House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has made no secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand in the past. As far back as 2009, in this article, Ryan was letting his geek flag fly:
To that task, Ryan brings an admittedly geeky head for numbers and detail. He also brings a deep philosophical attachment to market capitalism and “supply-side” economics – a world view shaped by such icons of individualism and free enterprise as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago honoring the author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”
This led the likes of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to describe Ryan as ”a garden-variety modern G.O.P. extremist, an Ayn Rand devotee who believes that the answer to all problems is to cut taxes on the rich and slash benefits for the poor and middle class.”
There’s just one problem with this whole “Paul Ryan as Ayn Rand cultist” narrative. And that is that there‘s a big difference between being a casual admirer of Rand’s individualist vision, or her views on free markets, and embracing her Objectivist philosophy wholesale. Liberals like Krugman tend to conflate one with the other, usually because pure, unleaded objectivism has a number ofpolitically toxic tenets. It’s a bad faith argument, but it‘s one that Ryan hasn’t taken the time to shoot down.
Until now. From the Huffington Post:
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told National Review on Thursday. “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. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
Note the wording there. “If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas.” Here is a list of things Ryan is not saying:
1. He thinks Ayn Rand is wrong about economics.
2. He thinks Ayn Rand is wrong about politics.
3. He thinks Ayn Rand is wrong about ethics.
4. He thinks Ayn Rand is right about religion.
He is simply saying he rejects Rand’s epistemological claims, which is a very specific subset of philosophy. And indeed, many people (including and especially Roman Catholics like Paul Ryan) would reject that part of her philosophy in favor of Aquinas.
Unfortunately, the Left didn’t quite get that little bit of nuance. In fact, in the same Huffington Post article linked above, the author spends multiple paragraphs rehearsing all the times Ryan has said he admires Rand (typically on political/economic grounds), as though this somehow contradicts his stated position above (the first few passages of this are below):
But any urban legend about Ryan’s affinity for Rand surely started with Ryan himself, who, prior to this week, had no qualms about gushing about Rand’s influence on his guiding principles.
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said during a 2005 event honoring Rand in Washington, D.C., the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April 2009.
During the 2005 gathering, Ryan told the audience, “Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict — individualism versus collectivism.” The event was hosted by The Atlas Society, which prominently features a photo of Rand on its websiteand describes itself as a group that “promotes open Objectivism: the philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.”
Ryan also said during a 2003 interview with the Weekly Standard, “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well … I try to make my interns read it.” He noted that he “looked into” Rand’s work when he was younger, but reiterated that he is a Christian and reads the Bible often.
Note that none of those cited Ryan quotes mentions anything about agreeing with Rand on religion – in fact, Ryan explicitly says he is a Christian and reads the Bible often. This is perfectly consistent with admiring Rand for her political and economic views, but not agreeing with her entire philosophy. However, based on the reaction from HuffPo, apparently this wasn’t clear enough, so Ryan’s spokesperson had to explain it further:
Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert downplayed the lawmaker’s apparent change of tune on Rand.
“I wouldn’t make too much of this one way or another. Congressman Ryan was not ‘distancing himself’ from Rand, merely correcting several false storylines that are out there, such as the myth that he requires all of his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged. Saying he ‘rejects Ayn Rand’s philosophy’ was simply meant to correct a popular falsehood that Congressman Ryan is an Objectivist — he isn’t now and never claimed to be,” Seifert said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Of course, this is not a “change of tune,” based on Ryan’s paper trail regarding Rand. Indeed, he has never claimed to agree with her on religion, or on epistemology. What’s so complicated about this is not clear, but hopefully it’s been explained properly now.