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Ryan, Rand, and the Catholic Angle UPDATED by Thomas L. McDonald

Ryan, Rand, and the Catholic Angle UPDATED

August 13, 2012 By
Even though I misspent about a decade calling myself a Libertarian and paying party dues, I was never suckered in by that nasty old witch Ayn Rand and her cult of personality. Objectivism is a philosophy for college students and people who don’t have kids. A modest sense of enlightened self-interest is not necessarily an evil when it’s part of a more well-rounded philosophy, but it when it’s neither modest nor enlightened, it has no role in civilization. And when it is the sum total of one’s outlook on the world, it becomes downright dangerous. I wrote a bit about the end-point for this view of the world in my review of Bioshock. Since I returned to the Church, I’ve come to more fully appreciate that Objectivism/Libertarianism and Catholicism cannot coexist. (Politically, I now consider myself a Distributist.)

Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for his VP unleashed a wave of vitriol, misinformation, and ready-made memes from the left, much of it focused on his alleged worship of Rand. Since noise pollution can actually have an effect on people’s perceptions, this kind of propaganda is a very real concern. If enough Facebook friends and Twits share cleverly-made memes suggesting that Ryan wants to end Medicare (a lie), cut food stamps (another lie), and sacrifice your children in a ritual to Moloch in order to exalt his Wall Street paymasters (probably a lie), you eventually get some impression that this is an unpleasant fellow who needs to be stopped by any means necessary.

Part of this stems from the emotional and creepily-quasi-religious element that’s developed around the Democratic party in general and Obama in particular. It’s a simple fact that more Democrats identify strongly with their party than Republicans. It becomes bound up in the liberal self-image, in which they see themselves caring very deeply about people while the other side cares not at all. The idea that people can care equally and differ on approaches and solutions seems lost on many of them. Although there are obviously exceptions (most notably among the more unhinged members of the anti-Obama faction), for the most part conservatives think liberals are misguided, while liberals think conservatives are evil.

I don’t really have a dog in that fight, since my place on the political spectrum (classical conservative: think Russell Kirk, Belloc, Eliot, Chesterton) isn’t represented at all. The left’s fealty to the suffocating state and their tendency to approach every problem with the magical healing power of massive amounts of extorted tax dollars is no more grounded in concern for the human family than the right’s passion for military adventurism and fealty to Wall Street oligarchs. If you proudly and without hesitation identify yourself with either of our major political parties, I think a little less of you. Sorry, but there it is. You may well side with one or the other because their goals and values appear to be closer to your own among a limited roster of options, but to claim membership in one of these disgusting and corrupt institutions is absurd. They are both merely representatives of a moneyed elite: a Ruling Class drunk on their own power. They need to be smashed, not encouraged.

All of this brings us back to Rand and Ryan. The image of Ryan that’s being nurtured by the left–fed by talking points from the Obama campaign and grotesque propaganda efforts from various PACs–is that he’s some kind of fire-breathing Objectivist monster looking to snatch food from children’s mouths and sell it in order to gild the toilets at Goldman Sachs.

For example, if you’re a member of “Catholics” United, you’re treated to this nauseting bit of casual slander and raw mendacity:

Propaganda for Soros-funded PAC “Catholics” United

I have problems with the Ryan budget, but they’re in the details, not in the big picture. And, say what you will about it, at least it’s reality-based, unlike the catastrophic fiscal policy of the Obama administration. We will spend years digging out of the hole dug by Obama, and while Ryan’s budget does not get us out of that hole (he still runs a deficit, albeit half of that run by the president) at least it doesn’t dig us in any deeper.

The left can shout all it wants about how Ryan is gutting Medicare, but under Obama’s plan Medicare is dead in a decade, unable to be funded any further. We’re heading for another crash (possibly driven by the popping of an “education bubble,” when all that student debt comes crashing down), and we’re not going to address it by printing money (the Obama solution) or borrowing it (ditto) or confiscating it and letting the government spend it (ditto). Money removed from the private sector in the form of taxation is lost money: it’s not capable of generating wealth or growth. Some of this is necessary to maintain society and the social safety net, but we’ve long since passed that point of expenditure.

And thus we come to a key part of Ryan’s outlook that will never get a fair hearing, partly because it’s complex and nuanced, and partly because it doesn’t fit the false narrative create by the elites. Ryan repeatedly states that his perspective on economics is shaped by his Catholicism. Catholic social teaching turns on two points: solidarity (the need to aid and uplift the poor) and subsidiarity (the fact that a problem should be addressed by the smallest practical political entity: the one closest to the problem being addressed).

This is not the way he is being portrayed by the media and the left (but I repeat myself). Yes, he’s admitted that Rand was a formative influence and that her emphasis on “individualism versus collectivism” remains important, but the image of him as doctrinaire Randian shouting “every man for himself!” is misleading.  When inquiring into someone’s beliefs, it’s a good idea to listen to what he says. Here’s Ryan addressing the question quite clearly (emphasis added):

“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Anything anyone else says about his beliefs needs to be considered against that statement. (And by the way: Yay for a politician who correctly and casually uses the word “epistemology.”) You think he’s lying? Prove it. The burden is on you. He said what he believes. Unless someone has a proven track record of bald-face lies, their statements about their own beliefs should be the final word. Simple charity demands that.

