Ryan, Rand and rights

Don Watkins Fellow, Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights
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Whether he likes it or not, Paul Ryan’s worldview is going to be defined in large part by its distance from philosopher Ayn Rand’s. Ryan is on record as praising Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” and her moral defense of capitalism. He’s also on record as rejecting Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.

So, where does Ryan sit in relation to Rand?

There are signs that Rand influenced Ryan’s views on individual rights. “If one wishes to advocate a free society — that is, capitalism,” Rand wrote half a century ago, “one must realize that its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights. If one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realize that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them. And if one wishes to gauge the relationship of freedom to the goals of today’s intellectuals, one may gauge it by the fact that the concept of individual rights is evaded, distorted, perverted and seldom discussed, most conspicuously seldom by the so-called ‘conservatives.’”

Paul Ryan is one of the few conservatives who does speak regularly — and meaningfully — about individual rights. In a speech delivered in June, Ryan said that this election would come down to a choice between two views of rights, and their differing implications for the welfare state: the view that rights “come to us naturally before government, they are ours automatically — or this new idea, the progressive theory of government-granted rights. … It’s an opportunity society versus welfare state.”

But don’t be too quick to leap from these broad proclamations to the conclusion that Ryan is an avowed Randian on rights. Even if we leave aside Ryan’s Catholic dogma about souls and embryos, which Rand completely rejected, and focus only on the economic issues for which Ryan is most known, the differences remain stark.

According to Rand, rights are moral principles that are designed to restrain society from interfering with an individual’s moral action. Morality helps an individual decide what he ought to do — rights tell society not to stop him from doing what he ought to do. Since morality, in Rand’s egoistic conception, tells an individual he should support his own life, act on his own independent judgment, produce the wealth he needs to survive, and seek out his own happiness, then a political system should enshrine the individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

These rights, Rand stressed, are rights to action — not to a physical object. Individuals have a right to earn property and use it as they see fit. If a thief (or an IRS agent) takes their money, their right to property has been violated. But no one can have a right to be provided with property at someone else’s expense. “If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.”

Think of what this implies for the entitlement state, a subject near to Ryan’s heart. Rand saw entitlements as a violation of individual rights on a massive scale. This is why she opposed Social Security when FDR enacted it in the 1930s, why she rejected Medicare when Johnson proposed it in the 1960s and why she held that the whole entitlement state should be phased out and ultimately abolished.

For Rand, the great achievement of America’s founding was to create a society based on rights, in which peaceful, voluntary coexistence among men was possible. People were free to deal with one another on mutually agreeable terms, or else go their own way. The entitlement state blasted that peaceful coexistence, turning politics into a mad scramble by warring pressure groups for other people’s money.

Ryan’s goal, by contrast, is not to end the entitlement state but to save it. His budget reflects that view: it preserves Medicare, albeit in a less costly form, and it actually increases Social Security spending, from 4.75 percent of GDP to 6 percent, according to the CBO. Although Ryan regularly invokes individual rights, he does not stand by them consistently. Not even on economic issues, where he is best.

For anyone who believes in limited government, it is a positive sign that a leading politician talks seriously about individual rights, and this clearly is due in part to Rand’s influence. But to take rights seriously, as Rand advised? That will require a much more principled agenda.

Don Watkins is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and coauthor, with Yaron Brook, of Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government. He blogs at freemarketbook.com. The Ayn Rand Center is a division of The Ayn Rand Institute.