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An Interview with Don Watkins: Where Do Ryan and Rand Agree and Disagree?

Aug 21, 2012 by

Mr. Watkins is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. He is a columnist at Forbes.com and his Op-Eds have appeared in such venues as Investor’s Business Daily, The Christian Science Monitor, FoxNews.com, CNBC.com and Forbes magazine.

Michael F. Shaughnessy  -

(1) Don, you have been following Paul Ryan and some of his comments since he became the vice-presidential nominee. Why the interest?

Ayn Rand has long been a controversial figure in politics for her uncompromising advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism. Her novels, although not primarily political statements, carry powerful warnings against the evil of subordinating the individual to state power.

So, it’s not surprising that her works have surged in popularity in recent years. Since 2008, many Americans have become alarmed by the growth of government control over the economy, and they’ve been turning in large numbers to Rand’s works. Paul Ryan’s selection as the presumptive GOP vice-presidential candidate has only intensified that interest, given Ryan’s praise for Rand’s novels and her moral defense of capitalism.

(2) Now, Ryan seems to follow some of Ayn Rand’s ideas, but seems to disagree on others. Could you give us some examples of common ground?

Both Ryan and Rand are concerned with the growth of government intervention in the economy at the expense of individual rights. And both value the freedom capitalism gives to individuals to seek their own happiness and success. As a result, when Ryan tackles issues such as entitlements, he often does so with a moral self-confidence that virtually no one else on the right has. I think that comes largely from Ayn Rand. Rand, more than anyone, taught how supporters of capitalism deserve the moral high ground.

(3) On what issues does there seem to be disagreement?

As Ryan himself has stated, he disagrees with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. A philosophy encompasses much more than politics: it includes a view of the basic nature of reality, of human knowledge, and of morality. Rand is a secular thinker—Ryan is a practicing Catholic. Rand upholds the supremacy of reason over faith—Ryan thinks you can have both. Rand preached the virtue of selfishness—Ryan accepts the Christian notion that we are our brother’s keeper.

In politics, there are at least two broad areas where you see these differences come out.

First, in the issue of individual rights. Rand thinks the only purpose of government is to protect our rights from being violated by the initiation of physical force from others: criminals, foreign enemies, even government itself. Although Ryan will often speak in the abstract about how the role of the government is to protect individual rights, in practice, he thinks the government should violate our rights in all sorts of ways—for instance, by seizing and redistributing some of our wealth to create a so-called social safety net. In short, he is nowhere near a principled defender of individual rights and its necessary result, laissez-faire capitalism.

Second, the issue of separation of church and state. Rand agrees with the Founders that injecting religion into politics undermines individual rights and freedom. But Ryan virtually never speaks about the separation of church and state, and on certain issues he is committed to legislating on the basis of religious dogma. For example, he believes abortion should be outlawed based on the inherently religious view that an embryo is a human being with full rights.

(4) Don, I can recall the political cartoons about Paul Ryan pushing little old ladies in wheelchairs off cliffs during the budget discussions. Does Ryan have a clear philosophy as to how much “society” should help the elderly, and does Rand ever state a philosophy about health care provided by the government?

I don’t think Ryan has a clear philosophy. Rhetorically, he endorses what he would call a “safety net” to help the genuinely needy. But what exactly that would mean in practice he never says. His actual budgets, meanwhile, don’t even cut government spending—they just grow it at a slower rate than current projections.

Rand was clear. The government has no right to take wealth from someone who has earned it for the sake of those who haven’t. If you want to help someone voluntarily, that is your right, but it is totally immoral for the government to sacrifice some individuals to others.

(5) A bit afield—but it may come up during the debates/discussions—same sex marriage—does Ryan have a position, and what, in your opinion would Ayn Rand have to say about same sex marriage—if she were alive?

Rand did not take a position on the issue—it didn’t exist as an issue in her lifetime—and I wouldn’t presume to guess what her view would be.

(6) Let’s talk money—If Ayn Rand, and Frank O’Connor were alive—they would obviously have a check book, and would have to balance the checkbook—and be fiscally responsible. What is Ryan saying, and what would Ayn Rand’s position be in return?

Ryan recognizes that government spending in this country is on an unsustainable path. We’re currently facing somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Something has to be done, and Ryan is the only politician to put forward a serious proposal for doing something about it. However, it is not a great proposal. My view, based on Rand’s political philosophy, is that we don’t need to slow government spending but to slash it. We need to start moving in the direction of freedom, which means that we need to start reducing wealth redistribution programs and getting rid of the controls currently strangling American businessmen.

(7) I am going to be very politically incorrect here and mention a word that perhaps some would not like to hear—but here it comes—overpopulation. Has Ryan said anything, and would Ayn Rand take a position, or has she taken a position?

I don’t know Ryan’s view, but Rand’s is simple: there is no such problem as overpopulation. People have been warning about “overpopulation” since Malthus, and their dire predictions have never come true. We live better today than at any time in history, with vastly more people than at any other time in history. Why? According to Rand, because of the power of the human mind. Human reason has enabled us to transform the planet so that it is more and more hospitable to human life. Assuming we can stop the growth of Big Government and move toward genuine freedom, there is no practical limit to the number of human lives this planet can support. The threat to human life is not overpopulation but the loss of human freedom.

(8) I have just returned from a trip to London and Oxford, and find people there still discuss Rand’s books, her ideas, and philosophies—in your mind, why does she still speak to so many people? Why are her writings so fresh and relevant?

For the same reason that Plato’s and Aristotle’s works are still relevant. Rand is a philosopher, which means that she deals with timeless, and profoundly important, questions about human existence.

What makes Rand so uniquely powerful, I think, is that she presented a practical philosophy—one that says your life matters, your happiness matters, your mind matters—and she did so in gripping, inspiring novels.

(9) Ryan’s links to Rand—positive, negative, or probably ignored by many?

I think in terms of voting, it will largely be ignored. But I think long term it’s a good thing for anyone who values economic freedom. Rand is the most powerful advocate for capitalism in history, and anything that makes her ideas part of the national conversation helps move that conservation in a more serious, principled direction.

(10) What have I neglected to ask?

I think that should do it.

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