Paul Ryan, Economic Reform and Catholic Principles

As noted in a previous post, I interviewed Paul Ryan about two years ago. At the time — obviously — neither of us had any inkling he’d be a future vice presidential candidate.

Almost the entire interview was focused on Ryan’s economic thinking — not just his detailed economic plan (A Roadmap for America’s Future), but the philosophy at the bottom of his economic views.

What about his detailed plan? As chairman of the House’s Committee on the Budget, Ryan knows details. He has been dubbed Congress’s budget hawk, a man determined to do whatever it takes to keep the U.S. from experiencing the kind of catastrophic economic collapse now dragging Europe’s nations, one by one, into their self-dug economic holes.

His chant: We don’t want to become Greece. Or Spain.

We have an unsustainably, horrifically large debt — if we take a peek at the ever-spinning debt clock, more than $16 trillion and counting with dizzying rapidity. Something has to be done, Ryan argues, and not a little pinch here, a little snip there, but a real, deep budget cutting.

And he’s right. We can’t keep spending billions of dollars more than we take in. We can’t keep spending recklessly today, and then handing the bill to our children and our children’s children.

We have a moral obligation to do what it takes, and what it takes is going to be painful for everyone.

What we can’t do, Ryan makes clear, is spend our way out of the problem in an effort to “stimulate” the economy. At best, that provides a momentary “hit,” like a shot of heroin to a hopeless addict.

Nor can we make up for lack of funds by simply printing more money (and more, and more, and more).

Why? We don’t want to become the Weimar Republic, where, because of hyperinflation, a loaf of bread cost 200 billion marks in 1923.

The Weimar Republic made two signal errors, the same ones we’re making today. They ran up an enormous, crushing debt — part of it owed in war reparations imposed upon them after their loss in World War I, part of it incurred in expensive and popular domestic social programs.

Instead of paying its expenses up front, the German government borrowed its way into a bottomless hole of debt. Spend now, pay later.

And then, rather than cause anyone any pain by cutting back on spending and borrowing, the government ramped up the printing of money. In 1923, at the height of inflation, the Germany’s government was running over 1,700 printing presses, day and night.

Warning light. We owe more than $5 billion to foreign countries, not in war reparations, but simply because we want to spend way more than we take in.

Our government’s printing presses have been spinning with three waves of “Quantitative Easing,” as it’s now called (and the third wave, QE3, has been declared “open-ended,” i.e., there’s no off button on the printing press).

We don’t want to become Greece, Ryan argues. We don’t want to become Spain. And we don’t want to become the Weimar Republic. But everything we’re doing now, and have been doing for over a decade under both Republican and Democratic administrations, points in precisely those directions.

Now that brings us back to Ryan’s detailed economic plan, “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” or more recently, his committee’s “The Path to Prosperity.”

Whatever we think of the details of either plan — and they should be and will be debated in detail, if Romney and Ryan win the election — we must understand one thing to understand Ryan: He believes that we are in a state of economic peril where something drastic needs to be done.

The main culprits are the various entitlements — Social Security, Disability Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps — that consume about 62% of our current budget. These are the same kind of social welfare programs that are helping to sink the countries in Europe.

Ryan is not, he insists, going to cut the ropes on our society’s safety net. Rather, he doesn’t think that the social safety net should “become a hammock.” The point of the safety net is to help people in real need, not to fund a permanent welfare class.

But Ryan also argues that something has to be done about corporate welfare, the millions and millions of dollars misspent by the government in subsidizing big corporations who’ve got too many congressmen in their pockets. So, the axe must also be taken as well to “crony capitalism,” the collusion of big business with big government.

What about Ryan’s economic philosophy, the philosophy grounding his approach?

As he revealed in our interview, he’s got three sources: the Austrian school of economics (primarily Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises), the Catholic principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (which I’ve covered in some detail in previous posts) and Ayn Rand.

How do these all fit together in Ryan’s mind?

Insofar as I could tell from the interview, and from what I’ve read, I’d say that Ryan unites the Austrian school with the Catholic principles. That is, Ryan believes that economic questions and problems are best addressed at the local level, rather than big government trying to control the economy from the top-down. That accords both with the Austrian emphasis on economic decentralization and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity with it’s emphasis on local economic control rather than strongly-centralized economic control.

Thus, when Ryan touts the free market, what he means (following Hayek) is not an unrestrained free-for-all of corporate greed, but an economy built up largely from local ground without undue government interference. Businesses need to be left free to succeed and fail (rather than being propped up artificially with government dollars). And big business should not be linking up in collusion with big government to stack the deck against smaller, local businesses.

Importantly, Hayek argued that, in fact, the national government should provide a social safety net, but like Ryan after him, it should be constructed for those really in need. In accordance with the principle of solidarity, we need to care for those truly in need, and government has a role to play in that.

But what about the influence of the infamous Ayn Rand?

As I noted before, in my Ten Books Every Conservative Must Read, Plus Four Not To Miss and One Imposter, Rand is the imposter. So I pushed Ryan on his much-quoted hearty affirmations of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. His answer, as I noted before, was that he rejected her atheism and the atheist underpinnings of her no-holds-barred capitalism, but he greatly admired her affirmation of capitalism and her literary presentation of the degradations of the socialist-welfare state.

So at present, I would say this as my take on Ryan. I think Ryan is definitely inspired by Rand’s literary work (too inspired), but his actual understanding and affirmation of the free market approach comes from a union of the Austrian economic school and the Catholic principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014.

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Justice Antonin Scalia’s love of debate was one of the things that drew him to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman with whom he disagreed on many things, including many aspects of the law.