"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Atlas Spurned

Jennifer Burns, writing in the New York Times describes Paul Ryan’s dalliance with Ayn Rand, the guru of Libertarianism http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/opinion/ayn-rand-wouldnt-approve-of-paul-ryan.html?ref=opinion.  Ryan, she says, picked and chose what he wanted from Rand, ran from some of her most central ideas, and has backtracked from his and her core beliefs already because of the run for Vice President.  This phenomenon, says Burns, is common among most adherents of Rand who say they are true believers but are not.

I am not sure what the issue is here, since few of us – except perhaps the strictest religious fundamentals who believe every word of the Bible – take any philosopher lock, stock, and barrel. Libertarianism is particularly difficult to embrace completely because it incorporates very conservative policies, particularly those demanding small government, fiscal responsibility, and tax reform, and very liberal ones such as decriminalizing currently illegal drugs, removing all restrictions on abortion, disengagement from foreign wars and an end to military adventurism, absolute freedom of speech. 

The one central theme through Rand’s work is individualism, a notion wholly embraced by the Tea Party and most conservative believers.  According to this philosophy the individual is the only sovereign entity within society – rule and authority go no further nor no higher.  The individual will always be the source of productivity, creativity, and innovation.  The private market is supreme because it is an aggregation of individuals and expresses each of their needs according to supply and demand.  Government has no right either to interfere with the sovereignty of the individual or the markets.

In its modern and less doctrinaire expression, Libertarianism retains the concept of absolute sovereignty of the individual and the markets, but does not call for the immediate and total abolition of the State.  The Cato position, for example, is to assume that government is not needed until and unless one can prove that it is.  Few Libertarians would demand a dismantling of the military, but would challenge its frequently offensive posture.  Most regulations are unnecessary, but only the most radical Libertarians would call for an immediate end to many FDA regulations which assure food and drug quality.  Not all Libertarians clamor for a return to the gold standard as did Rand Paul, but would like to drastically limit the power of the Federal Reserve and restrict its interventionist policies. 

Was Rand Paul really a Libertarian?  That depends on whether he or anyone must espouse all the beliefs and tenets of a faith or political party to qualify.  Paul was very much pro-life, and rejected Ayn Rand’s refusal to allow anyone, government or private, to invade a woman’s privacy and right to choose.  Can one reflect on compromise positions regarding the legalization of drugs (e.g. supporting the legalization of marijuana but taking a more limited and circumspect view of heroin) and still be a Libertarian?

A Libertarian will always respect the sovereignty of the individual and challenge government, no matter what the issue, while a Conservative will only do so in certain cases.  Conservatives, for example, seem always to back the military whether it is used for offensive or defensive action.  Conservatives are all for freedom of economic choice, but back off on social issues.  There is a moral imperative behind the abolition of abortion and the promotion of Christianity, and if it means abrogating the rights of those individuals who have a different moral perspective, so be it.  Libertarians argue for no coercion ever, under no circumstances.  No law which frees individuals from coercive religious views (prayer in the schools) should be removed; no law which outlaws a woman’s right to choose should be passed.

In this regard, Paul Ryan is by no means a Libertarian:

While Rand, an atheist, did enjoy a good Christmas celebration for its cheerful commercialism, she would have scoffed at the idea of public service. And though Mr. Ryan’s advocacy of steep cuts in government spending would have pleased her, she would have vehemently opposed his social conservatism and hawkish foreign policy. She would have denounced Mr. Ryan as she denounced Ronald Reagan, for trying “to take us back to the Middle Ages, via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.”

There is another central principle of Ayn Rand’s philosophy which is hard for most Conservatives to deal with:

Rand believed it was impossible to separate government policies from their moral and philosophical underpinnings. Policies motivated by Christian values, which she called “the best kindergarten of communism possible,” were inherently corrupt.

Rand is absolutely right in stating that American government policies are motivated by Christian values and that it is impossible to dissociate the two.  A cursory reading of Jefferson and other of the Founding Fathers shows their belief in a divine Creator from whom all individual rights come.  Individualism was prized because it recognized the unique and sanctified relationship between an individual and God; and that economic success was proof of a Calvinist salvation.  Individuals, however, according to Jefferson’s principle of the ‘pursuit of happiness’, had a responsibility reject their narrow, venal, desires and strive for the happiness of the group and of society – another principle of the Enlightenment and Christianity.

