Ryan, Rand, and the Objectivist Budget

On April 15, 2011, four members of the House Republican Caucus voted against Congressman Paul Ryan’s budgetary “Path to Prosperity.” Had I been there and had the opportunity to do so, I would have proudly been among their number.  There’s a simple reason for this: Paul Ryan is an “[Ayn] Rand nut.”[1] His proposal isn’t a path to prosperity or fiscal sanity, it’s a projection of an Objectivist vision for our society, our nation, and its future.  And that’s a dark path we’d do well to avoid.

I’m not the only one who has recognized this. Jonathan Chait, for example, has noted that “when Republicans [like Ryan] invoke the horrors of the national debt, they don’t actually mean the national debt. They mean big government.” This is why Ryan, and many like him, despite all the talk of the perils of deficits, refuse to deviate at all from the GOP’s “anti-tax orthodoxy.” In the end, “[t]hey are left arguing that the debt threatens to destroy American civilization, but they would rather leave it unaddressed than agree to even a dime of higher taxes.”[2]

This seeming incongruity is inexplicable without reference to Ayn Rand and the Objectivist school of extreme Libertarian thought:

“Ryan sees the coming fiscal crisis not as the gap between revenue and outlay but as the prophecy of Atlas Shrugged come to life — an overbearing  government punishing the productive to aid the unproductive and precipitating a total collapse:

When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit—the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Ryan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert.”[3]

Congressman Ryan has long been a noted devotee of Ayn Rand. He has publicly stated that “[t]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”[4] Today, Rand’s writings are required reading for everyone working in Ryan’s office.[5]

This is troubling. Ayn Rand is essentially the L. Ron Hubbard of American conservatism. And Objectivism is its closest approximation of a political/ideological cult.[6]

Time and space do not permit an in-depth analysis of Rand’s school of libertarian thought, Objectivism, and its various wrinkles and permutations. Thankfully, its essence has already been distilled for us by Charlie Sheen: “Winning!” It really all comes down to that. And from an Objectivist perspective, Winners have a special virtue, a superiority that differentiates them from everyone else. This gives Winners the right, no, more than that, the responsibility, to be selfish. The flip side of this is a tendency to see the poor as somehow lacking in virtue- they are poor because they are lazy, because they have defective or deficient characters, because they are just not quite smart enough to make the cut.

The only thing holding back the Winners from achieving even more is the rest of us, and especially the poor and the government that supports and protects them through social welfare programs. To an Objectivist, Winners are producers; the poor are a drain, an anchor holding society back… useless mouths. The greatest sin is to take from Winners and redistribute to the poor.

In the words on Jonathan Chait, “[t]he enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.”[7]

Understanding this is the key to grasping the intellectual and ethical coldness at the heart of much of modern libertarian thought, as well as its tendency towards Social Darwinism. It also explains the deep hostility of many radical libertarians towards the federal government, the entity that takes from Winners and places boundaries and restraints on their selfishness.[8]

Ryan’s budget proposal is, in many ways, an Objectivist document. As Chait has noted, the “overwhelming thrust” of the proposal is a desire “to liberate the lucky and the successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens.”[9] As a result, Ryan’s plan slashes spending on social programs that benefit the poor and the middle class while, simultaneously, reducing the tax burden on the wealthiest members of our society.[10] This is inexplicable from a policy standpoint, and indefensible from an ethical one. But it makes perfect sense if you see the world from an Objectivist perspective.

Ryan’s proposals on Medicare have attracted the most attention. Essentially, he’d replace the current version with a voucher system for everyone presently aged 55 and younger in 2022 and beyond.[11] This may sound innocuous, but it has tremendous financial implications for individuals in the working and middle classes attempting to save for retirement. Given projected increases in healthcare costs, it is extremely unlikely that most of us will be able to purchase insurance comparable to today’s Medicare post-2022.[12] In Ryan’s vision, “prosperity” is apparently some sort of Orwellian new-speak for learning to live with a lot less.

But Ryan would also dramatically slash spending on a range of other social programs such as food stamps and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (“WIC”).[13] He is proposing this at a time when many Americans are either unemployed, or underemployed. A time when one in seven of us (and one in five children) are on food stamps. And remember, food stamps and WIC are means-tested programs. How these people will eat is not explained in Ryan’s proposal. Perhaps they will eat cake?

