VP Nominee Paul Ryan's Beliefs:
Why The Congressman Might Be The Perfect Man To Help Run America...Or Not.
By Gary Moore, Founder, The Financial Seminary
Adapted from a lengthier article for the consideration of Christianity Today
"Mr. Ryan's youthful, feverish embrace of Ayn Rand and his clumsy attempts to distance himself from her is more than the flip-flopping of an ambitious politician: it is a window into the ideological fissures at the heart of modern conservatism."
Professor Jennifer Burns
Author of Ayn Rand: Goddess of The Market
Very much like America itself, Mr. Ryan is complicated, probably conflicted. His complications may have been explained by The Wall Street Journal when it surveyed Ryan's beliefs. It began by noting Ryan grew up as an altar boy with Catholic parents who nevertheless "didn't insist that their four children integrate faith into their lives." That's quite reflective of modern America. Professor Laura Nash of Harvard has written extensively about our compartmentalization in books like Church on Sunday; Work on Monday. Evangelical sociologist George Barna estimated years ago that 90% or more of even self-described "born again Christians" also fail to integrate faith and life.
The irony is the Journal also noted many Catholic leaders now complain Mr. Ryan simply uses theology to justify his political views. Yet nature abhors a vacuum. And the failure of the leaders of American Christianity to help Christians integrate faith and higher visions of political economy is likely why Ryan was long one of the most influential disciples of atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand famously said her disciples were "not conservatives but radicals for capitalism." When ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown, the Jesuit university in Washington, wrote a letter to Ryan about his budget, they said it "reflects the values of your favorite philosopher Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ." Mr. Ryan recently rejected Rand but CNN suggested that was quite coincidental to progressives making a political issue of Mr. Ryan's complicated thinking and worldview. No human can judge another human heart. But we can, and must, judge a tree by the fruit it produces. Yet even that suggests Ryan may be a hybrid.
Long before his nomination, Mr. Ryan informed readers of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page that the budget debate is primarily over health care. Yet it's not actually about my Medicare, on which campaign ads focus in a political version of three-card Monte. Even Ryan's plan won't affect us old geezers who are now over fifty-five. As explained by the Financial Times, nor is it about that other card of deficits and debt. It said the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has calculated that over the next decade or so, the Ryan budget would actually leave America's debt-to-GDP ratio three percent higher than current law. That's as it would further cut taxes for the affluent while increasing military spending by 15%. Yet it would decimate health care for the neediest Americans. Even The Wall Street Journal, which leans to the far right, has confessed Mr. Ryan's budget would cut Medicaid for the poor by 78% by 2050. The writer had to assure readers that wasn't a typo. When a church leader tried to offer the congressman a Bible in which teachings about caring for the poor had been highlighted, the congressman declined the gift.
Ayn Rand was also in the front row at the White House when her disciple Alan Greenspan, long one of the most complicated men in Washington, was sworn in as chairman of the Federal Reserve. So a few of us who've paid attention the past three decades have learned a great deal about how Rand's many disciples might shape America. We begin with the fact she aspired to be history's greatest enemy of religion, particularly Christianity. Yet the Catholic Ryan's association with Rand is so strong, the progressive New Yorker magazine announced the appointment with the headline, "Ayn Rand Joins The Ticket." His views caused The Financial Times to say the election is now "a clear choice between Franklin Roosevelt and Ayn Rand." Those headlines can be justified.
Many Christians are criticized for crediting God for all things. Mr. Ryan has said Rand was the reason he entered public service. He has also said that if he "had to credit one thinker, one person, it would by Ayn Rand," not Jesus Christ. (He now credits Thomas Aquinas.) Ryan added, "I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism." Apparently, he missed, or disagrees with, that article for Fox by the leader of a conservative Christian ministry about Jesus being "a free market capitalist." Like fellow conservative icon Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ryan has long had his staff read Rand's opus Atlas Shrugged. Our Library of Congress has deemed it second in influence only to the Bible. There's been no word on whether Ryan also conducts Bible study with his staff.
