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Paul Ryan and the obnoxious creed of Ayn Rand

It's easy to understand how Ayn Rand came to her dark judgement – but not why Paul Ryan thinks it will help him run the country.

Ayn Rand's terrible novel, the Fountainhead. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, has not received a fraction of the coverage which Sarah Palin had four years ago. However, he may well prove the more significant and dangerous politician. Whatever the result on 6 November, Congressman Ryan, aged only 42, is now a front runner to be a future Republican presidential candidate.

More than his Tea Party approved economics, it is Ryan’s support for the morality of Ayn Rand which should lead people to fear a Ryan presidency (or to fear having Ryan a heartbeat from the job).

Ayn Rand is not so well known in the UK but she is almost a household name in the USA. She can be described as an author, a philosopher or a cult leader. She came to the USA from the USSR in 1926, aged 21, and died in New York in 1982. Her ideas have been influential in the USA and more widely ever since. One of her closest disciples was Alan Greenspan who was at the heart of the world’s financial system as Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006. Millions of copies of her books have been sold and, in a survey by the Library of Congress, her novel Atlas Shrugged was said to be the second most influential book in the USA, after the Bible. She is an icon of the Tea Party.

Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism, low taxes, minimal regulation and a very small state, little more than armed forces, a police force and court system. These ideas on politics and economics, however, are not the ones that arouse the strongest opposition. It is Rand’s teachings on morality which are truly shocking.

Rand’s core belief, as set out in books like The Virtue of Selfishness, was the idea that selfishness is morally good and altruism is morally bad. The idea runs so counter to all that is taught by the world’s religions, humanist teachings and, indeed, in families and schools that it is difficult to comprehend. Gore Vidal wrote that Rand “must be read to be believed.” He also concluded that Rand’s “”philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality.”

It is easy to imagine how Rand came to her dark judgement on human nature. She was born in St Petersburg in Tsarist Russia in 1905 and when she was aged 12 she saw her family’s business confiscated and their lives destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the name of the collective. For Rand, money was the measure of success; relationships were not important. In a fitting piece of symbolism, at her funeral a six foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was given pride of place.

In Rand’s world-view, the CEOs of large corporations in particular and the rich in general are heroic and should be praised and the poor are lazy and feckless and should be despised. Over the last three decades, such ideas have become commonplace in the speeches of many on the right on both sides of the Atlantic, blind to such factors as personal circumstances, privilege, disadvantage, skulduggery and luck in creating wealth and poverty.

Margaret Thatcher’s notorious declaration that “there is no such thing as society” was of a piece with Rand’s philosophy. Although, to be fair to Thatcher, she at least thought the family was important; Rand thought it was the individual alone.

Unsurprisingly, Rand’s philosophy is popular among the very rich. It shows them as morally virtuous and even allows them to claim that it is they who are the victims – of overbearing government.

Paul Ryan has spoken publicly about his admiration for Rand. He has said her books taught him his value system and beliefs and that she inspired him to get involved in public service. He used to tell his congressional staff that they must read Rand and gave them copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents.

In 2012, Ryan has been trying to distance himself from too close an identification with Rand’s philosophy. After all, parts of that philosophy such as Rand’s militant atheism and her pro-choice views are toxic in today’s Republican Party.

Ryan, however, has not sought to disown Rand’s obnoxious creed that selfishness is moral and altruism is immoral. That fact alone makes Paul Ryan a dangerous politician.