At the same time, Ryan’s proposal would reduce taxes for the richest Americans, the Winners. Thus, the “Path to Prosperity” contains “a massive, regressive tax cut.”[14] Specifically, Ryan would make the Bush tax cuts permanent while, simultaneously, reducing the top marginal personal income tax rate to 25%.[15]

Most Americans understand that entitlement reform is necessary. Many of us recognize that core social programs are on unsustainable trajectories. And we know that simply raising taxes, or eliminating tax exemptions, standing alone, isn’t an answer. But I don’t think Ryan’s proposal is a reform- it’s more like an Objectivist evisceration, both of the social contract, and of the power of the federal government itself.

As Pope Benedict XVI has taught in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere license.” Sadly, the budgetary proposals of Congressional Republicans are a repudiation of the Pope’s urgent call.[16]

In the midst of economic and fiscal crisis, it is important that we not lose sight of our shared responsibilities for each other, and for our society as a whole. Now, more then ever, we need to attend to the commons, and to the common good. We need to ensure that our economy, and our government, equitably distributes the benefits and burdens generated by both booms and busts.

In the end, if you are in the middle or working classes, then Ryan’s proposal isn’t a “Path to Prosperity”- it is a roadmap to oligarchy and systemic inequality. It repudiates our obligation to the common good, and ignores our responsibilities towards the most vulnerable members of our society. And that’s a path I’d rather not tread.


[1] Chait, Jonathan. (April 10, 2011). “War on the Weak.” The Dailey Beast.

[2] Chait, Jonathan. (May 2, 2011). “What Republicans Mean When They Say They Fear the Debt.” The New Republic. Indeed, an anonymous Republican Congressional staffer told The Atlantic Monthly that Republicans are not being intellectually honest in the budget debate: “in the real world, fixing the deficit is a matter of national survival. When you get down to the real world decisions, it’s not about whether to raise taxes. It’s about the ratio of spending to revenue increases.” See Thompson, Derek. (May 11, 2011). “GOP Aide: Republicans Not ‘Intellectually Honest’ on Taxes.” The Atlantic Monthly.  Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/gop-aide-republicans-not-intellectually-honest-on-taxes/238756/

[3] Chait, “What Republicans Mean When They Say They Fear the Debt.“

[4] Chait, “War on the Weak”

[5] Beam, Christopher. (Dec. 26, 2010). “The Trouble With Liberty.” New York Magazine.

[6] See: Walker, Jeff. (1999). “The Ayn Rand Cult.” (Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co.).

[7] Chait, “War on the Weak.”

[8] And as Paul Nevis has cogently observed, today, the Randian glorification of selfishness “can only be endorsed as a panacea by those who are oblivious to the economic and political evidence from American history and contemporary events.”  Nevins, Paul. (April 19, 2011). “Ayn Rand and the Paradox of Selfishness.” The Politics of Selfishness.  Retrieved from: http://www.politicsofselfishness.com/2011/04/-ayn-rand-and-the-paradox-of-selfishness.html

[9] Chait, Jonathan. (Dec. 28, 2010). “Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand.”  The New Republic.

[10] Lux, Mike. (April 6, 2011). “The Cal Coolidge/Paul Ryan Budget.” Crooks and Liars. Retrieved from: http://crooksandliars.com/taxonomy/term/4325,962,7872

[11] As Paul Krugman has observed, although Ryan’s proposal ostensibly guarantees Americans over 55 today’s version of Medicare, it creates an “unstable” and, in my opinion, unsustainable dynamic by creating two very different healthcare systems for senior citizens in the future- the lucky ones with the “old” version of Medicare, and the rest of us. See: Krugman, Paul. (April 5, 2011). “The 2022 Medicare Crisis.” The New York Times.

[12] According to an analysis of the “Path to Prosperity” by the Congressional Budget Office, Ryan’s proposal would actually increase healthcare costs overall, because private insurance is more expensive to purchase. See: Levey, Noam N. (April 7, 2011). “Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan increases costs, budget office says.” Los Angeles Times.

