Paul Ryan and the resurgence of Ayn Rand

First aired on The Current (14/08/12)

During the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. Characters on the hit 1960s period drama Mad Men have been seen reading and discussing her books. Yoga wear company Lululemon sparked some controversy in 2011 when it started selling bags emblazoned with her quotations. And most recently, newly minted U.S. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has been the subject of media attention focused on whether he's a diehard Ayn Rand devotee.

Past evidence suggests he is. In 2005, Ryan gave a speech at a Celebration of Ayn Rand event hosted by the Atlas Society, in which he said the following:

" ...The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."

The congressman from Wisconsin also revealed that he gave copies of Atlas Shrugged to his interns, a move not unlike Bert Cooper's promotion of the book in Mad Men.

However, Ryan has recently been stepping away from his passionate support of Rand and her objectivist, intensely pro-capitalist philosophies. She was, after all, an ardent atheist, which makes the connection to her difficult if one is trying to get elected in the U.S. He's described the stories about his appreciation of her work as an "urban legend."

Rand expert Gary Weiss, author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, isn't convinced that it's an urban legend.

"He hasn't repudiated anything he has said, but denied saying it, in effect," Weiss said on The Current. "That's why he's been getting a lot of attention."

Weiss believes that Ryan has sounded like an "Ayn Rand acolyte." His remarks at the 2005 event suggest he is. But you can also look at his policy ideas for further indication. Rand was completely against welfare state policies and believed that government should only be responsible for the courts, police and military. She also supported the unchecked acquisition of wealth, something that would put her firmly at odds with the "99 Percent" movement we've seen in the last year. Weiss says he sees a bit of Rand in Ryan's proposals.

"His budget plan which cuts out $6 trillion from the budget -- it would not raise taxes on the wealthy by a nickel, but it would entirely reach those savings by cutting back programs for the poor and middle class, in particular Medicare, which has received the most attention [in the U.S.] because we don't have a national healthcare system except Medicare and Medicaid. He would cut back both programs. Medicare is for the elderly and Medicaid is for the poor, and he would also cut back on social security."

But if Rand was in favour of slashing social spending and promoting capitalism, why would Ryan be distancing himself from her iconic image? Weiss says that Rand has always been a problematic figure for politicians and the general public who elect those politicians.

"The thing about Ayn Rand that sets her apart from conservatives and libertarians, she always said that she hated conservatives. She didn't view herself as a conservative. She viewed herself as a radical for capitalism," Weiss explained. "The reason he would try to separate himself from that person is that she's kind of a toxic character among a lot of people because she was an atheist. She was opposed to religious teachings and moral teachings that are embraced by the vast majority of people."

In other words, it wouldn't matter if your target audience consists of liberals or conservatives or independents: it's difficult to appeal to society in general if you're perceived as idealizing someone who believed selfishness and unmitigated greed were supreme virtues.

"She said that altruism was evil, those were the words that she used," Weiss said. "And that repels a lot of people."