Makers and takers

Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice.  As a consequence, there's been a good bit of attention paid to Ryan's much-touted appreciation of Ayn Rand.  One edge is to criticize Randian economic policy.  Another edge is to ask whether Ryan himself lives by the Randian rules.  Here's Joan Walsh taking the second option, over at Slate,  with her article, "Paul Ryan: Randian Poseur":

When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. . . . After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government. . . .Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.

It's been a regular question here at the NS whether some kinds of tu quoque arguments can be relevant.  Again, the best example is what we've been calling smoking dad, which has the father, in the midst of taking a drag from a cigarette, telling the son that he shouldn't smoke because smoking's addictive and bad for your health.  Of course, the father's a hypocrite, but he's right, and his hypocrisy actually is relevant, because it's evidence that the father, who thinks smoking's bad, can't stop.  So it is addictive.  OK, so what about Walsh's argument here?  It seems to be that: Paul Ryan is committed to Randian principles, but doesn't live by them.  So… what follows, and why?

Here's the argument with the strongest conclusion:  Ryan's failure to live by his principles shows that they aren't right, that they aren't practicable.  Randianism is all about individuals, doing things by themselves, and ensuring that others don't interfere.  But that's not how societies work. Instead, individual success arises out of large-scale cooperation, opportunities afforded, and others giving back. 

Now, I do think that the hypocrisy of those avowing ideology X can regularly be relevant to our estimation of X.  But not all hypocrisies are created equal.  Couldn't a defender of Ryan and Randianism say something like: sure, but all this is evidence of how things work now, not how they should.  Paul Ryan benefitted from this system, and it was in his interest to do so, but that doesn't mean that the system is just or appropriate.  It just means it benefits some people.  They should be free to criticize it, still.

I think that reply is just about right, but it does miss one thing, which I  think Walsh's column could make clearer: it's easy to forget, even when you're Paul Ryan, that individual successes are nevertheless social products.  And that social programs do help people, even Randians, pursue their self interest.

4 thoughts on “Makers and takers”

  1. The more interesting thing to me is that Ryan has a pretty significant history of voting against his ideology on budget-busting legislation. Not as an exploration of hypocrisy, but as an exploration of the criteria that Ryan applies when deciding to ignore what he claims to be his core values in favor of legislation such as Medicare Part D, TARP and the auto industry bailout. With Medicare Part D, even though he wasn't the deciding vote, he could argue that it was close, important to his party, and that he put loyalty to his party and/or president ahead of his belief that the bill was harmful, but how does he explain his more recent support of big spending votes under President Obama when his "aye" vote would not have been missed.
    Perhaps it's just me, but his defense provided to date seems unconvincing: If he didn't vote for TARP (263:171) we might have seen the collapse of the financial industry and some sort of government takeover of private enterprise, or that if he didn't vote for the auto industry bailout (237:170) even more government money would have gone to private enterprise. Those votes were not close, so he could have stood up for his professed principles without any fear of the slippery slope.
    Call me cynical…. I think Ryan was picked by Romney for three reasons: 1. He's plain vanilla, virtually no chance of overshadowing Romney, virtually no chance of embarrassing skeletons popping out of the closet; 2. He is reassuring to the wealthy elite that are pushing the proposals Ryan has put into his 'budget'; and 3. His established track record demonstrates that he will do what he's told, whatever his personal beliefs.

  2. I find these charges of hypocrisy a little hollow. As far as I have read, Ryan grew up rather privileged, but nonetheless made the most of his situation. He seems to have been both a good student and networker, has developed some intellectual convictions shared by the new strain of Libertarian-Conservatives (we really should come up with a new name for these mutants), and has avoided personal or political scandals. As many have pointed out, Objectivism is a bit of joke, so Ryan, as a strong advocate of that ideology, is also a bit of a joke. That, I think, is more damning than calling him a hypocrite.

  3. I have more of a request for Mr. Aikin than a comment. Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed–Galt, Gold and God–which was published in the NY Times on August 23. Krugman begins the op-ed with an attack on Paul Ryan's ideas by connecting them to Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Mr. Aikin, if you have time, I'd love to see your analysis of Krugman's op-ed.

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