[13] Byler, Eric. (May 12, 2011). “Analysis of ‘Paul Ryan Budget’ by National Priorities Project.” CoffeePartyUSA. Retrieved from: http://www.coffeepartyusa.com/ryan-budget-npp

[14] Chait, Jonathan. (April 5, 2011). “The Achilles Heel Of The Path To Prosperity.” The New Republic.

[15] Chait, Jonathan. (April 20, 2011). “Yes, Paul Ryan Does Cut Taxes For The Rich.” The New Republic.

[16] Recognizing this, a group of Catholic clergy and professors have sharply criticized House Speaker Boehner (a Catholic) for his roll in passing a budget proposal that “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of our society.” See:  Marrapodi, Eric.  (May 11, 2011). “Catholic professors blast Boehner’s record over cuts to poor.” CNN. Retrieved from: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/11/catholic-professors-want-boehner-to-reconcider-cuts/?hpt=C2


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About the Contributor

Michael Stafford

Michael Stafford

Author Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law and a former Republican Party officer from Middletown. He works as an attorney in Wilmington. He is the author of the book “An Upward Calling” on the need for public policy and politics to advance the common good.


  • Wow, you sure gave us a pretty long-winded op-ed.  However, I think you summed it up fairly well.  I could probably write a response as long as this article, but I will focus on a couple of key things.

    You mention the poor and how adherents of Objectivism sometimes view the poor, in your words they lacking in virtue because they are lazy.  I grew up poor, living the first 20 years or so of my life in poverty (well below the established poverty line).  It took a good 11 years of scraping by in low paying jobs to make it to the bottom edge of middle class, working two or three jobs at a time.  A couple of bad turns of luck (injury, illness) may have condemned me to a life of poverty.  Because of my status as poor, I received very little in the way of help from those in authority (employers, bosses), even though I excelled in my different jobs.  I found my own way out of the ghetto, but the point is, some people cannot work their way out of being poor because of varying circumstances and an un-even playing field.

    As a libertarian, I admit that I do like the writings Ayn Rand and I revisit them every couple of years for some encouragement.  Fortunately, I don’t buy into the cult of personality around Rand, which she eschewed, yet somehow encouraged at the same time.  Her writings are good, to some extent, for a personal philosophy, but as a social philosophy, they are pretty bad.  If we could assume that every man, woman, child and corporation abided by the same philosophies, then it would make more sense. 

    I agree that a Rand-ian agenda is not the best thing for this country.  Even on a personal note, I strongly disagree with Rand’s concepts of selfishness as a virtue and the idea that the earth’s resources are here for humankind to exploit.  If Rand had written in this day what she wrote back then, I believe that she would be quickly marginalized.


  • Excellent thoughtful post.  Although I knew about Rand’s influence on Greenspan, I didn’t know about her influence on Ryan.  I have often thought that if a society went Randian suddenly, it would last maybe a month or two before the people would overturn it.  It would be insufferable–all those private roads and things, ugh.  Perhaps that’s why Ryan’s budget proposals (especially the one about Medicare) are being roundly rejected by the people according to the polls.  His budget proposals are tinged with the antisocial nature of Rand’s thought and the people have too much conscience for that.

  • Finally! A political article that criticizes without demonizing, while eloquently making a case for the common good in our policies.

    I was unaware that Ryan was an adherent of Rand’s philosophies.  That explains some of the strange things that come from him in recent years.

  • The fact that you were a party office holder for the Republican Party of Delaware explains why the Party is in such a fine state.
    You try and present Paul Ryan as a Ron Paul type figure. Ron Paul voting record, writings and speeches stand the test of time, Paul Ryan is a Tea Party carpetbagger.
    Ryan voted for TARP, No Child left Behind, Ethanol Subsidies, GM and Chrysler bail outs, Supported 2003 Medicare Expansion, etc etc.
    Does this sound like someone who is a Ayn Rand nut?  
     But as long as we’re talking about insanity, who would have ever thought that we’d be spending 25 percent of GDP, a figure last seen during World War II? Who would ever have thought that deficits and debt as a share of the economy would be hearkening back to days when we were locked in a twilight struggle against the Nazis and their fascist and imperialist allies? At least at the end of World War II, there was a widespread expecations that spending would be reduced. As we look to the next decade and beyond, all signs are that government spending will explode higher.

    The real fantasy at work in contemporary America doesn’t revolve around attempts to cut spending.