Ryan has even given copies of Atlas as Christmas presents. He might as well have given ornaments of Herod as Rand's philosophy also attempted to put the sword to Christianity. She rejected our ethic of neighbor as self and a charitable attitude towards the needy. Rand's religion was laissez-faire capitalism, typically meaning markets unbridled by government but she added traditional morality. Her form of capitalism was based on "the virtue of selfishness," the title of one of her books. She taught money, not the state, and certainly not God, was humankind's "great protector." Perhaps due to the community described in Acts, she called Christianity, "the best kindergarten of communism possible." Her sad experiences in Russia as a child developed a black and white mind that simply could not nuance loving Christian community from authoritarian statism. She definitely didn't believe the government should do for others what they cannot, or will not as in the case of life issues and/or benevolences, do themselves. She therefore wrote to a friend that she would shape capitalism for a post-Christian America into a secular, materialistic "faith."
Her faith particularly appealed to boomers grown cynical of all institutions during the sixties and seventies. We didn't have to grow up but we had to grow older. So we are now cynically running Washington and Wall Street, primarily for ourselves. Many Christians on Main Street and Church Street simply cannot understand what we are thinking. Yet millions who have never even heard of Ayn Rand have unwittingly played a major political role in shaping post-Christian America in her image of secular utopianism. They haven't a notion that she was "the Marx of the political right." (We actually mean Lenin as Marx, who was Jewish and Lutheran at one point, said capitalism would evolve into statism but the state would evolve into a worker's utopia.) According to the scholarly biography of Rand by Professor Jennifer Burns, Rand's own disciples didn't usually know how she lived. Even today, I find most of her disciples judge her philosophy most fondly and unquestioningly as they've only read her romantic fiction rather than look at the anarchy that typified the lives of Rand and her closest disciples.
If confusing fictional utopia for reality is dangerous in life, it is magnified many times in political economy. Politics is always about taking specs from the eyes of others while morality is about the logs in our own eyes. Today, most conservatives confuse Rand's version of "liberty" with the freedom sought by being slaves to Christ's interior chains of morality. But Rand was simply the last in a long line of far right-wing economic philosophers who soundly rejected Judeo-Christian ethics. They range from Ludwig von Mises, who was both Rand and presidential candidate Michelle Bachman's favorite economist, to influential Nobel economist Milton Friedman. Dr. Friedman taught the church should just leave political economics to people like himself, the compartmentalization that's increasingly confused societies since the Enlightenment. He also famously taught CEO's their "only social responsibility was to make money." Famed management consultant Peter Drucker, who once taught theology, and thought most holistically about our world, spent a chapter in Post-Capitalist Society condemning Friedman's teaching as "futile."
Denying the divine significance of every human, those right-wing philosophers were essentially utilitarian, willing to accept that unbridled capitalism would impoverish many if it would enrich others. We now call those enriched "the 1%" or "the 10%," of which I am one. If acquiescing to banana republic inequality sounds heartless, consider that Rand shocked the nation by morally justifying a psychopath's dismemberment of an innocent young girl. Her one time mentor Nietzsche once inspired two other murderers to do much the same. Yet Rand simply complained her murderer lacked the will to overcome social norms. Such callousness toward neighbor, and Rand's rejection of charity as a moral duty, essentially negated traditional ethics, particularly that the needy are reflections of the divine face of Christ. Even evangelical theologians have estimated the various tithes of Moses amounted to 23% of Israel's GDP. As with the Big Ten, that fine print was commandments, not suggestions. And Jesus said they would endure for all eternity.
Rand taught her disciples to see the poor, as well as do-gooders like the clergy, as "parasites" and "moochers" who existed off her exalted class of materialistic "producers." Yet Rand was hardly a carpenter, much less industrialist in the mold of her humanistic savior John Galt (It's now JG vs. JC, as a Fox article recently stated.) Her economically impotent husband didn't even produce romanticized fiction. She glorified the risk-takers of capitalism but kept her money safe in government-guaranteed bank deposits. She taught the moral duty of producers was to focus on making money, though she risked poverty to imitate Jesus in reverse and be god for her disciples. She taught "reason alone" but quickly excommunicated anyone who didn't fully adopt the mind of Rand. The irony is that Rand detested President Reagan and would likely detest Congressman Ryan, certainly for his defense spending. I recently heard Senator Rand Paul, a noted libertarian, complain that Mr. Ryan's budget doesn't go far enough. Similarly, anti-taxer Grover Norquist has had GOP members of congress sign a no new taxes pledge and would like to see government cut by two-thirds. That may not be radical enough for Rand; but it's certainly not conservative.
