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.”
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.