The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman thinks Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) “isn’t especially interesting” — so much so that he wrote a whole column about him last weekend. In it, Krugman dubbed the congressman “an Ayn Rand devotee,” an oft-employed epithet among Ryan’s detractors.
In December 2010, Jonathan Chait, writing for The New Republic, decried Ryan’s “deep affinity for Ayn Rand” and, later — in case you missed it — “his deep devotion to the philosophy of Rand” (emphasis added). In a clumsy attempt to establish guilt by association, Chait added that, given Ryan’s attachment to Rand, “it’s worth noting . . . that Rand is a twisted, hateful thinker.”
The congressman “requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s gospel of wealth, New York magazine’s Christopher Beam reported that same month. Ryan also called Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”
The left-wing American Values Network even imputed a Rand-like atheism to Ryan in an attack ad last year. After playing clips of Rand spouting, “I am against God” and “I don’t approve of religion,” the ad shows a video of Ryan saying, “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.”
None of these revelations, however, prove that Ryan is a Randian.
First, Ryan is a practicing Catholic. Yes, he has cited Rand’s influence on his thinking, but he has also cited the Church’s. In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Ryan explained how the Catholic teaching on subsidiarity informed his approach to public policy:
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society [on] the principle of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good.
Left-wing Catholics may dispute Ryan’s interpretation of the Church’s teaching or emphasize other aspects of it, but there’s no biblical commandment for Ryan to agree with them. Theirs is an honest disagreement.
Second, Ryan doesn’t require staffers to read Atlas Shrugged. Aides past and present have denied Beam’s claim. But he does read the Read and Learn Bible with his children — not exactly book-of-the-month material among Randians. (This fact also mitigates the shock that he didn’t accept a Bible from a heckler in 2011.)
Third, Ryan is no bigger a fan of Rand’s than he is of just about any major defender of free markets. He did call Rand the “reason I got involved in public service,” but in a specific context. Speaking at a dinner hosted by the Atlas Society in 2005, Ryan was praising one aspect of Rand’s work, not swallowing her philosophy whole. “Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill,” he said, “ . . . is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict — individualism versus collectivism.” He applied this principle to the then-hot topic of Social Security: “If we actually accomplish this goal of personalizing Social Security, think of what we will accomplish. Every worker, every laborer in America will not only be a laborer but a capitalist. They will be an owner of society.”
It’s worth noting that Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Craig Gilbert, who reported Ryan’s remarks, didn’t attribute the same significance to this line that Ryan’s critics did. Rather, he used it as evidence for a broader point: that Ryan had “a world view shaped by such icons of individualism and free enterprise as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek.”
In various interviews, Ryan has identified other intellectual influences, such as his old economics professor Richard Hart, Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley, and Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. In other words, Ryan believes in free-market economics (no surprise there), and he finds all these thinkers’ defenses of capitalism compelling. What’s the big deal?
Finally, Ryan’s critics make a huge leap in logic. It’s almost as stark as the one that equates selflessness with an eagerness to spend other people’s money. Just because he agrees with Rand on economics doesn’t mean he agrees with her on theology. Rand herself may have considered these two issues inextricable, but Ryan and her millions of other readers aren’t obligated to do so. You’re allowed a little more interpretive freedom when reading a mass-market novel like Atlas Shrugged than a party platform like The Communist Manifesto.
As a philosopher, Rand certainly had her flaws. But the implication that Ryan is a card-carrying member of the Ayn Rand Society is, as the old lady would say, irrational.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.