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July 10, 2014 1:01 PM Is Ryan Half-Pregnant With Objectivism?

By Ed Kilgore

As part of a long-running argument with Ross Douthat and others, Jonathan Chait offers a definitive list of reasons it’s fair to accuse Paul Ryan of being in some real sense a follower of the controversial writer and laissez-faire capitalist agitator Ayn Rand. Here’s a sample:

3. Listed Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, as one of the three books he most frequently rereads.
4. Told The Weekly Standard, “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.”
5. Repeatedly divided American society into “makers” and “takers.”
6. Declared that Rand’s thinking is “sorely needed right now” because we are “living in an Ayn Rand novel” and that “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this, to me, is what is [sic] matters most.”
7. Appeared at a gathering of Rand devotees and declared Rand’s philosophy was “the reason I got involved in public service,” that he makes it “required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff,” and that her philosophy continues to inspire “almost every fight we are involved in here, on Capitol Hill.”

I would just add the point I’ve tried to make whenever this subject of Rand’s “influence” comes up: it’s really, really difficult to partially appropriate Ayn Rand’s thinking. Rand herself hated such efforts, and devoted some of her most venomous rhetoric to “second-handers” who tried to amalgamate her comprehensive philosophy of Objectivism with conservatism or “libertarianism” or particularly Christianity. And this uncompromising attitude was without question most evident in Atlas Shrugged, which, as the famous negative review of the book for National Review by Whittaker Chambers suggested, is impossible to ignore:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.

Rand herself would have been the very first to say that she had zero interest in “influencing” anyone. Atlas Shrugged (and for that matter, Objectivism) is a direct, take-it-or-leave-it challenge to the reader. Ryan has either flip-flopped very recently about Rand, or isn’t telling us the truth because of Rand’s infamous atheism and advocacy of the “virtue of selfishness,” or never understood Atlas Shrugged to begin with. Take your pick, but suggesting Rand just “influenced” Ryan is not a persuasive response to those of us alarmed that anyone with actual political power likes to re-read Atlas Shrugged for inspiration.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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