Paul Ryan, the author of the GOP’s recent budget proposal, is a big fan of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand is the writer who inspired the young Ryan some fifteen years ago to get into politics. Today, unsurprisingly, her go-it-alone individualism permeates his worldview and guides his policy-making. Her novel Atlas Shrugged, a required text for his staffers, is the lens through which he sees the world. And to a large extent, her robust concept of free-enterpise capitalism lies behind Ryan’s budget plan, which favors tax breaks for the wealthy, reduced benefits for the poor and middle class, and privatization of the nation’s safety net.
A closer view of Atlas Shrugged provides us with a unique insight into why Ryan’s budget priorities seem so lopsided in favor of the business elite. The novel boils down to a morality tale acted out in a modern industrial landscape. It presents a narrative of struggle between what the author sees as capitalist creativity and the forces that would throttle it. In the novel Rand juxtaposes two basic character types: heroic entrepreneurs and producers, on the one hand, and government bureaucrats, hangers-on, and welfare leeches, on the other. The entrepreneurs strive to preserve their freedom to benefit from their success, while a meddlesome government intervenes to seize the proceeds of their wealth and divert it into the pockets of paper-shufflers, drones, and non-producers.
The tension eventually leads to an open rebellion. But instead of the have-nots rising up against the haves, the formula is reversed. It is the entrepreneurs, not the workers, who go on strike. They withdraw their skills and expertise from the economy, and retire to a secluded mountain and await the results. Predictably enough, the economy crumbles. From a position of strength, the capitalists then make a radio broadcast to the nation. Their leader, John Galt, lectures the masses on the topic of who really relies on whom. The true basis of prosperity is not the workers, he tells them, but the heroic job-producers. On that note, Galt demands a pure free-market utopia devoid of government intervention and safety nets. If the unproductive masses wish to see an end to the crisis, he declares, “it will be on our moral terms.”
For Ayn Rand, the capitalist producers embody a kind of a master class for whom the world should be supremely grateful. Their brand of noble entrepreneurship stands as a model for the rest of humanity. The ethic they represent is one that emphasizes pure economic freedom and spurns the idea of help-thy-neighbor. It is a philosophy that shows contempt for altruism and glorifies human self-interest. The philosophy has strong anti-democratic overtones as well, showing disapproval of representative government acting for the expressed needs of the majority. The Ayn Rand philosophy in effect is a glorification of economic elitism and top-down authority by the materially successful.
Rand has always been known for her dogmatic convictions. This is not so surprising, given her early education in Lenin’s Russia, where deviation from the party line was viewed as heresy. Her free-market creed was obviously a way of reacting to the regimentation she faced, but her authoritarian leanings are still unmistakable.
What is surprising is that Rand’s ideas have found so much support in the United States, a nation premised on “we the people.” The cartoonish portrayal of master builders aligned against their so-called inferiors rings false in a society dedicated to the belief that all are created equal and that power derives from the consent of the governed. Paul Ryan’s Randian worldview, with its mean distinctions between producers and non-producers, allows him to stoke openly the fires of inequality. It is a sad commentary on how far he and the GOP have strayed from our democratic traditions.