Paul Ryan has downplayed his Ayn Rand associations lately in deference to Christian sensibilities. Rand, the popular priestess of über-individualism, was a militant atheist and no friend of the Christian religion. Still, while Ryan dismisses Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, he in no way repudiates her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, featuring a heroic capitalist (John Galt) who bucks the welfare state. Ryan’s ambiguity is somewhat amusing since the novel espouses principles and prejudices that are virtually identical to the philosophy of its author.
Atlas Shrugged presents a world at odds with reality as most mortals experience it. It portrays a society where the economically successful are persecuted rather than empowered. The “achievers,” far from prospering from their efforts, see their just earnings redistributed to the undeserving masses. It is thus they, the capitalists, not the workers, who in this saga of industrial conflict rebel against the established order. John Galt is the entrepreneurial insurrectionist who secretly organizes a “strike” against the government. The novel reaches a decisive point when Galt reveals himself to the people in a long radio address, justifying his decision to rebel and explaining the philosophy that underlies it. The book comes to an end as those who symbolize the establishment meet a grisly end in a dramatic train crash.
Galt’s stated worldview–basically Ayn Rand’s individualistic philosophy in a fictional setting–is a combination of bravado and paranoia. The bravado part is expressed in the glorification of selfhood. It is all about the individual, alone and dedicated to his/her productive pursuits, standing up against regulation and intrusion by a coercive government. The self, in the Randian perspective, is detached from any concept of the community or any social responsibilities that it might involve. Devoid of sentimental notions of altruism or humanity, it is centered exclusively on its own destiny.
In justification of his one-track focus, Galt claims that he is simply following the most rationally consistent course of action. Reason is the sole source of knowledge and the sole guide to action. It enables one to understand that all effects have causes and that all human achievements are the product of human thinking. It dictates that one should live by the work of one’s own mind. Applied to the world of economics, it claims special prerogatives: most notably, it specifies that the non-thinkers are always inferior and in debt to the thinkers. The result is a two-class society of producers who think and non-producers who don’t. If this sounds a bit extravagant, one should remember that Galt (Rand) treats rationality as immune from the normal laws of experience. His/her logic forbids the possibility of contradiction and leads inexorably from egotistical premise to sociopathic conclusion. By real world standards, such “rationality” is simply a form of reductionism, in which cause and effect are uncomplicated and construed through the lens of the isolated self. It is one-dimensional thinking combined with a total lack of empathy.
The Randian point of view would not be so dangerous if it were not combined with paranoid tendencies. According to it, the world is inhabited by those who threaten the producers and wish to pick their pockets under the aegis of the state. Throughout John Galt’s long monologue, they are portrayed as “looters,” “moochers,” and “robbers.” They include the religious idealist, who stresses love thy neighbor, and the liberal progressive, who emphasizes social responsibility. Rand’s division of the world into heroes and destroyers, producers and leeches, good and evil, mirrors in many ways the culture war divisions stressed by the Christian Right, although in a different form.
Rand, for whom Galt is the mouthpiece, has a distinctly personal reason for demonizing enemies. In her characterization of hostile forces she is drawing from the dark memories of her childhood in the Soviet Union, where she and her upper middle class family suffered under Lenin’s regime. Her great strike in Atlas Shrugged is a recapitulation of the Russian Revolution, although this time turned on its head. The pro-capitalist novel is apparently Rand’s way of exacting retribution.
It is not too hard to draw a line between the speech of John Galt to the budgetary philosophy of Paul Ryan. The themes of impending financial disaster, the insidious role of government and its coercive acts of redistribution, the debt owed to those who “produce,” and the sacrifices required of the undeserving are prominent in both. It is ironic that Paul Ryan had to rely on a Russian émigré’s view of American government, so heavily reliant on an overwrought version of the Soviet system, to form his own opinion about it. Their visions would have been less controversial if Ryan and Rand had infused their rationality with a dose of humility and realism.