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Tobias Barrington Wolff

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The Virtue of Selfishness: Romney, Ryan and Rand

Posted: 08/14/2012 7:31 am

The poet and memoirist Maya Angelou wrote this about how to judge a person's character: "Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you do." With his selection of Representative Paul Ryan as a running mate, Mitt Romney has told us exactly who he would be as President: a selfish capitalist. A Romney-Ryan White House would elevate selfishness above all else.

To understand the values of Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, it is necessary to understand their intellectual forebear, Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand was one of the most extreme public intellectuals of the twentieth century. As her central creed, she rejected the idea that people in a community should approach each other with charity, compassion, and altruism. According to Ayn Rand, a charitable heart is for suckers. Selfishness is the way to go. Lest you think I am exaggerating, one of Ayn Rand's important works, a collection of philosophical essays, is entitled "The Virtue of Selfishness," and it is an extended attack upon the idea of altruism.

Mitt Romney is already well known for his lifelong commitment to ruthless self-enrichment. Governor Rick Perry famously observed during the Republican primary that Mr. Romney devoted his career to the practice of Vulture Capitalism. He would buy up companies and do to them whatever was necessary to extract the most profits for Bain Capital and its investors, even when that meant firing workers, outsourcing jobs, and loading up companies with so much debt that they were forced to declare bankruptcy. When companies would fail, Bain and Mr. Romney often extracted massive profits.

There is nothing illegal about these practices. But there is nothing admirable about them either. Many Americans go into business in order to build something -- they make money while also creating jobs and contributing to their communities. Just so, some venture capitalists approach their work with the spirit and desire to strengthen institutions at the same time they make a profit. That was not Bain Capital. As Americans have learned more about how Mr. Romney made his money at Bain, Mr. Romney has talked about Bain less, apparently discovering that "I didn't break the law" is not much of a message. With questions still unanswered about how much or how little Mr. Romney paid in taxes on his hundreds of millions of dollars in Bain profits, the Romney campaign has become desperate to change the conversation.

Enter Paul Ryan. The selection of a running mate always makes a splash, and Representative Ryan is having his moment in the spotlight. Youthful, handsome, with blue eyes and a quick mind, Mr. Ryan has created a flurry of excitement on the far Right. But Mr. Romney's selection of Paul Ryan has ensured that the focus of this election will remain squarely on the values that both men would bring to the White House. And Mr. Ryan has told us what his governing value would be: Ayn Rand's brand of Selfishness.

Paul Ryan has identified Ayn Rand as his greatest inspiration. Her work has shaped his thinking more than any other single person, throughout his career in politics. Mr. Ryan has made campaign videos extolling the work of Ayn Rand, saying that Rand's writings are "sorely needed" in today's America. According to Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand "more than anyone else" understood "the morality of Capitalism."

That morality is one of selfishness -- the selfishness of the rich, the selfishness of the corporation, the selfishness of the powerful -- joined with utter contempt for the virtues of charity, community, and the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. Ayn Rand's response to the second of Christ's "greatest commandments" would have been "Forget that. What's mine is mine. You can't have any." That is the "morality of Capitalism" that Paul Ryan is urging upon America. It is a perfect fit for the Vulture Capitalism that Mitt Romney practiced for decades.

Ayn Rand spent a lot of time attacking government programs that are based on a public-minded spirit -- programs like Social Security and Medicare, which aim to ensure that everyone can lead a stable and dignified life in their later years, even if they are not wealthy. Politicians like Paul Ryan often emphasize Rand's attacks on government when they invoke her name. But make no mistake: Private acts of altruism and charity were equally pathetic and worthless to Ayn Rand. If a disaster struck your community, would you pitch in to help your neighbors, doing what you could to make sure they were safe and had adequate food and shelter? Ayn Rand would ask, "What's in it for me? Where's my profit?" Hers was the Vulture Capitalist response.

What does the Romney-Ryan-Rand worldview mean for you in practical terms? The answer is straightforward.

Did half your retirement disappear because high-flying Wall Street investors made risky gambles and left you paying the tab? Romney, Ryan and Rand say, "If you weren't keeping tabs on the Wall Street investors then it's your own fault. They didn't break any laws when they made that money."

Did a predatory lender dupe you into taking a sub-prime mortgage that you couldn't afford, leaving you with balloon payments that forced you into foreclosure? Romney, Ryan and Rand say, "If you couldn't outwit the mortgage broker or predict the collapse of the housing market then it's your own fault. You deserve to go into foreclosure when the market hits bottom."

Did you lose your job because a company had to close its doors, or outsourced your job to another country, leaving you unable to find work? Romney, Ryan and Rand say, "If you aren't a valuable enough worker, then it's your own fault. Corporations are people, my friend, and they're just looking to make a profit. Maybe your parents will lend you some money."

Maya Angelou warned us: "Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you do." Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have told us exactly who they are. The American people would do well to listen.

 
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