Greed Is Not Good: Paul Ryan on the Morality of Free Enterprise

In his May 11 commencement address at Benedictine College, the Catholic congressman focused on the good that has been accomplished by the free market.

Rep. Paul Ryan speaks May 11 at Benedictine College.
Rep. Paul Ryan speaks May 11 at Benedictine College. (photo: Benedictine College)

ATCHISON, Kan. — When Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., delivered the May 11 commencement address at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., the former Republican vice-presidential candidate regarded it as an opportunity to “resell free enterprise” as a system with a moral foundation.

“I find it interesting that we have to sort of go back and resell free enterprise,” Ryan told the Register shortly after the address. He said that the free-enterprise system had done more to help the poor than any other system.

“It’s when government cronyism occurs that the strong exploit the weak. If you have a real free-enterprise system, and the rule of law is applied, and you have natural rights that are protected and equal opportunity, then you have a society that flourishes and people who flourish. So we have to go back and sell the morality of free enterprise.”

In the well-received speech, the House Budget Committee chairman told the college’s graduating class of 405 — the largest in Benedictine College’s history — that the free market “gives people more than a paycheck. It gives them a sense of pride — a sense of purpose.”

“Free enterprise doesn’t reward greed,” Ryan told the graduates. “It rewards value, because competition checks greed. And there’s no greater opportunity for greed than government cronyism. Greed knows how to exploit the pages of regulations. It knows how to navigate the halls of power. So if we’re concerned about greed, we shouldn’t give it more opportunities to grow.”

But Ryan acknowledged that there is a great deal of resistance to free-market ideals.

“Why is there such resistance to free enterprise?” the congressman asked at Benedictine College. “It’s the old problem of greed. The critics say nothing good comes from commerce. ... Sure, free enterprise makes more stuff, they argue. But it relies on ‘greed’ — on people pursuing their self-interest. And isn’t the love of money the root of all evil … or something to that effect?”

“At some level,” Ryan continued, “we all ask ourselves, ‘How can I make ends meet?’ But the successful ask a better question: ‘What’s something people need?’ Voluntary exchange is an act of good faith. It gives the buyer a good in exchange for something of equal value. It creates a culture of personal responsibility and good will. To attract customers, you must be trustworthy. To attract workers, you must treat them with dignity.”


Applying Catholic Social Teachings

Ryan told the Register in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview that included questions about his controversial about-face on homosexual adoption that he regarded the Benedictine commencement address as the continuation of a process of making the case that neither the “Catholic right” nor “Catholic left” has a monopoly on the social teaching of the Church.

Ryan recalled that the process begun last August, when he went to Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, to give what was considered a controversial speech making the case for free-market economics.

Ryan was greeted then with a letter of protest from nearly 90 Georgetown faculty and administrators challenging his earlier statement that his economic views — including cutting the federal budget and reforming entitlement programs — were based on Catholic social teaching.

The Catholic educators and administrators famously wrote that Ryan’s proposals for the federal budget appeared to “reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Concern for the effects of the so-called “Ryan Budget” was expressed also by Bishops Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, the leaders of the U.S. Bishops’ Committees for Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace, respectively.

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis.., the bishop of Ryan’s diocese, defended Ryan’s attempt to apply Catholic social teachings on matters of prudential judgment. 

At Georgetown, Ryan argued that neither side had a “monopoly” on interpreting social teaching and said that there “can be differences among faithful Catholics” on these issues. He said it was “precisely this point” that he wanted to reiterate at Benedictine.

“On issues like economics, there is a broad arc of judgments that lay Catholics can apply,” Ryan said. “Neither right nor left can claim sole authority to dictate how Catholic social teachings apply. This is my attempt to show ‘This is how a conservative applies Catholic social teaching to improving the lives of people, to helping the economy.’

“And I think, in many ways, we as policymakers have lost sight of how the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity operate in conjunction with one another,” Ryan said. “It is really important that we stress how important these principles are and how we apply them to public policy. This is my attempt to show how I apply them to public policy.”


‘Mediating Structures’

“I think we are coming at a point in society where we are forgetting about mediating structures,” Ryan continued. “That’s a very sterile phrase, but we are forgetting about civil society, about community, about the vast middle ground between a person and government. And it is there that we live our lives in community with one another.”

“It is there where we need to express these principles,” he said, “living in community with one another and serving one another in solidarity and having government respect our rights and our abilities to solve problems at our local levels, to solve problems in our communities, because, in doing that, we are serving one another. If we outsource care for the poor to the government and assume it’s not our responsibility, then we will grow a cold and callous society that is going to be much poorer, both spiritually and materially.”

Ryan was asked about the poverty that originally inspired so many government programs and reminded that many wealthy people do not have a sense of obligation to help the poor.

“I see the root causes of these problems as moral relativism,” Ryan said.”Relativism has seeped so deeply in this society that the short-term solution is just to grow government, to have government fix the problem. But that just brings us farther apart and makes us grow more distant and more relativist. There aren’t short cuts here. We have got to go back and revive civil society, which is a great beachhead against relativism. It can help teach these principles in our society.”

Ryan made it clear that he does believe that there is a role for government in providing a social safety net, but that government must not “overwhelm” civil society.


Same-Sex Adoption

On another issue, Ryan, who is against homosexual “marriage,” recently raised eyebrows with remarks on adoption by same-sex couples.

In reply to a question at an April 29 town-hall meeting in Wisconsin, Ryan acknowledged that he, in 1999, voted in favor of a ban on federal funding of same-sex adoptions in the District of Columbia. But Ryan said that he would not vote for such a ban today.

“I do believe that if there are children who are orphans who do not have a loving person or couple, I think if a person wants to love and raise a child, they ought to be able to do that. Period,” Ryan said. “I would vote that way.”

After the remarks, Ryan’s office issued a statement that read:

“Gay adoption is an issue best handled by the states, and this is primarily an issue of federalism. Years ago, because of Congress’ unique jurisdiction over Washington, D.C., I faced a vote on an amendment that would have prohibited the D.C. government from using federal funds in assisting with the adoption of children by same sex couples. I voted in favor of this amendment, which never became law. Gay adoption has been legal in Washington, D.C. for several years now. As stated last week, I would not vote for such a ban today. 

“I support the First Amendment rights of religiously affiliated adoption agencies to set their own terms and conditions for adoption according to their conscience. I support federal provisions to guarantee those basic rights to adoption agencies in D.C. and across the nation. And, finally, I believe that our focus should always be on the well-being of the child.”

Ryan told the Register that homosexual adoption in the District is legal and that such a ban, if proposed again, would not pass. Ryan said he saw no “utility” in revisiting the D.C. ban issue.

“I don’t want to re-litigate this issue,” Ryan said reticently. “The Church teaching is very clear that the ideal home is with a mom and a dad.”

Ryan said that he didn’t regret the D.C. vote, but that he regards homosexual adoption as a state issue and “up to states.”

“I think our efforts are better spent focused on something that is right in front of us — the issue of religious liberty. So I am spending my time focusing on protecting our religious liberty, because we have a serious threat to that. So I wasn’t announcing some policy change. I was simply answering a question and saying that I don’t see the utility of revisiting that vote, given that it failed in 1999, and I don’t think it would be possible to undo it legislatively.

“The focus should be on the child and on religious liberty, because, if we lose on this HHS mandate in August, what’s next? That is where I am putting my focus as a legislator. It is just strategic thinking. Where are my efforts better focused? I am focusing on religious liberty.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.