interested. Rand’s writing is far more popular than most people think. Over 50 years after she published it, Atlas Shrugged still sells over a half million copies every year. And as Chait documents, a lot of very powerful people like Paul Ryan take seriously her “two-dimensional characters serving as ideological props” in plots so superficial and boring they would make Pollyanna cynical.
Rather than trying to be the Romantic heroes of Rand’s limited fictional universe, it would be better if Paul Ryan had done the honest thing: shrug.