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Updated August 20, 2012, 4:41 p.m. ET
Randier Than Thou
The left's weirdest attack on Paul Ryan.
By JAMES TARANTO
President Obama plans "an audacious effort to paint former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the majority GOP as radical libertarians that have abandoned mainstream American politics," the Daily Caller reported back in June. Although the president himself didn't use the L-word, he did accuse Republicans of having "gone from a preference for market-based solutions to an absolutism . . . a belief that all regulations are bad; that government has no role to play."
Obama singled out Romney's future running mate for criticism: "If you look at Paul Ryan's budget or you look at Governor Romney's proposals, what they're talking about is something that is fundamentally different from our experience."
It's possible that the president intended his Friday the 13th speech--"you didn't build that"--to be a part of this effort. Perhaps he meant merely to imply that his opponents were crazy enough to deny that man is a social animal or that some degree of government is necessary. If so, he failed. Instead of a straw man, the president set up a reductio ad absurdum. It was he who came across as a radical, a collectivist who contemns individual achievement or denies it altogether.
Nonetheless, Obama's caricature of Republicans is widely accepted on the left, and it accounts for much of the joy the president's supporters expressed in the immediate aftermath of Romney's announcement that Ryan would be his running mate.
Ryan's "introduction to the American people . . . will involve explaining who Ayn Rand is," wrote Newsweek's Michael Tomasky, who called the Ryan pick "stunning" and "terrible." New York magazine's John Heilemann reported that he had spoken with Obama aide David Axelrod the day before the announcement, and "I couldn't help but detect a gleeful flicker in his eyes when we talked about the fervor on the right for the congressman from Wisconsin." The New Republic's Noam Scheiber theorized that Romney had resigned himself to losing the election and chosen Ryan merely "to shift blame for the loss onto the party's conservative wing."
Scheiber's hypothesis would be strange under any circumstances but is utterly bizarre given the closeness of this year's polls. Still, it's understandable that those who buy into the "radical libertarian" caricature would see the Ryan selection as an opportunity. As The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza noted in a profile published two weeks before the Romney announcement, Ryan "claims to have been profoundly affected by Ayn Rand":
After reading "Atlas Shrugged," he told me, "I said, 'Wow, I've got to check out this economics thing.' What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government." He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.
In a 2005 speech to a group of Rand devotees called the Atlas Society, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. "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," he told the group. "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."
Ryan's acknowledgment of intellectual debt to Rand would seem to make him an easy target for the "radical libertarian" caricature. Rand's philosophy, known as Objectivism, fits the description, although she herself scorned "the 'libertarian' hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism."
Ayn Rand in 1962
To be sure, Ryan is no Objectivist. Lizza notes that "to me he was careful to point out that he rejects Rand's atheism." Writing at the Daily Caller, Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, argues that "even on economic issues," the differences between Rand and Ryan are "stark." Whereas Rand "saw entitlements as a violation of individual rights on a massive scale" and "held that the whole entitlement state should be phased out and ultimately abolished," Ryan's goal "is not to end the entitlement state but to save it. . . . Although Ryan regularly invokes individual rights, he does not stand by them consistently."
Such nuances notwithstanding, it would be unrealistic to expect Ryan's political opponents to forgo the "radical libertarian" line of attack. Yet in one of the weirdest developments of the campaign so far, some of them are doing just that. At least two leftist publications have published articles criticizing Ryan for not being enough of a Randian.
The first is the New York Times. According to an op-ed by Stanford historian Jennifer Burns, author of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right," Rand "would have denounced Mr. Ryan as she denounced Ronald Reagan, for trying 'to take us back to the Middle Ages, via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics' ":
Mr. Ryan's selection as Mr. Romney's running mate is the kind of stinging rebuke of the welfare state that Rand hoped to see during her lifetime. But Mr. Ryan is also what she called "a conservative in the worst sense of the word." As a woman in a man's world, a Jewish atheist in a country dominated by Christianity and a refugee from a totalitarian state, Rand knew it was not enough to promote individual freedom in the economic realm alone. If Mr. Ryan becomes the next vice president, it wouldn't be her dream come true, but her nightmare.
The Nation's Ben Adler complains that "Ryan does not share any of Rand's commitments to freedom, other than the freedom to be selfish." He offers a bulleted list of issues on which Ryan purportedly disagrees with Rand, but his source, the ACLU, is far from Objectivist.
On only one of these topics, abortion, does Ryan clearly disagree with Rand. She defended the practice with characteristic bluntness, as quoted in the Ayn Rand Lexicon: "A piece of protoplasm has no rights--and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable."
Adler's other three issues are immigration, gay rights and voting rights. "Libertarians believe in open borders, but Paul Ryan doesn't," Adler asserts. Well, some libertarians believe in open borders. Ron Paul, for one, does not. What about Rand? She did not express a view on the subject, at least as far as we can tell from searching the lexicon. Its editor, Harry Binswanger, published an essay in 2010 endorsing open immigration, but his two supporting quotes from Rand are highly abstract and do not specifically address immigration.
Rand does not seem to have given much thought to the question of homosexuality, much less same-sex marriage and gays in the military, the specific questions on which Adler posits a Rand-Ryan conflict. That's hardly surprising. She died in 1982, years before almost anyone had thought about these matters.
Adler's lamest suggestion is that Rand would have disagreed with Ryan's support for voter ID requirements. The lexicon entry for "Voting" shows Rand's concerns to have been entirely substantive. She wrote in the 1970s: "The right to vote is a consequence, not a primary cause, of a free social system--and its value depends on the constitutional structure implementing and strictly delimiting the voters' power; unlimited majority rule is an instance of the principle of tyranny."
However tendentious Adler's arguments, it's astonishing that the left is attacking Ryan for being insufficiently Randian. It's as if conservatives were criticizing Obama for failing to live up to the ideals of Karl Marx or Jeremiah Wright. What accounts for this turnabout?
In an editorial savoring "the irony of the New York Times complaining that Paul Ryan is an unworthy disciple of Ayn Rand," the New York Sun quotes a 1997 article by the Times's David Brooks: "Many people remember their youthful passion for Ayn Rand the way they remember teen-age make-out parties. It seemed daring at the time, but now the memory of it just makes you feel queasy."
Few Americans, and no political officeholders that we know of, describe themselves as Objectivists. But Ryan is not at all unusual in having read Rand as a young man, been influenced by her, yet rejected some of her ideas. Her individualism might have been too extreme for most Americans, or at least most Americans over 30.
But even some on the left seem to be realizing that individualism, not collectivism, is at the heart of the American creed. In the final weeks of the campaign, it will be interesting to see whether that dawns on Barack Obama.