Writing in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier recently unleashed an attempted decapitation strike on Representative Paul Ryan. But the bombs land all over the place: on his own magazine, on President Obama, on Walter Lippmann, on Daniel Patrick Moynihan — on people and positions he had no intention of criticizing. As a hit piece, it could win a prize in the category of collateral damage.
The point of the piece is to demonstrate that Ryan is a heartless radical individualist with a taste for cruelty towards the downtrodden. Need proof? Here’s Ryan’s comment on “safety net” entitlements in his 2010 budget plan:
More ruinous in the long run is the extent to which the “safety net” has come to enmesh more and more Americans — reaching into middle incomes and higher — so that growing numbers have come to rely on government, not themselves, for growing shares of their income and assets. By this means, government increasingly dictates how Americans live their lives; they are not only wards of the state, but also its subjects, increasingly directed in their behavior by the government’s “compassion.” But dependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society. The process suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice and government dependency into a virtue.
Wieseltier finds it reprehensible that Ryan uses scare quotes around “safety net.” But the reason Ryan uses scare quotes there is not that he scoffs at the idea of a social safety net — any more than he scoffs at “compassion.” Rather, Ryan quite rightly rejects the idea that today’s vast redistributive entitlement programs should be characterized as a “safety net” or “compassion” in the first place. As Ryan notes, such programs create more dependency than they salve. Wieseltier sees evidence of cruelty in that critique, but it’s hardly a novel point, and his own magazine has made it many times over the decades.
Wieseltier finds the roots of Ryan’s cruelty in his lack of intellectualism. That line of criticism, however, is like swinging an ax around at a cocktail party full of Wieseltier’s own friends. Consider this passage:
Ryan’s mind is inadequately aerated. His intellectual universe is a conformist, like-minded universe; he gives no indication of familiarity with, or curiosity about, thoughts and traditions that differ from his own. I am not competent to evaluate numbers, but no budgetary expertise is required to see that his moral and political concepts are crude and sometimes weird.
However true any of that may be of Paul Ryan, it describes Barack Obama far better. Obama’s mind is not even adequately aerated on the one subject he’s supposed to be an expert on, constitutional law. His Harvard law professors must have been horrified when he brought up the Lochner case to explain why the Court should not strike down Obamacare as a regulation of economic activity. Not only does Lochner have nothing to do with federal power, or any other aspect of Obamacare, but the gaffe clearly suggests that Obama never took the time to develop his own opinion on the constitutional issue at the root of Obamacare. He never cared.
As for living in a conformist, like-minded intellectual universe, just compare Obama with Bill Clinton. Clinton parted with long-held tenets of the Left when the argument seemed right, and nearly always had a substantive response for critics on both sides. Obama, by contrast, hasn’t broken with a single tenet of his left-wing ideological base (broken promises don’t count, while his basic answer for critics is “they’re full of you-know-what”). And what moral or political concept could be weirder than to say “everyone should pay their fair share” when what you mean is that the 20 percent of income earners that pay 80 percent of all income taxes should pay an even greater share?
The piece only gets more damaging — for Wieseltier’s friends. He ridicules Ryan for throwing around the terms “individualism” and “collectivism” as if they were relevant to our current politics:
The poor guy was born too late for the intellectual excitements of the cold war, so he insists upon finding them in his own lifetime by apocalyptically transporting the old antinomies onto the contemporary debate about government and entitlement. Yet the analogy between the totalitarian collectivism of the Soviet Union and the role of government in Obamacare is talk-radio stupid.
That is particularly self-refuting coming from a writer at The New Republic. Wieseltier was apparently born too late to know much about Walter Lippmann, but here’s the scoop: Lippmann not only founded The New Republic, but also devoted an entire book (The Good Society, 1937) to comparing Soviet collectivism with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obamacare is at least as socialist as any aspect of the New Deal. So to be consistent, Wieseltier must also think that Walter Lippmann was “talk-radio stupid.”