Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Reader: Lesson Two

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 14 2012 9:54 AM

Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Reader: Lesson Two

Aaron Goldstein wonders why so many media outlets are scribbling about Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand love, when they never devoted the "same energy to scrutinizing President Obama's intellectual development vis a vis Saul Alinsky and the very much alive Bill Ayers, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi." A good question! I write about this because I 1) read Atlas Shrugged in high school and have kept a copy around ever since, and 2) worked at Reason magazine for two and a half years, where Rand's work and its impact in politics were deeply understoood. I'd talk to a congressman like California's John Campbell, and he'd break the ice by talking about Rand.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Starting in 2010 or so, though, Rand became controversial again. The reason: Religious liberals thought they'd found a wedge between libertarian Republicans and the religious right. The apex of this? Probably the time a liberal activist with a gigantic Bible hassled Ryan at the 2011 Faith and Freedom Conference in D.C. In a later interview with Robert Costa, Ryan, the congressman said he "rejected [Rand's] philosophy" of Objectivism. He was a Catholic. She decidedly was not.

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And I buy that. You don't agree with everything a philosopher says if you admit to reading that philosopher. I'd bet there are people with tattoos of Freud quotes who don't buy his theories about Shakespeare's plays. Ryan's trouble comes from the way he described his Rand-lovin' in that 2005 Atlas Society speech. "I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end," he said.

Since Ryan isn't actually an atheist, I just read this as a pander. The Galt speech is one of the most aggressive arguments against Christianity you will ever read. Galt, the leader of the individualists' "strike" against statists who loot their wealth, goes on the radio at the height of the crisis and argues that selfishness is a virtue. "Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil," he says. "A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free."

That goes against essential Catholic thinking. But there's more!

What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge-he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil-he became a mortal being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor -- he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire-he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness; joy -- all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was -- that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love -- he was not man.
Man’s fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues required to live. These virtues, by their standard, are his Sin. His evil, they charge, is that he’s man. His guilt, they charge, is that he lives.

Get that? Rand-as-Galt is saying that Satan was leading Adam and Eve down the right path when he goaded them into eating the apple. God was enslaving them, as the fear of God would allow future generations to enslave more people. That's the "controversy." I don't assign any of these beliefs to Ryan, but I'd love to hear him talk about them...

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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