Paul Ryan and the Fusion of Fiscal and Social Conservatism

Paul Ryan needs no introduction as a fiscal conservative. The chairman of the Budget Committee in the House and the author of several controversial budget plans, Ryan has long been a guiding light for government-allergic libertarians.

Less well known but of equal significance is Ryan’s record as a social and religious conservative. Ryan closely follows the Catholic bishop line on abortion, birth control, and so-called religious freedom. “I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” he stated in a 2010 interview, and his advocacy in Congress testifies to it. According to a recent report, his voting record compares with that of Michelle Bachmann, an exemplar of the Christian Right. It comes as no surprise that his selection as Romney’s running mate was met with enthusiasm by Christian conservatives like Ralph Reed, Rick Santorum, Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), and Penny Nance (Concerned Women for America), among others.

For Ryan, social and fiscal conservatism are intrinsically related rather than constituting two separate domains. Far from subordinating moral issues to secular ones, he views the two as mutually reinforcing. In this sense he comes close to the tea party formula endorsed by Bachmann and Demint, which focuses on economic issues, but has biblical proof texts (or papal edicts) in the wings ready to back them up.

Two of Ryan’s recent position statements reveal how purposefully he fuses religion and economics. While his arguments display a certain ingenuity, they also reveal intellectual confusion and a stress on rhetoric over substance.

The first of these comes from a 2010 article on the rights to life and economic freedom (“The Cause of Life Can’t be Separated from the Cause of Freedom”). To try to show how the two are connected, Ryan utilizes the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He argues that the iconic words from the Declaration of Independence demonstrate a parallel commitment to the right to life as defined by today’s Christian pro-life movement, and free market liberty as viewed by his favorite idol, the anti-Christian Ayn Rand. By binding the two causes together under the umbrella of the founding document, he obscures their very different origins and protects himself from embarrassment over a key  incongruity, i.e. his support for government intervention on one issue (abortion) and rejection of it on the other (the economy).

Unfortunately, Ryan seems to forget that the Declaration’s words were inspired largely by the English philosopher John Locke, not by anti-abortionists or plutocrats. Locke used “life” in the sense of a person’s self-preservation and safety in a theoretical state of nature. He had no interest, nor did the American Founders, in embryonic speculation. Locke’s view of “liberty” and property rights, which helped to justify the capitalistic accumulation of wealth, comes much closer to Ryan’s approach. But it hardly extols über-individualism and elitism in the Randian mode.  It would be simplistic to assume that Locke, and the Founders, were trying to lay the groundwork for Rupert Murdock and the Koch brothers.

Responsibility is a second of Ryan’s pet themes. By making fiscal responsibility analogous to individual responsibility, he seeks to establish a simple link between economics and religion. A rising government debt, he states in a recent article for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor, is immoral since it demonstrates lack of discipline and self-restraint. It shows imperviousness to consequences and hence moral  irresponsibility. For him, one must renew the connection between hard work and wealth, and teach people how to do without government. Ryan refers to declarations by Pope Benedict to underscore the religious basis of his argument.

The problem is that Ryan’s view of responsibility is almost exclusively individualistic.  It shows little recognition of that other side of responsibility which is “social” and community-oriented, which sees the necessity for schools, roads, parks, safety nets, and regulations that protect people and the planet. A “responsibility” that ignores these things, refuses to raise taxes, and turns away from our collective problems is a very strange sort of responsibility indeed.

When all is said, Ryan’s merging of economic and religious themes would seem to aid in bolstering the Republican agenda. It is rhetorically appealing to fiscal and social conservatives and serves to unite them behind a set of policies. But the vision it offers is scarcely a coherent worldview.

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