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Conservatism may be in decline, but don’t blame it on Ayn Rand.
That’s what Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne tried to do last week while responding to Paul Ryan’s announcement that he would be leaving Congress at the end of this term.
Dionne said Ryan was the “personification of conservatism’s decline,” which he said was “rooted in his youthful fascination with the philosophy of Ayn Rand.”
“She identified with society’s winners and regarded ordinary citizens as moochers and burdens on the creative and the entrepreneurial,” he wrote.
As the leader of an educational organization which promotes Ayn Rand’s philosophy, let me make it clear that Ryan is, by his own admission, no Objectivist, and Rand was no conservative.
The left loves to hate Ayn Rand, and so regularly mischaracterizes her views and maligns her admirers that one more repeated offense barely merits a rebuttal. But Dionne’s piece conflates, equates and exaggerates several points which require clarification.
Implying that Ayn Rand is somehow seminally responsible for “conservatism’s decline” disregards the fact that she denounced conservatives — and they her — in the most strident terms. Her Objectivist philosophy — which Ryan called “something that I completely disagree with” — was antithetical to conserving traditions that relied on faith and social convention. She rejected equally duties that were not chosen, or guilt that was not earned.
The seeds of Ryan’s departure — and conservatism’s decline — were sown not by Rand, but by her arch-nemesis, William F. Buckley. Ryan was not revolutionary, as was Rand, in either his personality or policy orientation. He was, as Buckley himself would characteristically drawl, “rather” trying to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop!”
Dionne caricatures Ryan as a kind of fiscal Freddy Krueger, “slashing taxes” and “eviscerating social-welfare” — but in reality the Wisconsin Republican has been the guy doing all he can to simply keep the monster at bay. President Kennedy slashed taxes, or at least the top marginal rate, from 90% to 70%; Reagan slashed it even more, down to 28 percent. Ryan may have fantasized about wielding a scythe, but managed only to handle a scalpel, as the top rate in his supposedly landmark tax bill only dropped from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.
Dionne similarly paints Ryan as aggressively, and obsessively, pursuing corporate tax cuts. But once again, Ryan was only playing defense, trying to provide parity with far more attractive international corporate tax rates, which hurt the economy by incentivizing companies to relocate and invest overseas.
According to Dionne, the budget conscious Ryan was indifferent to deficits “if they were created by showering money on the country’s privileged sectors.” And herein lies the fundamental problem with his analysis. Before money is showered, it must be sourced. This — not Ryan’s fleeting and expedient cooperation with President Trump — is what truly baffles “the many in Washington.” It remains as true today as Ayn Rand once described: “The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”
The reality is Ryan’s conservatism merely tried to tinker around the edges of America’s confiscatory tax regime and indulgent welfare state. A true Randian would have pushed — and settled for nothing less — than something far more drastic than cutting the marginal tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.
Rand recognized that America’s progressive tax system and welfare state aren’t problematic only because they provide negative incentives, but because they violate individual rights — which are properly negative rights, to be left alone to pursue happiness unmolested by criminal thugs or government bureaucrats.
Rand’s philosophy was revolutionary in a way neither Ryan nor the conservative movement more broadly ever understood or embraced. The country would be in a much better position if they had.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.