Mr. Ryan is supposedly fiscally conservative; but he voted for TARP, the GM bailout and at least his staff sought stimulus money for constituents during the Great Recession. He doesn't like government programs; but Social Security helped him to an education when his father died. He dislikes government in general; but has never had an adult job outside the political arena. Like Reagan, he has the aw-shucks appeal of his Midwestern roots; but he went straight to Washington without Reagan's Hollywood detour. Ryan is supposedly a master of hard budget realities; but The Economist called his budget "marshmallow fluff" as it's so short of hard numbers.( It argued Ryan's budget actually does little to harden Romney's malleable "salt water taffy.") Ryan sincerely believes our communities and churches should be doing a lot of the work that Washington is currently doing, a principle Catholics call "subsidiarity"; but he advocates reducing the charitable tax deduction, which suggests he may not be as faithful to the Catholic teaching of "God's preferential option for the poor." Ryan would means test the affluent and reduce or eliminate the charitable tax deduction accordingly, meaning the affluent will have even less financial reason to help the poor. Conservatives often note they give more to charity than do liberals. Perhaps. But my experiences as an investment advisor tell me that giving to a think tank to fund the spread of Rand's ideas, or even to the Ivy League universities, symphonies and museums favored by the rich, may generate a tax deduction but it's not what the Bible calls giving.
Few conservative Christians condone abortion, drugs and open marriages. Rand did. Yet many enthusiastically vote for libertarians simply as they are cynical of the government that St. Paul taught us to "honor and respect" (Romans 13). Most support Ryan's calls for increased defense spending even though America spends what the next seventeen nations do combined and Moses said "the king is not to have many horses for his army" (Dt 17:15). Even my old friend Jack Kemp, the co-author of Reaganomics, told the GOP that it should invest in our economy rather than a war in Iraq. Still, most rationalize Rand-style capitalism is better than Marx-style socialism. The notion that the better of two atheistic wrongs will set things right in our land may be the greatest act of moral relativism in conservative life. Our land is perishing for lack of a higher vision. Over the years, I've called that "stewardism," which is political economy within a Judeo-Christian framework. It's not a new idea.
From the time of America's founding, there has been a moderating third way of political economy, which has largely disappeared with our middle class. It was somewhat devised by the Scottish Adam Smith. He was a would-be minister turned moral philosopher who is often called the first modern economist. He too encountered a nation conflicted between virtue and money. His mentor Francis Hutcheson disagreed with his fellow Calvinists that the human heart is totally depraved. Hutcheson thought our souls also aspire to virtue as we are created in the image of a loving God. His great nemesis was atheistic philosopher David Hume. Hume taught the passions of our hearts, and particularly greed, could not be controlled, even by the mind of Christ. So he essentially advocated letting those who love money run banks rather than rob them. Yes, there's a very fine moral line there, as recent headlines from Wall Street have demonstrated!
Smith was friendly with both Hutcheson and Hume and developed a middle way. It acknowledged the individual's self-interest but moderated our excesses of greed and speculation with the Christian virtues of charity and prudence. Smith wrote at a time colonial Americans were living on less than a tenth of what we do today. But he agreed capitalism was so productive the poor might soon join the rich in idleness. He may have been prophetic. The five hundred largest corporations in America produce nearly 75% of our GDP. They do so with fewer and fewer employees as they have more and more capital with which to put to work. But Smith did not visualize a true class of computerized moochers on Wall Street living off the ever increasing savings of the middle class, burdening both the middle class and the needy.
Smith did however agree with other philosophers of his time that capitalism's amazing ability to produce more toys than we can buy was not worth the price capitalism, and the "commercial mind" in particular, extracts from the human heart and soul. That may be why a recent Yahoo Finance survey said 59% of Americans would change careers if possible. If you've been to Walmart lately, you also realize the "supply side" is considerably heavier than the demand side. They are more balanced in healthy economies. But if you've read the economic press, you know China now has much the same problem, more toys than with which it can play. Due to that globalization of capitalism, concentration of wealth, a shrinking middle class and higher unemployment are likely not short-term problems for developed nations.
