The inspiration for Paul Ryan's budget comes directly from Ayn Rand. In fact, far too much of the current budget debate is shaped by her philosophy that so viciously divides the world into "creators" against the "moochers" -- the "makers" against the "takers." How else it is possible to propose a budget that so favors the wealthy and so cruelly punishes the less fortunate? How else to explain why both parties are engaged in a foolish deficit reduction dance that will undermine social programs and exacerbate the real problem -- the lack of decent, sustainable employment?
Ryan wants to cut taxes on the rich by 14 percent, wipe out Obamacare, trim the Food Stamp program, and turn Medicare into a voucher system -- all the name of fiscal responsibility, economic growth and balancing the budget. But any references by Ryan and other Randian acolytes to protecting and enhancing the common good are nothing but spin. Unlike Ayn Rand, they are fearful to say what they really mean. Instead, they hide their belief in utter selfishness by trying to sound like they care about society as a whole. In reality, their Randian philosophy maintains that that the rich should be rewarded and the poor should fend for themselves.
In the Ryan/Rand universe government is coercive and violates individual rights by its very existence. More importantly, Ryan/Rand believe that all forms of altruism are a debasement of human virtue. We should not be our brother's and sister's keepers. Instead, everyone should fight in behalf of their own rational self-interest. You get what you earn. All government programs, are, by definition, evil, because they are the expression of collectivist oppression of rugged individualism.
End Wall Street Regulation?
Nowhere is this pernicious selfishness clearer that in Ryan's call for the elimination of Wall Street regulations set forth in Dodd-Frank. Now, I'm not a big fan of those pathetically weak regulations, but who in their right mind thinks the common good will protected by unleashing Wall Street financiers? You have to be Rip Van Winkle not to have noticed the never-ending string of Wall Street abuses -- predatory mortgages, securities designed to fail, foreclosures on absent military personnel, foreclosures on those who are not behind on any of their payments, support for payday loan-sharking operations, money laundering for Mexican drug cartels and rogue nations, manipulating interest rates, insider trading... and that's only what they've been caught doing under current regulations. (See "Are Big Banks Organized Criminal Conspiracies?" ) Can you imagine what Wall Street would do with no regulations at all?
But that's the point for Ryan/Randers. It is a noble trait for the "makers" to pursue their individual pursuits even if their "achievements" come at the expense of the rest of society. Breaking through the rules that inhibit wealth accumulation is a virtue not a vice. That's because there is no society worth caring about in the Ryan/Rand world, only individuals who must achieve or fall by the wayside. Government regulations are an evil intrusion on the most successful among us. The individual is all. The collective good is worthless.
Is it fair to so entwine Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand?
In 2005, Ryan gave a speech to the Atlas Society, one of the two institutes dedicated to Rand's philosophy. Those familiar with Objectivist teachings will readily see that Ryan is besotted with Randian philosophy:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged[laughter]...
But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, 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...
It's so important that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand's vision, her writings, to see what our girding, under-grounding [sic] principles are. I always back to, you know, Francisco d'Anconia's speech (at Bill Taggart's wedding) on money when I think about monetary policy. And then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises so that I know that what I'm believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism...
What about the Democratic Party?Democratic leaders are not immune to Randian selfishness. In fact, many drank from the Kool-Aid provided by Alan Greenspan, yet another Ayn Rand true believer. In fact, Greenspan grew up within her cultish inner-circle where he lived and breathed her philosophy. When Atlas Shrugged was panned in 1957, Greenspan wrote a letter to The New York Time Book Review where he said:
"Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should."
More importantly, Greenspan, in his writings for Rand's non-fiction books and periodicals laid out the program he would unleash on the American people. It was based on one essential idea -- any and all regulation is evil. Just look at the policies he ushered in, and that the leadership of the Democratic party accepted all through the Clinton years and thereafter -- free trade, neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus, end of Glass-Steagall, hands-off derivatives, no policing of predatory mortgages, no anti-trust actions, and on and on in a Randian orgy of encouraging the financial shysters to police themselves. Along the way, Greenspan, without a whimper from the Democrats, allowed the hedge fund industry to flourish. And, he permitted the biggest banks to create toxic assets that polluted the global economy -- all to promote the virtues of the individual and to thwart the horrors of collectivism. Let's not forget that President Clinton reappointed Greenspan in 1996 and 2000.
But what about the Democrats today?
Keep your eye on the battle to close the "carried interest" loophole that allows hedge and private equity fund managers, who are the richest of the rich, to shelter nearly half of their income. Right now, the Senate's budget proposal calls for its elimination. But, I'm dubious based information I tripped over while writing How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: How Hedge Funds get Away with Siphoning off America's Wealth (Wiley, 2013).
One remarkable item was a strange letter to President Obama from two extremely liberal Congressmen defending this indefensible loophole. The letter was so outrageous that I was sure it was a spoof. Nope, it was the real deal which said that increasing taxes on hedge fund managers and the like would, "not only damage our already fragile economy, but it would also cripple the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that makes our country so strong." Ayn Rand couldn't have said it better.
It's not an accident that so many Democratic leaders are enthralled with the hedge fund manipulators. Certainly, these Democrats may not be as cruel to the poor as the Ryan crowd, but when it comes to Wall Street and many other corporate interests, they still are finding ways to act as champions of unfettered capitalist greed. Too many equate big money with success, social worth and productive economic value. Too few question how these elite money managers earn their billions. And more than a few have an eye on making the big bucks once they leave government.
Without this Ayn Rand affliction, how else can we explain why both parties are promoting deficit reduction that is both unnecessary and dangerous? How can we explain why both under Bush and Obama, Wall Street has grown even larger -- so large that even Eric Holder admits they are too big to prosecute?
The only good news in this picture is that Americans still believe in altruism, community and the common good. They know that Wall Street should be paying for the damage it did to the economy. They know that the true test of any nation is whether it can put its people to work at a livable wage, and care for the sick, the disabled and the elderly. If Americans really understood the essence of the Ryan/Greenspan/Randian ideology of utter selfishness, they would reject it out of hand in the name of common decency and justice.
Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and author of How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge funds get away with siphoning off America's wealth (Wiley, 2013)