BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a political season that has featured the predictable parade of gaffs, game changers and polls, there’s been an interesting twist this week, when the media decided that the juiciest line of inquiry about the GOP’s newly minted vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was how deep his allegiance was to the late and, to some, lamented Objectivist political philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand and her advocacy of ethical egoism, also known as egoism.
MAN: He requires his staff to read Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” –
- and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL [?]: …ultra-capitalist Ann… Ayn Rand, of whom he has spoken glowingly…
BRIT HUME: What is your view of Ayn Rand? How, how – are you an Ayn Rand disciple? How –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New York Times Op-Ed Board recently featured a nearly 1,000-word essay written by a Stanford history professor about how Ayn Rand wouldn’t have approved of Ryan. Not to be outdone, MSNBC found footage that they say proves that even Johnny Carson didn’t approve of Ayn Rand.
[“TONIGHT SHOW” CLIP]:
JOHNNY CARSON: You do not believe in – I, I assume that you do not believe in the existence of a supreme being or God or a creator or whatever?
AYN RAND: No, I do not.
Beneath this fixation about Ryan’s Ayn Rand fandom is the notion that “Atlas Shrugged” might be the ur-text that reveals Ryan’s hidden more extreme ideology.
Later in the show we’ll explore America’s enduring fascination with Rand, but first we asked Slate political reporter Dave Weigel for some background on Ryan’s relationship to Rand.
DAVE WEIGEL: Paul Ryan got to D.C. pretty much directly from college and worked his way up in the kind of conservative Republican infrastructure, which was quite strong. It took over Congress in 1994. He got to Congress only four years later. And so, Ryan gave this speech to the Atlas Society, the kind of Randian Objectivist group that’s very involved in politics, gave a speech to them in 2005 and gave examples of Rand’s work, Rand’s characters influencing decisions he made.
PAUL RYAN: I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. And 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.
DAVE WEIGEL: And then a couple of years later he, he recorded a tape – this is during the Obama years, 2009 – making an observation that was pretty popular at that time, which was that it seemed like we were living through “Atlas Shrugged.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s supposed to suggest that he sees the world through John Galtian eyes. What does the world look like through that lens?
DAVE WEIGEL: He’s saying that I understand government, whenever it tries to act, whenever it tries to redistribute wealth, it always loots, it gives from, to use Rand’s phrases, from “makers to takers,” and it’s morally debasing, it’s spiritually debasing. It doesn’t work, it brings an economy down. If you saying something like Ryan has said, “It feels like we’re living through ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” that’s what you mean.
We saw in that novel that when you try to redistribute wealth everyone ends up poor. I mean, you hear a lot of Republicans quote Lincoln or quote Reagan to make this point, but going to Rand you’re saying, it’s – in a much more apocalyptic way, government destroys society when it intervenes this way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did he begin to put some – space between him and Rand?
DAVE WEIGEL: It… really starting in 2009, 2010, when his profile was rising, even when he talked to Randians, made it clear that he was a Christian and she is an atheist, for reasons that are actually quite important to this. In 2011 they gave an interview to National Review and just said adamantly, I look to Thomas Aquinas, not to Rand. It wasn’t an Apostle Peter type deal where he denied her and all her works. He didn’t recant anything. It was just he said, no, I look to Christian thinkers.
This became important because later people would show up at events he went to and brandish Bibles, trying to warn the world that he had read this atheist Objectivist libertarian writer and that it was being a huge problem. That’s around the time when he started to distance himself from this.
I should say I’ve not really met any conservative who has said they have a problem with him because he’s read Rand. I mean, a lot of them have, and there’s no evidence that he is an atheist himself at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you look at Ryan’s budget plan, does that look like something that could have been written by a fan of “Atlas Shrugged?”
DAVE WEIGEL: Well, it collapses tax rates into two very flat tax rates. It cuts corporate taxes. It cuts capital gains taxes. The reason it does all that is based on a lot of economic ideas. But I think it’s easy to understand them if you understand what Rand thought the real damage of government could be.
But, you… you could point to that and point to Hayek, you could point to von Mises, you can point to more modern libertarian thinkers. You could point to, you know, like the work of Charles Murray on welfare. But Rand, as a thinker that basically every young conservative at least encounters, is very useful for explaining why people might look at government and make the – that decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if somebody wants to understand Ryan, do you think they should read Rand?
DAVE WEIGEL: I think absolutely. If you went to a Tea Party rally in 2009 or 10 you would occasionally see a “Who Is John Galt?” sign because if every page of the novel is not widespread, at least this idea is widespread, and at least the idea that if you tax people and demand that they make certain products and you regulate them out of make – making certain products, then you are doing what the villains in “Atlas Shrugged” did. You’re going to force creative people into Galt’s Gulch. People just bolt and flee and hide because they can’t deal with the oppressive tax regime.
And when you hear Republicans talk about the burdens on job creators, who people are holding money back from the economy, it’s something that economists can describe to you but it’s something that’s even easier to describe if you just go to John Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dave, thank you very much.
DAVE WEIGEL: Well, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dave Weigel covers politics for Slate.