Ryan defended both his budget and his Catholic principles in an article for the National Catholic Register (disclosure: I write for the Register). It doesn’t get much more clear than this:

The debt is weighing on job creation today, closing off the most promising avenues for the poor to rise. As a result, more and more of society’s most vulnerable remain mired in public-assistance programs whose outdated structures often act as a trap that hinders upward mobility. And this economic stagnation and growing dependence fuels the growing national debt — a vicious cycle that calls for bold reforms equal to the challenge.

We cannot continue to ignore this problem. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has rightly termed this attitude “living in untruth … at the expense of future generations.” In approaching this problem as a lay Catholic in public life, I have found it useful to apply the twin principles of solidarity (recognition of the common ties that unite all human beings in equal dignity) and subsidiarity (respect for the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groups such as families, businesses, schools, local communities and state governments).

When applied in equal measure, these principles complete and balance each other. But when one is applied exclusively, the result can be harmful. For example, in a misapplication of solidarity, politicians in both parties expanded big government for decades. These policies have had dismal results. One out of every six people in the United States is now living below the poverty level — the largest number of poor people on record.

We need a better approach to restore the balance, and the House-passed budget offers one by reintroducing subsidiarity, which the Holy Father has called “the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” Our budget builds on the successful welfare reforms of the 1990s, using federal subsidium to empower state and local governments, communities and individuals — those closest to the problems of society. Our budget promotes opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job-training programs to help those who have fallen on hard times.

Our budget ends welfare for those who don’t need it, but strengthens welfare programs for those who do. Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, failing the very citizens who need help the most. When solidarity and subsidiarity are in balance, civil society is revitalized, not displaced. We rightly pride ourselves on looking out for one another — and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.

There’s far more, and I urge you to read every bit of it. He’s already said–repeatedly–that he welcomes disputes and disagreements on the details of his budget, and that he’s open to discussing any points. He wants to get into that discussion and start working out solutions, and has an obvious mastery of the data. The current administration, however, has rebuffed his overtures. Rather than discussing the details, they’ve rejected them out of hand, and both sides are playing politics with the issue. In the long run, the Republicans are helped politically by Obama’s failures, and the Democrats are helped politically by maintaining their false narrative of Evil Republicans Who Just Don’t Care.

I don’t have any illusion that Ryan is part of a real solution to the disease affecting the body politic. He’s voted time and again for things I find repellent (TARP, the GM bailout, war) and is a Washington insider. He remains part of the problem because he’s part of a system that is horribly broken and dysfunctional. However, he seems like a reasonable person, not an ideologue.

Because the stakes are so high in this election, I will almost certainly be voting for Romney-Ryan, albeit reluctantly. I really don’t believe we can survive four more years of Obama. In any case, as a Catholic I could never vote for him due to his unnecessary and provocative attacks on the Church with the HHS mandate, and his full-throated support (not tolerance: support) for abortion.

Catholics who try to wave this away need to look long and hard at what they really believe. There are many solutions offered by both the left and the right to the problems of poverty and want in America. (Only a mindless zealot believes the right is completely unconcerned for the poor and disadvantaged.) All those airy pronouncements about the poor, however, mean nothing without life itself. One side believes there are various ways to lift up those in need, but that the most vulnerable of all (the unborn) need to be protected. The other side believes there’s only one way to lift up those in need, and doesn’t worry itself too much about the most vulnerable of all. In this horrible political system of ours, with both sides almost indistinguishable on issues of military adventurism, it really does come down to that.

UPDATED: Mark Shea is unpersuaded. Fair enough, but I’m willing to take the man at his word. Unlike Shea, I was a Libertarian (and an agnostic and an anti-Catholic ex-Catholic gnostic what-have-you) at one point, and I’m sure all kinds of daffy quotes can be summoned to convict me. (In my early 20s, I wrote a horrifying piece about the transubstantiation that will certainly cost me a few thousand years of rolling boulders uphill in purgatory.)

I get no sense from Ryan that he’s some kind of slippery snake oil salesman trying to put one over on the rubes by embracing … St. Thomas Aquinas? Ayn Rand is hot right now, and has plenty of Tea Party appeal. Catholics? Meh. Not so hot.

For many years Rand stood as a strong voice for limited government. She was also anti-human, anti-religious, and contemptuous of those very people Christians are called upon to love the most: the weak and the poor. Consider her a nasty-tasting ipecac for the poisoned body politic, forcing it to vomit out the creeping statism of the post-New Deal era. As The Prophet said: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

And Mark is certainly aware that Ron Paul (whom we both like) has never even made an effort to disavow Ayn Rand. A person’s intellectual and moral development is a complex thing. I embraced and rejected a great deal of Gnosticism, Jungianism, paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, New Age spirituality, and more on the way to becoming who I am at 44, but all of those false paths informed who I am and how I think as a completely orthodox Catholic. I’m willing to cut Ryan a great deal of slack on this one.

UPDATED II: Glenn Greenwald offers a dissent from the left.

I know I only said this once, and some people tend to scan overlong posts like this, but let me just say again: my vote for Romney-Ryan  will be a reluctant one. I disagree with a great deal from both of them, and as I pointed out (which Greenwald also points out) Ryan has a lot of crappy votes for big government and military intervention to his name. When all is said and done, however, I know for a fact what to expect from 4 more years of Obama: horrible economic policy, stupid foreign policy, anti-life and anti-religion policy, and general creepiness. At least Ryan is making a pleasing noise about debt reduction and life issues, which is more than can be said for the Amateur-in-Chief.

To get back to the original question that prompted this hideously long wad of text: Is Paul Ryan an Objectivist or a doctrinaire Randian? I’m satisfied the answer is no.

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