‘You know you’ve arrived in politics when you have an urban legend about you, and this one is mine,” chuckles Representative Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, as we discuss his purported obsession with author and philosopher Ayn Rand.
Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, recently called Ryan “an Ayn Rand devotee” who wants to “slash benefits for the poor.” New York magazine once alleged that Ryan “requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s gospel of capitalism. President Obama has blasted the Ryan budget as Republican “social Darwinism.”
These Rand-related slams, Ryan says, are inaccurate and part of an effort on the left to paint him as a cold-hearted Objectivist. Ryan’s actual philosophy, as reported by my colleague, Brian Bolduc, couldn’t be further from the caricature. As a practicing Roman Catholic, Ryan says, his faith and moral values shape his politics as much as his belief in freedom and capitalism does.
“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.
Ryan enjoys bantering about dusty novels, but it’s not really his bailiwick. Philosophy, he tells me, is critical, but politics is about more than armchair musing. “This gets to the Jack Kemp in me, for the lack of a better phrase,” he says — crafting public policy from broad ideas. “How do you produce prosperity and upward mobility?” he asks. “How do you attack the root causes of poverty instead of simply treating its symptoms? And how do you avoid a crisis that is going to hurt the vulnerable the most — a debt crisis — from ever happening?”
Ryan will try to answer these questions on Thursday in a lecture at Georgetown University. Over 90 faculty members at the university criticized his views on Catholic social teaching in a letter published days before his visit to the campus in northwest Washington, D.C.
Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown, told the Huffington Post that Ryan’s views do not reflect the tenets of their shared faith. “I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”
Ryan quarrels with Reese’s assessment of his philosophy and political agenda, but he doesn’t mind the debate, and looks forward to detailing how the House budget he authored will lift poor and middle-income Americans. “Liberals have accused me of not being a good Catholic,” he says. “It’s important to try and elevate the tone of this dialogue to a more civil tone — discussing how we exercise prudential judgment as lay people in the Catholic Church in public life. I’m delighted to have the conversation.”
Ryan cites Light of the World, a book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI, as an example of how the Catholic Church takes the global debt problem seriously. “We are living at the expense of future generations,” the pope says. “In this respect, it is plain that we are living in untruth.” Ryan takes those words seriously. “The pope was really clear,” he says.
Ryan’s budget, which was passed by the House earlier this year, cuts spending and reduces taxes. It also reforms Medicare and Medicaid, he says, in order to keep them solvent for future generations. But to Ryan, his plan is more than a fiscal document, meant to tinker with the bloated federal bureaucracy: It is part of a push to return money and federal power, as well as certain services where feasible, to the people.
Ryan mentions the Catholic principle of subsidiarity as an influence on his thinking. He believes that the best government is a government closest to the people. He is a strong believer in the power of civil society, not the federal government, to solve problems. Community leaders and churches, he says, can often do more for the poor than a federal bureaucrat who scribbles their names on a check, sustaining dependency.
Ryan’s goal, with his budget and future projects, will be to “combine the virtues and principles of solidarity,” which stresses the benefits of the common good, with subsidiarity. The debt crisis, he says, demands an effective solution, but that doesn’t directly correlate with enlarging the federal government or raising taxes. He doesn’t want to cede that argument to liberals, especially those within his own faith community. “To me, those two principles are interconnected,” he says. “I think a lot of folks have been selective in advocating some parts of the teaching.”
“This is about more than numbers,” Ryan says. “It’s about what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be. It’s about perfecting the American idea — a land of opportunity and upward mobility. That idea is at risk of being severed for the next generation if we get it wrong. We’re at a very precarious moment in our nation’s history. We need to see it for what it is, and it’s important to reapply those core founding principles which are so consistent with Church teachings, to get back to an opportunity society with a safety net.”
As our conversation closes, I remind Ryan that last summer, in June 2011, he told me that he wanted to play a “Kemp-like role” in this presidential campaign. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who has been touted as a vice-presidential contender, isn’t interested in playing pundit and speculating on his chances; but he says nothing has changed since that earlier comment. Kemp, he says, was a congressional voice who connected conservatism to the empowerment of the poor. He wants to do the same.
“The way Jack always said it is, you can’t help America’s poor by making America poor,” Ryan says. “The president’s policies are failing the poor. We have more of them than ever before. [Liberals] are walking us toward a debt crisis which will hurt everybody in society. We know this and see it and have a moral obligation to prevent it.”
“It’s important for conservatives to never cede the moral high ground,” he says. “We shouldn’t and we don’t have to. We have just as equal a claim.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.