Paul Ryan, “Second-Hander”

So we learn this week from an interview with National Review‘s Robert Costa that Paul Ryan laughs off his identification as a big fan of Ayn Rand as an “urban legend,” based on little more than his youthful enjoyment of (and later, philosophical “bantering” about) her “dusty novels.” No, he sternly asserts, he rejects Rand’s “atheist philosophy;” give him St. Thomas Aquinas any old day!

Costa does not report that Ryan specifically denies the actual foundation for the “urban legend” associating him conspicuously with Rand: his remark in 2005, when he was hardly a callow teenager, that Rand inspired his entire career in public service, or his habit of giving copies of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s militant magnum opus, to his congressional interns in 2003.

Now is this just a tempest in a teapot? Am I, as Ross Douthat complained of Jonathan Chait, blowing this taste for a controversial novelist and thinker way out of proportion?

I don’t think so. The thing about Ayn Rand, as anyone who has actually read her works can attest, is that she offered readers an all-or-nothing proposition. She didn’t entertain, she instructed. This was most evident in Atlas Shrugged, whose centerpiece was an endless didactic “radio broadcast” by her hero John Galt, identifying all human misery with the “mysticism of the mind” (supernatural religion) and the “mysticism of the muscle” (socialism, or more accurately, the rejection of strict laissez-faire capitalism), and with the ethics of altruism both reflected.

After penning Atlas Shrugged, Rand spent most of the rest of her life making sure everyone understood that her philosophy was a comprehensive system that rose or fell as a whole. As Whittaker Chambers said in a famous review of the novel that appeared in–you guessed it!–National Review:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal….Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

One of Rand’s favorite epithets was aimed at people who picked and chose from philosophical systems like hers: “second-handers,” people with no originality or capacity for deep thinking, or, for that matter, ethics. I honestly don’t know how anyone could read her and tout her as a major influence or encourage impressionable young minds to consume her works without understanding how frequently and passionately she argued that her words were not for the religious believer or for anyone who professes to care about the poor, as Ryan claims piously to care. As I observed in an article for Democracy a couple of years ago aimed precisely at the sort of casual Randism that Ryan exemplifies:

Rand’s famous intolerance should not be dismissed as simply the psychological aberration of a flawed genius. She feared, for good reason, what lesser minds might do with the intellectual dynamite of her work when divorced from its philosophical context. The prophetess of “the virtue of selfishness” made rigorous demands of herself and all her followers to live self-consciously “heroic” lives under a virtual tyranny of reason and self-mastery, and to reject every imaginable natural and supernatural limitation on personal responsibility for every action and its consequences. Take all that away-take everything away that Rand actually cared about-and her fictional work represents little more than soft porn for middle-brow reactionaries who seek to rationalize their resentment of the great unwashed.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Paul Ryan is a secret “Objectivist” who keeps gold dollar sign pins in his underwear drawer. More likely, though, he doesn’t understand Ayn Rand any better than he seems to understand Catholic social teachings. In either event, his reputation as a deep thinker whose brilliance and good will demand respect from everyone across the political spectrum strikes me as entirely undeserved.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.