Paul Ryan: The Conflict Between Philosophy and Religion

House Speaker Paul Ryan announcing he is not seeking reelection to the House of Representatives

House Speaker Paul Ryan always was overrated as a deep thinker, earning a reputation as a policy wonk because he showed up at budget briefings with rolled-up sleeves, charts, and PowerPoints. His budgets were based on faulty assumptions and his math was squishy. But, Ryan can count to 218 (the magic number for a party to control the House of Representatives), and Ryan knows he likely would be the leader of a fractious minority even more conservative than the current Republican caucus since moderate Republicans either have retired in great numbers or face probable defeat in November. With extreme right-wing Republicans in control of a slimmed down minority conference, Ryan’s tenure as speaker might have been tenuous at best.

Ryan’s conservative thought is not only shallow, it is also conflicted. To understand Ryan, it is necessary to understand that the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand wars with the dogmas of the Catholic Church for control of Ryan’s soul. Much of the Wisconsinite’s thinking on budgets and deficits (jettisoned in the recent Republican tax giveaway to the rich) derives from his youthful dalliance with “Objectivism,” which for Rand was laissez-faire capitalism on steroids. According to Rand, an individual’s “pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.” The youthful Ryan gave copies of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s 1,200 page magnum opus, as Christmas presents to his staffers.

Ayn Rand

Ryan remains smitten by Rand’s philosophy. “The fight we are in here,” he once told a group of Rand devotees, “is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Rand’s world-view has led Ryan to favor tax cuts for the wealthy while slashing entitlement programs that aid the rest of society. But, while he continues to adhere to Rand’s extreme individualism, Ryan’s Catholicism has forced him to temper his enthusiasm for her philosophy. Her atheism — she described religion as “blind belief” — and criticism by the Catholic hierarchy — American bishops attacked one of his proposed budgets for “disproportionate cuts in essential services to the poor” — have led Ryan to argue that he has replaced Rand’s Objectivism with the Catholic principle of subsidarity, which holds that issues should be decided at the most local level possible, a convenient rationale to ignore the teachings of papal encyclicals and criticism from the bishops. 

The conflict between Rand and Catholicism has influenced Ryan’s response to the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump. On the one hand, Ryan the Catholic has no doubt found Trump’s behavior despicable. When the “Access Hollywood” recording leaked late in the presidential campaign, Ryan declared himself “sickened” by Trump’s vile comments about women, and the speaker canceled a joint campaign appearance. Yet, Ryan since has cozied up to Trump and has ignored the president’s desperate attempts to avoid being held accountable for his actions. Just last month, when asked about reports that the president’s lawyer paid a porn actress for silence about her alleged affair with Trump, Ryan said, “I haven’t put a second of thought into this. It’s just not on my radar screen.”

Ryan may view Trump as the apotheosis of Rand’s rugged individual pursuing his own “self-interest.” Ryan may be excusing Trump’s egregious behavior because he believes the president is a latter-day Howard Roark, the hero of Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. Rand idealizes Roark as an architect — many identify Roark with Frank Lloyd Wright — who refuses to compromise with an architectural establishment averse to innovation. Rand said The Fountainhead embodied the concept of “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but within a man’s soul.” Trump’s contempt for established norms of behavior may, for Ryan, suggest a kind of Randian example of individualism.

Ryan spent his career in politics determined to enact legislation reflecting Rand’s Objectivism. Ryan blamed the Republican rout in 2008 not on the recession but on what he believed was President George W. Bush’s excessive indulgence in big government and the Republican Party’s refusal to dismantle the welfare state. Ryan’s initial budgets — the first one came out in 2008 — called for the privatization of entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The budget proposal favored eliminating the corporate income tax and all taxes on investments. 

President Trump signing the 2017 tax cuts into law

The point was clear: Ryan wanted to drastically reduce taxes on the wealthy and pay for it by gutting popular programs that support senior citizens and the poor. Ryan’s laissez-faire vision — his nod to Ayn Rand — became gospel in the Republican Party, but not much of Ryan’s budgets ever made it into law. The sole exception was the 2017 tax cuts that President Trump signed into law. In all other respects, Ryan’s tenure as speaker has been a failure. No progress was ever made on privatizing entitlements, and the Affordable Care Act has not been repealed. More significantly, Ryan’s reputation as a deficit hawk has been exposed as a sham, though Ryan no doubt hoped that the ballooning deficits caused by the 2017 tax cut would force Congress to slash entitlements. That is not likely, leaving only the exploding deficits as Ryan’s legacy as a policy wonk.

So, Ryan leaves rather than face a difficult reelection fight and possible ouster as speaker. He never wanted the job, but it would be an embarrassment to be voted out after a likely electoral debacle in November. Ryan also knows that a Democratic House will hold numerous investigations into all facets of possible Trumpian wrongdoing and may even begin impeachment proceedings. 

Ryan helped deliver the Republican establishment to Trump, probably believing that Trump would fulfill the extreme laissez-faire ideology Ryan learned from Ayn Rand.  But, the tragedy of Paul Ryan is that Trump — who now embodies the Republican Party — has destroyed the free-market, limited government conservatism the speaker once championed. Instead, Ryan leaves Washington in the hands of a protectionist president who leads a government that will soon be running trillion-dollar deficits.

Ayn Rand would not be pleased. Nor will the Catholic Church.

Posted April 13, 2018

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