By Tom Allen
Paul Ryan is the most puzzling member of Congress, at least to me. I served with him on the House Budget Committee for four of my twelve years in the House. Paul is warm, personable, intelligent, articulate — a true gentleman. Yet what he says about the federal budget and taxes makes little sense. His belief in the miraculous power of tax cuts and the crippling effect of federal “spending” was not supported by the economists who testified at our hearings.
Paul Ryan is a disciple of Ayn Rand. He credits the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as the person most responsible for inspiring him to get into politics. Rand’s celebration of heroic entrepreneurs and demonization of government and bureaucrats finds expression today in the Republican elevation of “job creators” as our indispensable driving economic force, people who must be fed a steady diet of tax cuts to be productive.
Ryan’s rise in influence within the House, and as Romney’s running mate, is a reflection of the energy of the anti-government, libertarian center of the Republican Party, and also of its inability to generate coherent public policies on economic growth, health care, and climate change. Why was the clarion call to “repeal and replace Obamacare” never followed by a comprehensive proposal to replace it? Why must viable Republican candidates deny the scientific consensus on climate change? Why was the Republican Convention so barren of concrete conservative policies and oversaturated with airy rhetoric about “freedom, faith and family”?
After more than a decade listening to my Republican colleagues in Congress, I believe that the GOP has lost any conception of what a conservative government should do in the 21st century. Fixated on a single central vision of “smaller government, lower taxes,” the party’s leaders cannot develop a constructive governing agenda to address our major public challenges. A more pragmatic agenda would include limiting or countervailing conservative principles such as improving governmental effectiveness or (seriously) reducing the deficit.
It wasn’t entirely sheer obstructionism that led Senator Mitch McConnell to proclaim his highest priority was to deny President Obama a second term. His party’s agenda for the federal government was and remains to tax less, spend less, and do less. The Republican Party has become in all but name a libertarian organization with a mission of ever smaller government, ever lower taxes. On that slippery slope Republican members of Congress can always be outflanked on the right.
The Republican worldview that Ryan so ably articulates, with its heroic job creators battling governments that stifle innovation and create “dependency,” is the primary source of the Party’s inability to support action by government to address health care, environmental, and economic issues on the basis of best evidence about competing policies.
Before the invasion of Iraq, Secretary Rumsfeld explained that a rapid US withdrawal after decapitating the Iraqi government was necessary to avoid creating a “dependency” among Iraqis. Ryan used the same language to justify his proposals to dramatically reduce support for poor, retired and disabled people on Medicare and Medicaid. Underlying these positions is a conviction — grounded in faith, not evidence — that helping others through government action will weaken both the intended beneficiaries and the country.
That position is inconsistent with the teachings of the world’s great religions, which call on their adherents to help those in need. That’s why the Catholic Bishops criticized the 2012 Ryan budget as being inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it is consistent with the teachings of Ayn Rand, who celebrated selfishness and wrote in her journal that “Christianity is the best kindergarten for communism.”
Paul Ryan has said that “we are living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking.” But Galt’s Gulch is a fable and our world is infinitely complicated. Contemporary hostility to government on the right has bred dangerous convictions, among them, tax cuts pay for themselves, we’ll be welcomed as liberators, and climate science isn’t proven — dangerous because they aren’t supported by evidence and aren’t susceptible to compromise.
I have been out of Congress for four years, and people still ask in frustration and anger why the two parties cannot reason together. The usual explanations have to do with redistricting, big money, the media, the permanent campaign, and political power struggles. Yet I believe the primary source of political polarization and congressional gridlock is the transformation of a quintessential American virtue, self-reliance, into a political doctrine that rejects the idea that government is one way we work together for the common good.
Traditional interest-group politics is now overwhelmed by “worldview politics,” a widening, hardening conflict between those who believe that the mission of government is to advance the common good and those who believe government inevitably diminishes individual liberty. As a result, all domestic issues merge into one — an unproductive, irreconcilable, ideological conflict about government itself. Yet ultimately this conflict is about our collective inability to treat our passion for individualism and community as the central yin and yang of American culture and politics.
The path to a more pragmatic politics inspired by a shared conception of the common good may now seem beyond our reach. But no trend continues forever. Along that path we must learn again that self-reliance and working together are equally necessary, not irreconcilable alternatives.
Tom Allen is President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. He is former U.S. Congressman representing Maine’s 1st District from 1997 to 2009. He is the author of Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress.
Image credit: Official portrait of U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI). 2012. United States Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.