Paul Ryan and the Moral Foundation of Our Economic Recovery

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan (photo: Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore)

When I interviewed Congressman Paul Ryan two years ago, neither he nor I had any idea that he would be the next GOP vice-presidential candidate. Not much has changed since then, either in regard to Ryan or our situation.

Then, as now, we were in a severe economic slump, severe enough to be called the “Great Recession,” that is, teetering on the edge of duplicating the Great Depression.

Then, as now, Paul Ryan was known as the GOP budget hawk, the man with the intestinal fortitude to take on both parties in his cry for fiscal reform.

Then, as now, Ryan’s solution was a very concrete proposal, “A Road Map for America’s Future” — the economic plan heralded by the GOP, and, now that Ryan is the VP candidate, excoriated by the Democratic Party.

Ryan’s “road map” will be at the center of the debate in these weeks leading up to the election. Catholics need to understand what Ryan intends in his proffered economic reforms in order to make a clear judgment in November.

Obviously, the difference between VP Biden and Ryan is clear in regard to their respective stances about abortion: Biden, a Catholic, is unabashedly pro-choice; Ryan, a Catholic, is unabashedly pro-life. Therefore, insofar as there is any debate about their merits beyond the life isues, it will likely turn on their respective economic positions.

So what is Ryan’s basic economic philosophy? Contrary to what some in the media would like us to believe, Ryan is not some kind of crazed capitalist. When I spoke with him, I found him to be a sober moralist. He very firmly believes that the economic problems we (and Europe) have gotten ourselves into are, at bottom, moral problems.

In Ryan’s words, from the interview, “If you ask me about the biggest problem in America … in society, you probably think I am going to rattle off debt and taxes. No, it’s moral relativism.”

That should sound familiar. Just do a quick Google search of “moral relativism Pope Benedict,” and you’ll find innumerable instances of the Pope hammering away at moral relativism as one of the main evils, if not the chief evil, destroying our culture.

For Ryan, the economic crisis is, at heart, a moral crisis, a crisis rooted in moral relativism. And so, Ryan understands his road map to be as much a moral proposal as an economic proposal.

How so? In what way is it moral? Ryan obviously has some explaining to do in order to make that much clearer, especially since he has also claimed that he looks to Catholic economic and social thought as forming his moral understanding of the moral foundation of economics.

I think I have at least some insight as to what Ryan intends in saying that our economic crisis is a moral crisis and, consequently, needs a moral cure (and I’ll be looking at this moral-economic connection in greater detail in future blog posts).

First, our moral duty to provide for ourselves, our families and our communities is being shifted from the individual to the national government. In Ryan’s words, self-reliance is being replaced by reliance on the state.

That’s a problem because it creates a “culture of dependency,” where individuals look increasingly to a strong central government to fulfill their needs and wants instead of providing for themselves. The government, therefore, grows stronger, individuals grow weaker, and the debt burden due to entitlements grows so astronomically high that economic collapse becomes inevitable.

Such is the current fate of the collapsing democratic socialist governments of Europe. Such will be our fate very soon, Ryan insists, if we don’t turn things around immediately. To do this, he says, we need morally “strong individuals, not a super-strong government at the expense of the individual.” We need morally strong individuals who see it as their moral duty to provide for themselves, their families and their local communities.

Second, as noted above, moral relativism is corrosive. Relativism corrodes the moral glue of society, resulting in isolated individuals who have no common moral good that defines and limits their economic desires and activities. The result is not just the “I’m gonna get mine, no matter what” entitlement mentality, but the self-absorbed greed that allowed Wall Street “banksters” to mutilate the economic infrastructure so as to maximize their own personal profits in any way they could, no matter how destructive to anyone else.

Certainly, Ryan’s points have merit and, again, are worthy of more exploration in future posts. He also hasn’t yet made it quite clear enough how his views are connected to Catholic principles, and so we’ll need to explore that as well.