It didn’t take long for libertarians to condemn Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan may have required his staffers to read Ayn Rand’s novels, but he’s no John Galt. Over his nearly 14 years in Congress, Ryan has cast several votes unfit for an advocate of limited government. He voted for TARP, auto bailouts, and Medicare expansion. He also voted for No Child Left Behind, and twice voted for stimulus spending.
The criticism of Ryan is a classic example of the saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” And it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how our system of government operates.
The Founders’ great achievement — an achievement that today is often ignored and even dismissed by the cynics in our education and media establishments — was to protect the people from tyrannical government. States’ rights, the separation of power between the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches, and a system of checks and balances were carefully designed to prevent any one person or party from acquiring a monopoly of power.
That’s why newly elected presidents invariably vow to serve those who did not vote for them as well as those who did. To get things done you need to build a consensus, and telling nearly 46% of the electorate that their concerns no longer matter is not a good strategy. Similarly, only a president who wins by a landslide can legitimately claim a mandate for change.
It’s also why this election is so crucial. We have a president who, when his party controlled both chambers of Congress, taunted the opposition by declaring “I won.” The message to Republicans was clear: you can either go along or go away. But since losing the House in 2010, the president’s strategy has been to bypass Congress whenever possible. Instead of also serving the people who elected a Republican majority to the House, President Obama has tried to disenfranchise them.
The flipside to a system of government that prevents anyone from obtaining a monopoly of power is that it forces legislators to accommodate at least some members of the opposing party. An effective legislator understands that a bill passed with bipartisan support is more likely to be widely embraced and fully implemented. And an effective legislator recognizes that there is a time for making symbolic gestures by voting for lost causes, a time for influencing flawed legislation, and a time for horse trading.
That’s not to say that Paul Ryan is above criticism. But it’s unfair to suggest that Ryan is just another big-government politician masquerading as a proponent of limited government. Ryan is one of the few members of Congress who has had the courage to talk about privatizing Social Security and replacing Medicare with a voucher program. He’s a highly respected budget expert and articulate opponent of Obamacare.
If anyone tells you that Paul Ryan isn’t who he claims to be, then just remember Ronald Reagan. Reagan supported specific tax increases, signed job training assistance into law, and presided over a substantial rise in the national debt. He granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants. His willingness to compromise appealed to a constituency that became known as the “Reagan Democrats.” Reagan had strong convictions, but he also knew when to make a deal.
We don’t choose a president and vice president solely to enact specific policies — we elect them to provide leadership. And that’s another reason why this election is so crucial. The current president says that entrepreneurs misappropriate resources provided by society. He describes the U.S. Constitution as deeply flawed. And he complains that the U.S. has too often been the world’s bully. These aren’t specific policies — they’re attitudes that reflect President Obama’s vision for the country. Paul Ryan has consistently expressed the exact opposite attitudes.
Paul Ryan isn’t John Galt because John Galt was not cut out for politics. Show me a person who never bends their principles and I’ll show you a person who is likely unelectable. And if by some fluke that person were elected, they would certainly be ineffective. Most of the work of the legislature occurs before any final show of hands.
You can reject Paul Ryan because he’s not John Galt. But if you do, be prepared to confront John Galt’s worst nightmare.
Ira Brodsky is a writer based in St. Louis, Missouri, and the author of five books.