Anyway, Smith developed his third way toward a virtuous economy that would use but not worship the almighty dollar. He might even go back to the biblical principle of shutting down production each Sabbath and seventh year. His disciples include today's socially responsible investors who prudently and patiently try to do well by doing good for their neighbors, the environment, future generations, and so on. Studies by firms like Merrill Lynch and Morningstar saying such investors make as much money as non-responsible investors. and their numbers grow with each mess on Wall Street. But they are still far too few. That's primarily as most investors, including Christians, essentially follow Rand when investing money for the use of CEO's and follow Christ when giving money for the poor he comforted. Responsible investors essentially agree with old Maimonides that the best charity one can give is to create a job for the poor or enable the poor to start their own businesses by financing them.
Despite the worldview of Rand's disciples, particularly in the tea party, federal taxes in America today are the lowest since World War Two. They are among the very lowest of the major nations. Yes, our tax rates on corporate income are the highest in the world; but due to "loop holes" also being the most generous, the actual taxes corporations pay are among the very lowest. Even though corporations are sitting on piles of cash as corporate profits are the highest percentage of GDP in history, twenty-six major corporations actually paid their CEOs more last year than they paid in federal taxes. Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark, which even Forbes has admired, have taxes one-third higher than America. They still have "AAA" credit ratings. They also have economies that are good for both business and people. Their economies enjoy higher growth rates with lower unemployment but higher security for those without jobs. That means voters are the happiest in the world, rather than ready for revolution or change each election.
Libertarians suggest President Obama seeks to turn America into the troubled nations of southern Europe, I expect these northern European countries are more what he has in mind. It's likely not coincidental that Oprah, a friend of the president, recently did a special on the good life in Denmark. Still, while the cultures of those countries were deeply influenced by Catholic and Lutheran traditions, they may not be the Promised Land of virtue and freedom that Moses had in mind. Yet nor do I believe Steve Forbes was correct when literally writing recently that Ryan and capitalism will "save civilization." A higher, and less ambiguous, power is required. If Mr. Ryan has truly repented of Rand, he may remind us of that. It took a former prince of Egypt to free God's people. It took the former persecutor Paul to spread Christianity across the Mediterranean. It even took the famously anti-communist Nixon to go to China. But if Ryan hasn't truly repented, America could be in for a period of even deeper frustration.
Our dissatisfaction with the more radical and secular assumptions of both political parties has been foretold since ancient times. Joshua famously told his people it was time to decide between Yahweh and the agricultural gods of Egypt and Canaan who promised bountiful crops (Joshua 24:2). Elijah said it was time to decide whether to serve Jehovah or Baal, the golden bull who promised future off-spring for herdsmen (1 Kings 18). For his trouble, Elijah was called the biggest trouble-maker in the land by the king. Yet John Calvin still taught us that if we don't serve God, we'll inevitably serve human-made gods, like Marx's state or Rand's money. Marx's ideas about the state may be on the ropes but Rand's almighty dollar is stronger than ever. A recent Financial Times article even confessed capital has become a god, unaccountable to any human. If you doubt that, look at the holdings in your mutual fund. Or consider that all the money given to charity in America last year amounted to one-thousandth of the capital swirling around our globe, usually with no more instruction than "go forth and multiply."
It's again time for America to vote. If only we had a clear option. We don't. And we won't until we reject the atheistic approaches of both parties for the one-true God, the God who told us to honor and respect government and use money but never worship either. As the prophets fore-told, America's judgment, or salvation, is still the Lord's. And it's still those called by his name, meaning us believers, who must repent of our syncretism before the Lord can heal our land.
Gary Moore is the founder of The Financial Seminary (www.financialseminary.org) and has written six books on the morality of political economy. His previous article about Ayn Rand can be found in the September 2010 issue of Christianity Today. His latest is Look Up America! Financial Insights for Tea Partiers Looking Right Occupiers Looking Left and All Americans Looking at a Lower Standard of Living for Their Children.