Right now Paul Ryan spends his time out on the campaign trail together with Mitt Romney in pursuit of the presidency, but his nomination came at the expense of having to disavow his all-time favourite author and philosopher. It was just seven years ago he was an unknown Congressional Representative from small town Wisconsin. While attending a Washington D.C gathering organized by the ‘Atlas Society’ he once said “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“.
In early 20th century St. Petersburg, young Alisa Rosenbaum (Rand’s birth name) acquired an early passion for writing fiction and watching movies. Just twelve when the Bolshevik Revolution hit the country, her father’s pharmacy business was seized by revolutionaries and she proceeded to witness the transformation of Russia into a communist state. After graduating in philosophy and history she went to visit relatives in America. But in what Soviet authorities thought was a brief stint, she opted to permanently settle and never return.
Her adoration for writing continued to grow in her new country and after a couple of years Rand managed to get her first big break with The Fountainhead, a novel with an underlying theme of individualism featuring the idealist Howard Roark. Though initially rejected by twelve publishers, it was at last published in 1943 and went on to become a best-seller. She followed this success with the even more popular novel Atlas Shrugged which would become the crown jewel of her philosophical tenets of ‘objectivism’. Set in a dystopian United States where an increasingly powerful government clashes against more enlightened members of society, the novel is often remembered for its 64-page long radio address by protagonist John Galt, reprimanding the fall of civilization.
Objectivism asserts that people can be divided into two groups: beneficial ‘producers’ who are free-thinking creators that contribute to society or ‘parasites’ who only rely on others. Virtues that are normally taken for granted like feeling responsibility for others’ wellbeing or giving to charity are challenged because relying on others means one’s life isn’t one’s own. In essence, Objectivists lay out a case defending their uncompromising individualism by claiming everyone’s responsibility is to only live for themselves. In politics, government is regarded the greatest leash of all: issues like a mandated minimum wage, corporate regulation and social services are all things which hold people back by preventing them from realising their potential.
Ayn Rand passed away in the early 80s, but today “Ayn Rand” is a multimillion dollar brand and a world-wide franchise of its own. Atlas Shrugged has continued to sell steadily, so much in fact that sales in 2011 were the second-best in over 55 years. After twenty years of failing to convince Hollywood studios to film Atlas Shrugged, Rand-fans decided to self-finance a two-part big budget adaptation with the final installment arriving in theatres right before to the election. Objectivists are also given the opportunity to meet and date other like-minded ‘producers’ through dating sites like theatlasphere.com. In Washington D.C. there are multiple think tanks dedicated solely to advancing the causes and ideas of Rand’s philosophy, such as the ‘Ayn Rand Institute‘ and the ‘Atlas Society‘, the latter holding annual ‘Atlas Summits‘ with workshops and speakers, including Congressman Paul Ryan.
Ryan was such a devout follower of Rand‘s writing that according to his brother “[Paul is] able to quote every verse out of Ayn Rand”. Ryan also urged his Capitol Hill staff to read Rand’s literature and regularly gave away copies at birthdays and at Christmas. Ryan holds the position of chair of the House Budget Committee making him one of the most powerful members of Congress. Earlier this year he personally played a very public role in presenting the Republican counter-budget to the White House, the ‘Ryan budget‘, launching his image as a youthful (and physically fit) intellectual representative of his party. Well-known for his iron-fisted approach against President Barack Obama’s economic policies, it came as little surprise when Mitt Romney personally chose him to be his budding partner for the White House.
As a result of accepting the vice Presidential nomination Ryan’s dedication to Ayn Rand became a controversial issue. Even if Rand‘s objectivism meshes generally well with Republican ideas about the scope of government, there are certain aspects that do not. So despite Ryan’s life-long fandom, he was forced to backpeddle on some of his earlier ‘Objectivist’ comments calling for the abolishment of the Social Security pension system. Ayn Rand was also an ardent atheist who lambasted religion as blind belief lacking basis in reality and claimed access to abortion to be a moral right, both uneasy topics among the religious and traditionally conservative voting base of the Republican party. Ryan was again forced to make a public statement of rejection, calling Objectivism “…an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.” However some critics, such as Paul Krugman, remain skeptical of whether or not Ryan truly has or can reverse on his adherence to Rand, arguing his budget proposal was essentially an act of Objectivist economic principles because of, for example, its hard push on reversing programs aiding the needy.
Rand’s influence in American politics is undeniable and she could be considered one of the most important thinkers in the post-war era of United States politics. If Mitt Romney wins, Vice President Paul Ryan will likely play a large part in setting the agenda for future economic policy. But while at the cusp of ascending to one of the most prominent political positions in the country, Ryan has also found himself embroiled in controversy regarding the very person that inspired his call to public service. Even if Ryan does not succeed in securing the vice presidency, there are plenty enough followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to keep her principles alive in American politics for quite some time.
NIKLAS HJELM SMITH