So let’s talk about Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand and the meaning of life.
Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who chairs the House Budget Committee, was selected by Mitt Romney to fill out the Republican ticket Saturday. He’s an interesting choice, not least because he this record of being brutally honest about the financial challenges deficits and entitlement programs present to our nation, and about one set of measures that could fix them.
And he is, like many serious conservatives, somewhat of an Ayn Rand follower, or as the supercool liberals I went to college with tauntingly called it when they spied me with my dog-eared copies of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” a Randroid.
In a 2005 speech to a group of Randroids called the Atlas Society, Paul said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”
He’s right, and you have to respect Ryan’s honestly in laying out the terms of the debate.
Now let’s talk about the meaning of life.
Rand, a Russian émigré who believed she had seen the dangers of European-style collectivism firsthand, preached that it lay in the furtherance of individual achievement and creation. She worshipped creators and producers. The hero of “The Fountainhead,” architect Howard Roark, cared not for money, fame or acclaim, and was as proud to be a brilliant construction worker in between architecture gigs as he was to design fabulous buildings.
In “Atlas Shrugged,” we got a host of heroes, manufacturers and railroad titans and composers of music and John Galt, the brilliant scientist who convinced the most productive minds in the country to withdraw their efforts and watch society flounder without them.
Rand preached that rational self-interest was the only reasonable motivation, and that our increasingly collectivist societies were rotten at the core and would collapse.
She believed the geniuses mattered more to the masses than the masses matter to the geniuses.
Interestingly, Rand didn’t have much more use for bankers and financiers than your average communist. She considered them manipulators, rather than producers.
I’m not a Randroid in adulthood but I understand she was right in a sense. If the meaning of life is the furtherance of the most able humans, the development of the most knowledge, the bridging of the furthest frontiers and the evolution of the best possible species, you’d get that by leaving all resources in the hands of those smart enough and strong enough to seize and create them. Social Darwinism would create the fastest evolution of society and the human race.
But is that the purpose we seek? Is it the goal?
Barack Obama, and liberals in general, would say “no.”
They would argue that the purpose of life is to become more Godly, and in a way secular humanists could get behind, too. To be better to each other, to provide for these least among us, to soften meritocracy and equalize both opportunities and outcomes. They want these things done not just through the choice of charity, but via a set of laws toward not just a flatter playing field but toward a tied ballgame.
Our founding fathers were Randroids. They wrote a Constitution that didn’t guarantee outcomes, only the right to pursue outcomes. They envisioned a nation where people had freedom, not guarantees.
But as a nation, we’ve moved away from Rand and the founders and toward a collectivism. We are a nation that wants to soften harsh outcomes and guarantee everyone, at the least, food, clothing, shelter, education and health care.
It’s this dissonance we feel in interpreting the Constitution. You can no longer see the founders from where we stand, yet we pretend we can, and falsely channel them through the prism of modern America.
If we want to pursue the Rand vision, I could design laws to accomplish that. If we want to pursue a collectivist, loving vision, I could design laws to accomplish that too.
But we’ve tried to have both. That’s tough to design. Trying to design that is what got us into this maniacal mess of unfunded entitlements and deficits.
At best, what Ryan’s VP nomination means is that we could have an honest debate between these two points of view. We could make this presidential race a contest about the real question.
It’s not the economy, or how best to fund campaigns, or whether Romney is stiff, or Obama was born here.
The question that’s tearing this nation apart is what constitutes a moral society, what rights individuals deserve and what responsibilities we have toward each other. What’s the meaning of life, and the proper goal of our society and species?
Now that could be debate worth watching.
Picture above: Newly announced Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, addresses the crowd during a campaign event with Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, not shown, in Norfolk, Va. (Aug. 11, 2012)