Not Fit for Dinner: Rand's Influence on Ryan

Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

The national spotlight is on Congressman Paul Ryan more than ever before, now that Mitt Romney chose him as his running mate. This week has been a crash course in which we’ve glimpsed Ryan’s childhood pictures, learned about his voting record, and heard about his position on nearly every election issue.

One area of particular interest—or concern—is Ryan’s devotion to Ayn Rand, a famous novelist and thinker who emigrated from Communist Russia to America and heralded individualism over collectivism (or statism). Conservatives have often praised Rand’s political views: severely limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and the likes. Her ideological fervor can make Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman seem like lightweights.

Christian conservatives who have had a crash-course on Rand’s ideas worry about her influence on Ryan, a Catholic, for Rand was a staunch atheist (at one point she described Christianity’s values as “the best kindergarten of communism possible”) and believed only in what can be perceived through reason of the natural world. In the words of Rand scholar Craig Biddle, her philosophy, known as Objectivism (though it’s hardly objective), is

fully secular and absolutist; it is neither liberal nor conservative nor anywhere in-between. It recognizes and upholds the secular (this-worldly) source and nature of moral principles and the secular moral foundations of a fully free, fully civilized society.

Had Rand believed in hell, she would have cast faith, altruism, social welfare, and just about every public official and bureaucrat in it, had she the power to do so.

As Ryan’s devotion to Rand’s ideas have come under increased scrutiny, he’s had to emphasize his rejection of her philosophy, accepting only her political and economic views. On Fox News, Ryan said Rand’s Objectivism is “something that I completely disagree with.” Instead, Ryan simply “enjoyed” her novels—Atlas Shrugged specifically—and thought they were “interesting.”

This is quite a different story from his statement at a 2005 Atlas Society event, where he had this to say:

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 can probably accept that Ryan rejects Rand’s atheism, but his statement from 2005 makes it very hard to believe some of Rand’s principles that are antithetical to, say, Christianity have not made their way into Ryan’s thinking.

If Paul Ryan just played Video Games he would know that BIOSHOCK disproved Objectivism in 2007.

I won’t go into the literary quality of Rand’s novels, which is, to quote Flannery O’Connor, “as low as you can get.” If I’d received a copy of Atlas Shrugged for Christmas as a present from Ryan (a favorite present of his to give others in years past), I would have considered it the closest I’ve ever come to getting coal in my stocking.

Instead, I think it’s important to point out that Rand used her fiction to apply (and probably develop) her basic philosophical principles. As Rand scholar Jennifer Burns explained in her recent book on Rand’s influence on conservatism, numerous businessmen admired and praised Rand’s fiction, find it (in Burns’ words) “a perfect fit for [their] corporate efforts.”

But Rand’s Objectivism is the starting point for her political and economic philosophy. It makes certain assumptions about human nature and traces the ripple effects of those assumptions. In this case, the egg (Rand’s Objectivism) comes before the chicken (her fiction). So the notion that readers like Ryan are able to separate Rand’s philosophy from her fiction, as well as her political and economic beliefs, is wishful thinking. The ideas in Rand’s fiction stem directly from her Objectivist principles, for better or worse.

More like Abjectivism.

We can’t simply pretend a thinker’s foundational principles, political affiliations, or beliefs have no bearing on their work in other fields. When we reject a thinker’s foundational principles, it is our job to carefully probe the thinker’s ideas we accept to see what effect(s) the thinker’s foundational principles have upon those ideas. Contrary to Marvin Olasky’s call for conservatives to “show what in Rand they agree with and what they spurn,” I argue we can’t simply pick and choose what we like and reject what we dislike. Ideas don’t appear without strings. They carry traces of their origins with them.

I agree with many writers that Romney’s selection of Ryan is helpful in that it forces the national debate to deal with ideological beliefs in addition to current issues (Medicare, Medicaid, energy, etc.). But as we move in this positive direction, we have to carefully investigate how basic principles inform and guide ideas about politics, economy, and so forth. These ideas may very well affected—perhaps even tainted—by the foundational principles from which they derive.

Next week Benjamin Bartlett will explore these questions and others about Ryan in a feature article.


About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com

  • Daniel

    Great analysis, Ryan.

    It’s odd that your points have been used time and time again against liberation theology and progressive politics in the church (“it all goes back to Marx and since he was an atheist you’re buying an atheist worldview if you believe in social security”), but often the right has been desperate to “save” Rand’s conclusions from her anti-Christian premesis.

    Christians should not accept any philosophy–political or otherwise–because the conclusions happen to agree with their own views. I think both conservatives and progressives can build arguments that flow from biblical principals; and to do otherwise–baptizing Marx or Rand–is a serious compromise with serving two masters, and intellectually dishonest.