It is hard to see today how these Christian moral principles are expressed through government.  Nothing in our domestic or foreign policy seems to be motivated by moral or religious concerns; and government is as close to Rand’s amoral instrument of power than most think.  At the same time, many on the Left and the Right lament the loss of those very moral and ethical principles from American life and look for somewhere to turn.  Most often it is to a Christianity more strict and doctrinaire than Jefferson would ever have envisaged.  It is natural for a Conservative like Ryan to insist on the primacy of religion in society and the (re-) integration of Christian principles in whatever government exists.  It is equally natural for ‘Progressives’ to demand that government become a moral agent, engineering social change. 

Rand wanted no part of the discussion.  Government should be progressively dismantled, the influence of religion diminished whether in private or public sectors, and the individual unfettered from any type of regulation which would limit his/her potential.

The very hardest Rand pill to swallow is her absolute belief in private markets:

Free-market capitalism, she said, needed a new, secular morality of selfishness, one she promoted in her novels, nonfiction and newsletters.

While this is very appealing in one way – unleashing the enormous energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans and freeing business from arbitrary and politically-motivated regulation – it is very unappealing to those with even a vague historical memory.  Few Americans would want to go back to the days of laissez-faire, Robber Baron capitalism.  It must be a very scary prospect indeed for the unemployed, union-less, 50ish industrial worker to have absolutely no safety net; to have no committed advocate, and little recourse to family or community support.  Although the Tea Party has gained followers because of its strident anti-government position, few of these supporters would want to be thrown to the wolves because of their policies.

At the same time, big government is a relatively new American phenomenon.  In the late 18t and early 19th centuries, most enterprise was private – health care, education, infrastructure.  The list is endless.  Rethinking the size and scope of government is a legitimate activity, but even under the most draconian scenario where many government investments are returned to individuals, communities, and the private sector, some government support will likely always be necessary.

‘Selfishness’ is the term that offends most people, even rock-ribbed Conservatives.  They would never admit to even thinking about expunging charity or Christian values from American life, no matter how hard they push for markets.  The state that they are after the same considerate social policy as Liberals, but do not want government to be the facilitator.  Selfishness on Wall Street – greed – is not only an element of capitalism but the element.  Conservatives get skittish when the issue of Bain Capital is raised.  Of course Romney was just doing his job, but there was nothing selfish about it.  He knew that ultimately his successful investment ventures would create jobs, wealth, and economic growth.  It would just take time for the circle to be completed.

Paul Ryan is not a Libertarian in the Ayn Rand sense.  As the Times writer has observed:

Mr. Ryan’s selection as Mr. Romney’s running mate is the kind of stinging rebuke of the welfare state that Rand hoped to see during her lifetime. But Mr. Ryan is also what she called “a conservative in the worst sense of the word.” As a woman in a man’s world, a Jewish atheist in a country dominated by Christianity and a refugee from a totalitarian state, Rand knew it was not enough to promote individual freedom in the economic realm alone. If Mr. Ryan becomes the next vice president, it wouldn’t be her dream come true, but her nightmare.

While this is true, one would hope that Rand would have seen Ryan’s espousal of her principles of limited government and individual enterprise as encouraging.  She was a polemicist as well as a writer-philosopher.  Her characterizations were, after all, made popular through fiction, where hyperbole, exaggeration, and simplistic emotional appeals are de rigeur.  It is doubtful that if she were alive she would not have applauded this final and – in her eyes – inevitable move towards a more libertarian country. 

We should not criticize Ryan for his rejection of certain articles of faith, but his embracing of many others.  His efforts to dismantle as much of government as politically acceptable is a good thing, given its current obesity, and flaccid indifference to real growth and social change.  His fiscal responsibility should be a model for all Americans who have chosen not to live within their means.

We can then go on to criticize his rejection of many of Rand’s essential principles – abortion, immigration (she and Libertarians are for open immigration, not harshly state-enforced restrictions), freedom of speech, invasion of privacy, no foreign adventures, liberalization of drug policies.  For me personally, this rejection is enough to disqualify him from any serious consideration; but I cannot criticize either his positive Libertarian positions or his incomplete adherence to the faith.

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