Like Jonathan Chait, I suspect Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged got kicked off Paul Ryan’s list of favorite books for less than honest reasons:
The volume that Ryan once handed out to all his staffers, listed as one of his three most frequently reread books of any kind and cited as the entire reason he got into public service, no longer makes the top six list of books on politics and economics. (Follow-up question for Representative Ryan: Are there any books that you considered, sir, but that did not make the list?)
But also like Chait, I find it interesting that Ryan did mention two cranky ideological tomes that have the special benefit of not having been read by about a fifth of adolescents in America, and that do not, so far as I know, attack religion as intrinsically evil.
More interesting — and revealing of the direction Ryan is headed — are the final two books Ryan does name: The Way the World Works by Jude Wanniski and Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder. I have read both. Wealth and Poverty is a weird, rambly, mostly unoriginal recitation of free-market homilies whose influence largely derives from the fact that it came out just as Ronald Reagan swept to power and was thus seen as an intellectual manifesto for the new Republican Party. The Way the World Works is a novel argument that the entire history of the world can be explained by changes of tax rates. The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Nazis — Wanniski attempts to explain it all as a result of taxes. It is a work of genuine derangement on the same intellectual level as the sorts of unpublishable hand-scrawled diatribes that I used to scan through when I sorted the mail as a magazine intern.
The lunacy of Wanniski’s worldview was often hidden by the fact that his main theory centered on a technical issue area that most people don’t understand, and he had a powerful patron in Jack Kemp, whom he had converted to the supply-side cause and continued to tutor throughout his career. Eventually Wanniski started defending the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Slobodan Milosevic, denying Saddam Hussein had gassed the Kurds, and so on, which made his oddity more obvious to the lay audience. Gilder is actually even less hinged than Wanniski, and has held forth on various views from a belief that ESP is real to insisting “there is no such thing a reasonably intelligent feminist.”
So it seems the lesson Ryan has drawn from the harmful publicity surrounding his Rand fixation is not that he shouldn’t associate himself publicly with crackpot authors but merely that he should find different crackpot authors.
Crackpot authors, of course, who are especially beloved of supply-side conservatives for whom lowering top marginal tax rates remains the Great White Whale, as it apparently is to Ryan.
Ryan would probably be better advised to just say he doesn”t need to read books any more, since the entire punditocracy agrees he’s a genius.
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