    BTW, I am ignorant of your reference to “Bioshock” as my computer gaming experience is centered around Civilization and The Sims…how did this address Rand?

  • Alan Noble

    Daniel, there are a number of sources that can detail the relationship between BIOSHOCK and Objectivism, but here’s a start: http://kotaku.com/354717/no-gods-or-kings-objectivism-in-bioshock

    Essentially, the world of BIOSHOCK is an Objectivist society that goes horribly wrong, thus suggesting that maybe an Objectivist society wouldn’t be good after all.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Ryan,

    I think I partially agree with your conclusion. I do think, however, that at times Christian and other worldviews may come to complementary perspectives via different routes, or that aspects of non- (or even anti-) Christian worldviews might still be compatible with Christian understandings. Of course, in order to make such judgments, the foundational philosophies must first be ruthlessly interrogated. As you and the commenters note, we must avoid baptizing a view into our own set of beliefs simply because we already like or agree with it; but it might be appropriate to suggest of any particular thought, “This position can be extrapolated from such-and-such non-Christian worldview; but it could also be arrived at through a Christian understanding.”

    To use an example from Scripture: I think it would be fair to say that the book of Hebrews derives at the very least some of its language, and probably some of its concepts, from some form of Platonism. Yet of course Plato and his later disciples were by no means necessarily Christian. It would seem safe to suggest that the author of Hebrews, while aware of several very different underlying assumptions in Plato, found some aspects of such language or thought appropriate. Or, to use an alternate example, one could find a philosophical basis for loving one’s neighbor in Buddhism, ut since one can also find it in Christianity, that does not make it an un-Christian proposition. Thus, in theory, I would contend that it would not be intrinsically problematic for Paul Ryan to adopt aspects of Ayn Rand’s thought even if he rejects its foundational premises–provided those aspects could also find complementary foundations in Scripture.

    The problem, however, is that, like you, I anyway find no such complementary foundations. I think that in the particular instance of Ryan’s apprehension of Ayn Rand, he has not sufficiently interrogated the assumptions underlying her thought.

    So, in summary, I agree with you that it is essential to think responsibly about how we approach belief systems outside the church, and I agree with you that we ought not go willy-nilly cherry-picking this or that uncautiously. But we as Christians still can learn to understand our own faith better through non-Christians who have through general revelation understood certain aspects of truth particularly well. Ultimately, however, I don’t think the Ryan-Rand connection is an example of such fruitful adoption.

    Geoffrey R.

  • Peter S

    Ryan,
    Loved the article. I agree with you that we must be careful about the ideas the we associate ourselves with, but I also appreciate Geoffrey’s caveat. I do indeed believe that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of its source. I haven’t read Rand’s work, but I am somewhat familiar with the basics of her ideas and her objectivism. I would love to see a more in depth analysis (perhaps by you even… no pressure) of her ideas. You argue that, for Christians, her political and economic philosophies are flawed because of their intrinsic connection to her objectivism. I would love to see the particulars of this spelled out and explored in depth. This may be helpful for more than just me, given the rise of libertarian thinking in the church. Thanks!

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Geoffrey and Peter, thanks for your input. I agree with your caveat, Geoffrey; I neglected to make that important point you raised in the column, so I’m grateful you’ve raised it in your comment. It’s certainly possible to have the right conclusions but to have reached them erroneously or accidentally. We should be glad when people hold the right conclusions, even if they didn’t reach them correctly — and dialogue about the different ways each party reached the correct conclusion would surely be fruitful.

    Peter, to clarify a little, what I argue (or mean to argue, at least) is not quite that Rand’s politics and economics are de facto wrong because they’re tied to her Objectivism. I mean to say only that they (her politics and economics) are directly affected and conditioned by her Objectivism.

    To give a rather simplified example: a foundational principle of Rand’s Objectivism is her praise of rational egoism (basically, “every man for himself”) and her condemnation of altruism (self-sacrifice, or giving of yourself for the benefit of others). Such a premise is the foundation for her political dichotomy of individualism vs. collectivism. No doubt, collectivist totalitarianism is a great danger. But the rejection of altruism can easily lead to the rejection of “collectivist” things like social services (social workers, for instance), charity, emergency relief, etc. that play an important role in helping people rebound. Someone applying the principles of rational egoism in the political sphere would be hard-pressed to support such forms of aid since they require some degree of sacrifice.

    Does this help?

  • Daniel

    Great response, Ryan.

    Your response made me think about how most conservatives greatly admire the military and view self-sacrifice in that context–dying for one’s comrades and country–as one of most heroic, if not THE most heroic acts. Objectivism would be completely contrary to this concept, and ultimately it is anarchistic.

  • Peter S

    Ryan,
    Great example! I’ve often thought that libertarianism was an overglamorized form of social Darwinism.


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