Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand: Can a brother shrug?

In the past few weeks, Paul Ryan has been the prime bogeyman of liberals and progressives.  His proposed Federal budget plan trims entitlement growth more than Democrats would like.  Supreme Keynesian Paul Krugman has accused Ryan, a father of three from Wisconsin, of being an Ayn Rand fanatic.  The Congressman has played down his affinity for Rand’s egoistic philosophy of Objectivism.

Liberals’ groaning over Ryan intensified after he delivered a policy speech at the Catholic Georgetown University last week.  Here he hoped to justify his policy decisions in terms of a personal understanding of his Catholic faith.  Invoking church doctrines creatively and boldly, he suggested that the moral obligation of solidarity with the poor might best be served by a prudential application of subsidiarity.  In layman’s terms, our society can help the poor better by learning from history and subsequently devolving aid responsibility from the highest offices of power to the smallest practicable unit.

Ryan’s speech was thoughful and provocative, but perhaps too threatening to the Georgetown faculty’s belief that Catholic social teaching is an automatic endorsement of unmitigated big government.  Ninety of the school’s faculty signed and sent Congressman Ryan a scathing epistle rebuking and encouraging him to bone up on the doctrines he cited.

So recently, Ryan has aggrieved his fellow parishioners and has been linked with one of the grumpiest, most selfish atheists of yesteryear.  Is he just a glutton for punishment?  No. If we heed Mr. Ryan’s call to look at history and experience, we’ll find that his Christian faith and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy furnish common ground for resisting America’s decades-long progressive drive toward cultural and fiscal oblivion.

In Ayn Rand’s most influential work, Atlas Shrugged, we get to see a worldview shaped by the author’s firsthand experiences of two historic catastrophes: Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and America’s Great Depression.  The first impressed her with man’s capacity for coercion, and the second his capacity for incompetence.  And it’s this second lesson that remains pertinent to us today.

We can trace the more salient markers of the the progressive quest for social equity: FDR’s New Deal entitlements of the 1930s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, and lately, Barack Obama’s budget-busting program expansions.  The unending accretion of altruistic programs has done more harm than good.  We’re saddled with triplicate and quadruplicate bureaucracies that don’t produce results.  A little empirical evidence demonstrates just how ineffective Federal social programs have been for the past half century.

Progressivism, the worldview that drives the long leftward march, prefers central planners to do the thinking of everyday life rather than families or individuals. The result of such a society is what Rand’s Atlas warns against: a world where people exchange the virtues of thought and creativity for pity and manipulation.  Among the classifications she assigns to the degenerate denizens of the Atlas world: “moochers” and “mystics.”  People who’ve stopped working and stopped thinking.

It’s in vigilance against such a fate that Christians share with the Randian cause.  Apologist and philosopher J.P. Moreland warns us against the sensate society, where people make decisions less with their brain and more with their gut.  One of the central truths about humanity is that each of us bears Imago Dei, God’s image.  We resemble him in our ability to reason and to create.  Even these two activities are at the core of Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean pursuit of existential necessities.

How do we turn back from a world where centralization has elevated entitlement and choked out incentive?  Atlas only offers the dramatic cataclysm of a Capitalists’ strike.  But fortunately, in the real world, Congressman Paul Ryan encourages us all to re-think our march off the cliff of uncritical, state-driven altruism.  If we can get around the Left’s pipe dreams, maybe America can jettison the vice of entitlement and recapture the values of reason and creativity.  Then we will have a truly compassionate and just society.

Deferential Discourse

Recently I was fortunate enough to see a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I really appreciate the points that Lewis conveys in his original work, and while the play was well-produced and had its shining actors, I had some problems with the writing of the adaptation itself. In translating the letters to a more concrete narrative, Lewis’ emphasis on attitudes and distinctions is lost. For example, the patient’s early dealings with haughty, progressive friends in the book are supplanted by the devils’ conspicuous trumpeting of social class, which the play ultimately does nothing constructive with. However, it does insult liberals by making the patient’s drunken louse friend a socialist.  In introducing the parish pastor, the play brandishes its disdain for the overreach of cultural relativism with a reference to church karate classes taught by a Japanese Muslim. But since these introductory remarks show no connection to the characters they describe, they come off as cheap hits on unfavored practices. If we recall the patient’s haughty pacifist friends or the morally picky parish pastor of the book, Lewis does better by withholding direct judgment on specific issues and individuals. Whether examining social activism or church sermons, the book’s Screwtape turns our attention toward our attitudes of approach rather than the specific practices or practitioners before us.

This deference given toward individuals and institutions with which there is disagreement is something I see a lot with British writers, more so in the past than today. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticizes the ideas put forward in a science textbook, but chooses to leave the work unnamed in order to stem the sensational urges that come from connecting individuals to their ideas. So those whose idea he criticizes are called in his text “Gaius and Ticius.” In old works of fiction, its not uncommon to see authors go out of their way to avoid impugning real people or places by calling them “Mr. X” or  “M. S____.”  Today I see the survival of this sense of deference in people like apologist Ravi Zacharias, well-connected with Oxford and Cambridge, and British-born journalist Peter Hitchens. In his past talks, Zacharias has often left broad elements ambiguous for the sake of his audience’s attention, saying only that such an anecdote occurred in some city on the West Coast, or that a cutting conversation happened with a professor of some unnamed Eastern religion (really, how many can we choose from?). Likewise, in a recent interview promoting his latest book The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens consistently avoids “personal” criticisms of his famously strident atheist brother Christopher. If you press him too hard on his conjectures of their personal relationship, his deference will block you and return the conversation again to the ideas, not to the people who espouse them. Peter, who claims that he is a pariah to his countrymen because of his beliefs, points to the demise of deferential discourse in his earlier book, The Abolition of Britain.

This old-style deference is remarkably rare in a sensate age where more points are conveyed with blunt images and sound bites rather than well-reasoned arguments. Yet I’m attracted to the power of shorthand that specific people and places convey. If we look at the controversies of today, so much emotion and meaning can be unpacked if you just drop some names: merely mentioning Sarah Palin or Jerry Falwell will set off a certain crowd, while mentioning Chairman Mao or Che Guevara will set off another. The deference writers do have the advantage of taking the high road and keeping their discourse focused, but I do believe there are times and places where it makes sense to be more direct. However, if someone is going to drop names, they ought to be more than just smears by association. Whether constructing a talk or writing a work of fiction, we will benefit just by being a little more careful about the specific mentions we make.

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