Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Road to Serfdom

“I grew up on Ayn Rand,” Ryan said at a Washington, D.C., gathering seven years ago honoring Rand. “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.”Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12 August 2012
Today Mr. Ryan wants to distance himself from Ayn Rand. In an interview with the über-conservative National Review Online, he said it was an “urban legend” that Ayn Rand was a special obsession of his.

Unfortunately, for Mr. Ryan, his affection for Ayn Rand’s philosophy is well documented. It has been declared in conservative publications promoting Mr. Ryan’s fitness for office. In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society Mr. Ryan stated that Ms. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was required reading for all his office interns and staff. In 2009 Mr. Ryan produced campaign videos in which he emphatically praises the morality of Atlas Shrugged. Videos are still available on YouTube of both events. Randism undergirds his budget proposals. Mr. Ryan’s brother Tobin has stated, “Paul can still quote every verse out of Ayn Rand.”

There are no verse numbers in Ms. Rand’s writings. It is not surprising, however, that cult members refer to them as if they are sacred scripture.

Mr. Ryan was motivated to denounce Randism by recent criticism of his budget proposals by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others who see nothing compatible between the doctrines of Ms. Rand and Jesus Christ. (See blog archive for October 23, 2010, “The Threat.” It begins, “The election of President Barack Obama aroused a truly un-American, anti-democratic, virulently un-Christian ideology in our country.”) Mr. Ryan’s recent elevation to national prominence makes his denials all the more urgent. Conservative publications, in a fit of collective willful amnesia, are busy burnishing Mr. Ryan’s claims to Catholicism. As understandable as these attempts at subterfuge are, we should not be fooled. He is a Randian. The only question is, what is Atlas Shrugged?

The Plume quality paperback Centennial Edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a monster of 1,168 pages of abused English. Ms. Rand’s characters are not believable. They act illogically and speak unnaturally. The situations depicted are inconceivable outside the pages of a very bad book. Nevertheless, this is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, the full statement of her worldview, her diagnosis of what is wrong with the world and prescription for the cure. In what follows it may appear that too much is attributed to characters of what is merely a work of fiction. Ms. Rand intended Atlas Shrugged to be more than a mere work of fiction. The cult that follows her – which includes Mr. Ryan and every Tea Party protester with a “Who is John Galt?” sign – have received Atlas Shrugged as fact, not fiction.

Atlas Shrugged is a dystopia that presents the United States as a collapsing republic surrounded by socialistic “People’s States.” Most commentaries focus on two types of characters Ms. Rand presents.

Foremost are the “men of the mind.” These are the individualists, the creators, the people who live by reason. They are presented to us in various states of egoism. The progress of the novel in part is to follow these individuals as they grow to appreciate the importance of selfishness. Their selfish pursuits create things and uphold the world. They are the Titans. Ms. Rand spares no superlative as she describes these “giants of productive energy” who are “equals” in pursuit of “higher and still higher achievements of their own” (p. 453). These supermen do not owe anyone anything. They are self-made, self-directed, and serve only themselves.

The second type of character is the looters. They are parasites who live off the achievements of the “men of the mind.” Included here are government officials. All government officials, from the bureaucrats to judges, are corrupt, foolish, and incompetent. Civic responsibility in Ms. Rand’s world is just an excuse the looters use to take from the creators. Included among the looters are aesthetes, intellectuals, writers, and family members. Family relationships are the worst. There is not one family relationship that is not dysfunctional. That includes mother-son and husband-wife. All the siblings are rivals.

Rand describes the looters as “…whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort, who do not possess the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect [the producers] to pay their bill” (p. 453). There is more but it does not get any more reasonable.

Between the “men of the mind” and the looters is another category of citizen that populates the America of Ayn Rand that is not noticed by the commentators. These citizens are far from being the equals of the “men of the mind.” However, they have a certain Randian “moral integrity.” They are the “serfs” (p. 11). Because of their intellectual deficiencies the “serfs” can “never invent” anything but they “do their best, work … live by their own effort, and … give a moment’s silent thanks to the [producer] who gave them more than they could give him” (p. 453).

This is the America of Ayn Rand and Randians like Mr. Paul Ryan. It is an America where the superlative “men of the mind” deserve all the honor, glory, and money they can lay their hands on. It is an America where only looters impose taxes or government regulations on producers. It is an America where most people should be content to be serfs.

This is a brief description of a long book. It is fair. It is accurate. The three types of characters are Ms. Rand’s, not mine. Every effort has been made to describe these three types of characters in the very terms that she either did use or would use. If the idea of an America where serfs live in worshipful gratitude to their moneyed overlords is offensive, blame Ms. Rand. It is her book that is faithfully described here. This is her worldview and that of those who follow her.

F. A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. In it Mr. Hayek warned that “… the collectivist idea of empowering government with increasing economic control would lead not to a utopia but to the horrors of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy” (from the dust jacket of The University of Chicago Press Definitive Edition). Mr. Hayek went on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. Despite his rumored admiration for Ayn Rand, I hold Mr. Hayek as a philosopher and economist to be respected.

Nevertheless, he was wrong in The Road to Serfdom. The New Deal and the progressive economic programs that followed, for all their faults, did not lead to fascism in America. Most importantly, he was wrong not to recognize that there is more than one road to serfdom. Government certainly is not the answer to all of society’s ills, and Mr. Hayek’s warning is helpful. However, the unbridled “Capitalism” of Ayn Rand leads us down another path to serfdom every bit as dire.

All commentators regard Mr. Paul Ryan as an intelligent man. He is an intelligent man despite the fact that he fails to recognize that Atlas Shrugged is poorly written rubbish. He is an intelligent man despite the fact that he failed to recognize that the morality of Atlas Shrugged is a complete contradiction of Christian morality. He is an intelligent man despite the fact that he thinks citizens will not recognize his ignorance and duplicity.

The Republican presidential ticket of Willard Mitt Romney and Paul Davis Ryan presents this nation with the temptation to trust that there are indeed moneyed overlords who will create jobs as long as they are not taxed or their enterprises regulated. It is a temptation to go down a road to serfdom.


DrZeile said...

Thank you for the invitation to consider. Your column strikes me as an analog to right-wing attempts to identify the sitting president with the ideas of Saul Alinsky. There is merit in evaluating such ideas but to identify the figure with all the ideas (much less the merits/demerits of their expression) is going too far. I think it fair only to hold the person responsible for those ideas which he himself has articulated from the admired source.

DrZeile said...

Another issue is that of the compatibility of Rand's philosophy with Christianity. I have not read Atlas Shrugged, but I have read The Fountainhead, and recognize many of your criticisms as applicable to the philosophy (and style)of that book. I would regard Rand as somewhat Nietzschean in her outlook, with the producers as the superman, who transcends conventional morality. This does raise the question of where morality- especially in a secular society such as our own- should come from.

Michael James Hill said...

Dr. Zeile. First, as the article indicates my source for Mr. Ryan's appreciation for Ms. Rand is Mr. Ryan himself, beginning with his videos still available on YouTube. I am not going beyond what he said about the morality of Atlas Shrugged. You can look it up yourself. Second, there is a great difference between Ayn Rand and Saul Alinsky. Mr. Alinsky worked with the Roman Catholic church to help poor people. Ms. Rand, on the other hand is an anti-Christ. Mr. Alinsky is an American radical. Ms. Rand is a foreign contagion. Mr. Alinsky could write an English sentence;Ms. Rand could not. This does not mean I subscribe to anything Mr. Alinsky said or did. But he was within the pale.