The Republican Party has evolved over the decades from the party of small, limited government, with little emphasis on religion, to the party that clothes all its theories in religious garb. And there is no better evidence of that evolution than the selection and the ideas of Representative Paul Ryan who, as most readers will surely know, was recently chosen by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney as his running mate.
Small Government and the Economy
Ryan appears to be a very smart and well-read candidate, which is evident in his desire to ground his economic theories in larger theoretical frames. His economic approach is, in fact, relatively straightforward: He embraces the idea that the government needs to spend less in order to deal with the huge weight of America’s debt. Ryan’s views on spending hearken back, in many ways, to President Ronald Reagan’s call for small government and reduced federal budgets. For Reagan, the goal was a balanced budget. For Ryan, it is preventing the country from sinking under crushing debt.
When you are talking about reducing government spending, of course, the devil is in the details. I will leave it to the economists and politicians to pick apart the economic details of the plan that made Ryan famous—or infamous, depending on where you sit on the political spectrum. In this column, I want to focus instead on how Ryan explains the bigger picture when it comes to policy.
Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand
At one point in his career, Ryan enthusiastically invoked atheist Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy, which is most famously delineated in her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, in which she laid out a fierce form of capitalism. Rand also wrote political philosophy, including the essays collected in The Virtue of Selfishness. Her political philosophy is based on an extreme reading of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest, and her novels’ characters are heroes because they dominate and win.
In Rand’s essay entitled “Government Financing in a Free Society,” which I presume Ryan has read, given his past enthusiasm for her work, she advocates a “fully free society” in which taxes are paid “voluntarily.” Government’s legitimate needs, under Rand’s theory, are relatively small: “A program of voluntary government financing would be amply sufficient to pay for the legitimate functions of a proper government. It would not be sufficient to provide unearned support for the entire globe.”
Ryan has not advocated for a “voluntary” tax, as Rand did, for obvious reasons, but this quote does give you the flavor of her Objectivist theory, which rests on a high degree of self-autonomy and libertarianism, and on a type of “selfishness” that justifies not helping the weak, and not supporting the world. It should not be surprising to learn that Ron Paul has flirted with Rand’s work as well.
Apparently, the Catholic bishops found it troubling that Ryan, who is a self-professed strong Catholic, was espousing theories derived from a selfish atheist. After they pointed out to him the error of Rand’s theories, he dropped her, and switched to their theology of “subsidiarity,” which essentially—at least through Ryan’s prism—stands for elevating the virtues of small institutions over those of large, complex institutions. No function should be performed by a larger organization, under this theory. For example, a national government should cede tasks that can be done just as, or more, efficiently by a smaller or local government. According to Ryan’s recent statements, his Catholic faith (as opposed to Rand) helped shape his belief in the virtues of subsidiarity, which undergird his budget proposals.
In Ryan’s words, subsidiarity “is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best.” This is just Reaganite small government theory, as adopted by Ryan: “Having a civil society of 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. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.”
In the end, one might wonder whether Ryan’s big picture matters, when it all boils down to Reaganism and whether he relies on Rand or Catholic social theory, his fiscal policy stays constant. There are several reasons to pay close attention, though.
First, Ryan is a book-reader and smart. Good to know about a potential Vice President, and not always true.
Second, Ryan is persistent in his basic policy approach. All that changed when he transferred his affections from Rand to the Catholic theory of subsidiarity, was how he clothed the theory, not the basic policy that he espoused.
Third, Ryan listens to the Catholic bishops, at least when they ask him to adopt larger-scale theories. But he has been at cross-purposes with them on the details of the budget, with the Catholic bishops actually objecting to parts of his budget plan. So it is apparent that the bishops do not control Ryan, but they certainly have his ear.
More interesting in the political big picture, though, is that Ryan feels the need to clothe his economic principles in religious garb, and that he believes he is well-advised to set forth theological reasons to support economic policies that affect every American, and that could just as simply be explained in secular terms.
Reagan appealed to a larger quadrant of the public, because for him, it was just economics that ought to drive policy. Since then, however, Republicans seem to have lost the ability to appeal to the masses, in part because they are so concerned with identifying themselves and their policies with a religious point of view. In a country of such enormous religious diversity, it seems perverse to push for national economic reform on the basis of a single religion’s theology and political theory. One wonders when the Republicans, and Ryan himself, will figure that one out.