In fairness to Wieseltier, the piece is not really about Paul Ryan at all. It’s more about the radically individualistic character of John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, whom Wieseltier uses to fill in the blanks about Ryan. But, as in so many Maureen Dowd columns, subject and metaphor become transubstantiated, and the author ends up writing a piece of pure fiction.
“The ideal of self-reliance in America,” he writes, “has always been attended by a corollary of indifference to others, of nastiness.” That may well be the view among American liberals, but I once met a French graduate student who was researching why rich people give so much more to charity in America than in Europe. Go figure.
Anyway, conservatives very much believe in the social safety net. That is no mere “pander,” it is a matter of philosophy, indeed of faith and responsibility. But conservatives rightly insist that the safety net should be tailored to the most needy; that it should avoid unintended social consequences; and that family and charity are better sources of succor from both the giver’s and the beneficiary’s point of view. Charity works because those who take it feel an obligation to pay it back in some way, at least by improving themselves. But the whole concept of an entitlement is that you’re entitled to it, because of your circumstances — regardless of how you got there. That is far more enfeebling and dehumanizing than charity, a topic that deserves more attention than it has received.
“The problem for Ryan’s steely vision,” Wieseltier tells us, “is that many people do need help, and they are usually not responsible for the circumstances that have driven them to seek help. They suffer through no fault of their own. Sometimes they suffer through the fault of people who have more money and more power than they do.”
I wholeheartedly agree with this assertion. It’s true even in the case of children born to unwed mothers in low-income neighborhoods who wind up failing at school and leading a life of drug abuse and violent crime. In Detroit, 80 percent of children are born to deeply uneducated unwed mothers. Among the 15 percent or so of the population that is below the poverty line, the typical household consists of an unemployed single mother and her children. As a widespread family unit, that demographic didn’t even exist before the 1960s. Now millions of children are born into it every year, condemned to a life of poverty — by the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs.
You decide whether it is critics or supporters of these devastating welfare programs who are the more heartless. But before you point the finger at Ryan, recall that it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who lamented that welfare subsidies were destroying low-income families by eliminating the need for a father and eliminating the need for any adult actually to work. In fact, this 1977 article by Moynihan is as damning an indictment of the welfare state as anything you’ll hear from Paul Ryan. It appeared in The New Republic.
Wieseltier doesn’t mention that Ryan has lived virtually his whole life in Janesville, Wis. I know the place; it’s just southeast of Madison, where I went to college. It’s a peaceful and lovely town, the sort of place where the same families live nearby for generations; where neighbors take care of each other; where self-reliance is a family and community virtue.
That sense of family and community, which is so essential to Wisconsin and to the real Paul Ryan, seems totally lost on Wieseltier. There’s plenty of Ayn Rand in this overwrought hit piece. What’s missing is Paul Ryan himself.
— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.