Approximately 37 seconds after the announcement that Paul Ryan had been chosen as Mitt Romney’s VP, the media began to murmur — and then shout — about Ryan’s outspoken praise of the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged. (See, for example, Newsweek’s take on Ryan’s devotion to Rand as revealing a coming “War on the Weak.”)
Is Ryan waging a “war on the weak,” using Ayn Rand as his inspiration?
No, I do not think so at all. But Ryan needs to make clear what he accepts in Rand and very, very clear about what he rejects. Rand was an atheist, a devout enemy of Christianity, and she rooted her entire philosophic affirmation of capitalism in pure selfishness.
So, what could Ryan possibly find attractive in Ayn Rand?
As it turns out, that’s exactly what I asked Paul Ryan about two years ago in a personal interview on Capitol Hill.
Before we get to that, here’s a little important background.
Before the interview, I had just published Ten Books Every Conservative Must Read, Plus Four Not to Miss and One Impostor. The “impostor” was — you guessed it — Ayn Rand. In my chapter on Rand, I tried to be as fair as possible. Before showing why she must ultimately be rejected, I offered an account of what’s good in Rand’s philosophy. That’s important because a whole lot of people — including Paul Ryan — have found Rand’s philosophy (called “objectivism”) very attractive. We need to understand why because her dark side is really dark.
I gave Ryan a complimentary copy of my book. During the interview, I said to him: “Ayn Rand has been a great influence on you, but there’s dark and light in her.”
He replied: “I am by no means an objectivist; I am a Catholic, you know. I am nothing close to an objectivist, but I do think Ayn Rand did a service, did a great job of outlining the morality of capitalism, of making the moral case for freedom, free enterprise and capitalism. You don’t have to buy into all the objectivist stuff to appreciate what she did on that front.”
Ryan went on to affirm the need for a moral basis of free enterprise and to express his great appreciation of other conservative economic thinkers who were much more acceptable to Catholic moral and economic principles (such as Friedrich von Hayek). Several times, Ryan emphasized that our current economic maladies are the result of moral failures on our part and that there will be no economic recovery until there is a moral recovery. He also confirmed his deep appreciation of the Catholic economic principle of subsidiarity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1883-1885).
What’s my take on Ryan, for whatever that’s worth? I would say that he is not an advocate of an economic system based upon pure selfishness. He certainly doesn’t accept Rand’s atheism. He is not out to wage a “war on the weak.” His affirmation of Rand is qualified. The question is regarding how: How is it qualified?
What exactly Ryan accepts and rejects will need to be articulated much more clearly in the coming weeks. I didn’t have time to get to the bottom of it in the interview. But it isn’t enough for Ryan to say that, on the one hand, he rejects her objectivism, but on the other, that he affirms her moral case for capitalism — because her moral case for capitalism is rooted in her objectivism. That root is, again, pure selfishness.
Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, and selfishness was, for her, the virtue. It was meant to replace the virtue enthroned by Christianity: caritas (love or charity). Like Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Rand’s favorite philosophers, she hated Christianity, and one of the reasons she hated it was that it extolled charity.
In Atlas Shrugged, all the characters manifesting Randian philosophy take an oath: “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” That’s about as far from charity as you can get. Rand lived her life accordingly and made everyone around her, and herself, quite miserable. Her wretched life is the best refutation of her philosophy.
That’s the dark side of Rand (and it gets even darker). But there are good things in Rand, things that have attracted many, many readers, who, like Ryan, want to extract the good from the bad.
Please think about this point: When we come across someone as popular as Ayn Rand — selling millions and millions of books — there’s likely to be something worthy, something right, something of merit.
Well, first of all, Ayn Rand rejected the fashionable subjectivism of her (and our) day. Hence, the name of her philosophy — objectivism. For her, intellectual relativism was the great poison that led to the collapse of society. Against this, she argued human reason does understand reality, and truth is objective.
Second, Rand rejected moral relativism as well. For Rand, our interactions with nature, from the very beginning, root us in objective reality. In our undertaking the necessary tasks entailed in working with nature to provide food, clothing and shelter for ourselves, we’ve got to express certain virtues: hard work, the use of our intelligence, courage in persevering, justice in exchanging goods and keeping contracts.
Third, Rand rejected statism and collectivism, just as the Catholic Church does (Catechism, 1885). She rightly saw these as interfering with our fundamental moral need, duty and right to provide for ourselves.
Fourth, Rand rejected materialism as well. She believed that the existence of human technology was itself the proof of the mind’s ability to form and control matter, so that the mind couldn’t be merely a reflex of material components and processes.
Fifth, she understood, perhaps just as deeply as John Paul II, the evils of Marxism. She escaped from the extreme degradations of Bolshevik Russia, from the horrors of near starvation under the “benevolent” rule of Soviet collectivists, from the anger at having her father’s thriving apothecary shop confiscated by the communists and quickly run into the ground by incompetence.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy, then, is a mix — good and bad. But the bad is really bad, so that whatever good there is would have to be carefully extracted.
To be perfectly frank, I find Ayn Rand to be deeply repulsive — the dark side is, again, really dark. So, if Paul Ryan wants to attract Catholic voters, he’s going to have to make much clearer what he’s taking — and even more, what he’s leaving behind.
Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., has published nine books, with another coming out this fall with Scott Hahn, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture, 1300-1700. He is currently working on a book on the Church and the secular state. His website is BenjaminWiker.com.