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Paul Ryan's Libertarianism and Catholic Social Thought

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The good king, according to Thomas Aquinas, had to be motivated by charity. Love must animate the way he regarded and treated his subjects, especially the least of his kingdom. Thomas well knew that the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible summoned rulers, over and over again, to show solicitude for the widow and the orphan. Those who had no natural defender, those whose welfare depended upon the kindnesses of others, they were the ones kings were charged most directly to support and assist. For Thomas, this was simply another aspect of the common good that leaders must strive to conserve and promote. For the leader knew that no individual exists in isolation, that civilization is an enterprise lived in common, and that we are in the end all brothers and sisters.

Catholic social thought, as it has evolved ever since Pope Leo XIII issued that great call to action, Rerum novarum, in 1891, both draws from and remains committed to the Thomistic ideal. From Leo's courageous first footsteps to the grand encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the popes have elaborated a rich theology of the state.

The state, the popes recognized, is above all social. It exists for the good of all. It is not a vehicle by which a few are enriched while others are beggared. The popes well understood, furthermore, that private property is never wholly private. John Paul II coined the expression "the universal destination of human goods" -- capturing in this term the realization that all that we have is owed to God, that it must not be used exploitatively, and that we must finally give an accounting of its use before God's majestic throne.

The popes have also insisted that the state has an affirmative role to play in protecting and improving peoples' lives. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken eloquently about the dangers of marginalization. Forcing the poor to the edges of society, systematically stripping them of their dignity, depriving them of the means to support themselves, are social sins that carry social consequences -- from petty crimes to devastating acts of mass terror. The state is uniquely positioned to cure the malady of marginalization through the public services it renders. It teaches, it marshals resources, it regulates the economy. It ensures, in short, what Thomas called fair distribution of social goods. Similarly, the state is called upon to see to the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the frail and the enfeebled -- all of those, in short, whom a modern Thomas Aquinas might class among the "widows and the orphans."

For most of his public life, Paul Ryan has embraced a philosophy that is, frankly, at odds with these insights. Indeed, for most of his public life, he has enthusiastically endorsed the gospel of Ayn Rand. According to Tim Mak ("Vice President Nominee Paul Ryan's Love-Hate With Ayn Rand," Politico, Aug. 11), Ryan in 2003 was proudly distributing copies of Rand's novels to interns in his office, insisting that they read her. In 2005, he credited Ayn Rand as "the reason I got involved in public service." In 2009, he compared the Obama Administration "to living in an Ayn Rand novel." Even though, from time to time, Ryan has made faint-hearted efforts to distance himself from the atheistic portions of Rand's works, one is entitled to consider Rand as a singularly important source of Ryan's anti-statist views. After all, he said as much in a speech before the Atlas Society in 2005: "I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are" ("Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand's Ideas: In the Hot Seat Again," The Atlas Society, April 30).

Rand is best understood as a faded modern epigone of the social darwinist movements of the latter 19th century. Claiming the mantle of Charles Darwin but drawing the wrong lessons from his work, these pseudo-scientists tried to transfer insights from the workings of biology to social structures. All life, they argued, was a struggle. Man had to compete to live. Nature was "red in tooth and claw," and so also, by extension, were human relations. To a writer like William Graham Sumner, the great mass of the poor were little better than parasites seeking to use political means to suck dry the productive capacity of the well-to-do, the talented, the better elements of society. Many of these social darwinists lapsed into racism, as they attempted to apply their categories of thought to explain and justify colonial depredations abroad and Jim Crow at home.

Ayn Rand, to her great credit, rejected racism emphatically. But she celebrated much of the rest of the social darwinist creed. There is no room in her work for cooperation, for community, for concern for the less advantaged. The maximization of individual productive capacity, freed of the impediments of state control, is the byword of her philosophy, so-called "Objectivism." The noble entrepreneur, the far-sighted man of wealth and power, the bold individualist who casts off the shackles of the "takers" and the "hangers-on," is the hero of her fiction. Without him, society itself would crumble to dust.

These philosophical premises, of course, stand in contradiction to the social thought of the Catholic Church, as developed over two millenia of experience. Paul Ryan surely knows this. His tepid protest that he reads the Bible and so cannot be a follower of Ayn Rand rings hollow. The record of his public life is that of a man in thrall to a curdled, warped individualism. I, for one, would like to know what he thinks about the magisterium of the Church regarding the positive value of the state.