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THE WEEK IN GREED #11: The Ayn Rand Program

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I know I’m supposed to write about Paul Ryan, because he’s the new media brand, but I’m having trouble getting the guys in the Give-A-Shit Department on board.

Here’s what you need to know about our new vice-presidential hottie:

1. He wants to lower Mitt Romney’s tax rate to 0.82 percent

2. He opposes contraception

3. He plays a serious politician on television

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About the only thing I find genuine and revelatory when it comes to Ryan is his devotion to Ayn Rand. He tries to play this down, because Rand was an atheist, which ranks just below Communist on the GOP’s political blacklist. But Ryan worshipped Rand. He once gave a speech at a convention of Rand followers bragging that he went into public service because of her. He also required his congressional staffers to read her novels so as to learn about the free market.

Rand’s sway over the male adolescent mind is not especially subtle. Her fairytales always feature some badass rich guy battling a bunch of nebbishes who spend their hours devising new impediments to progress and pleasuring welfare queens with golden vibrators. Nobody gets how brilliant the rich guy is, and how much better he wants to make the world and it’s so unfair! Also, he gets laid.

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In the world of high-concept teen lit, Ayn Rand stands as a dark counterweight to Kurt Vonnegut. Both were (and are) literary propagandists. Vonnegut looked upon America as a nation of lonely, entitled citizens, adrift in a fog of consumerism, unable to reckon with, or quell, their lust for money and warfare. He preached generosity, pacifism, a return to the utopia of folk societies.

Rand, an immigrant from the Soviet Union, viewed her adopted homeland as a shining laboratory of human advancement. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, is a novel about a dystopian America in which all the productive citizens—a group that includes not just scientists and industrialists but artists (eek!)—go on strike and stop the motor of the world. These exalted citizens then retreat to the mountains and start their own economy. It’s a half step from eugenics. Basically, Mitt Romney’s masturbation fantasy.

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[Author’s note: I am not suggesting that Mitt Romney masturbates. If Mitt Romney, or any his supporters, are offended by the term, “masturbation fantasy” I apologize. I was trying to suggest, using colloquial and figurative language, how much Mr. Romney would enjoy Atlas Shrugged. It was not my intention to induce people to think about Mr. Romney masturbating, or about his sexual inner life in any manner.]

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But what were the temperamental differences between those of us sullen teens who read Vonnegut versus Rand?

It went something like this: Vonnegut geeks dealt with despair by means of laughter. We looked to his books as places where empathy and moral doubt could be experienced without embarrassment. We were also, as a rule, shitty readers.

Rand geeks were made of stiffer stuff. They marched around pronouncing grave syllogisms and dreamed of omnipotence. They clung to a grand vision of personal destiny: science fiction as governed by Ronald Reagan. They honestly believed in the free market as the path to utopia.

As I recall, we were all obnoxious in our allegiance and partisanship.

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You may recall that a couple of weeks ago President Obama gave a speech that catalogued the ways in which business owners depend on the collective to succeed. They need roads and bridges and water treatment plants and an electrical grid and educated employees, and so on.

These claims are demonstrably true, which did not stop Romney’s minions from editing the Obama speech so as to suggest that the President was dissing entrepreneurs. It was a fairly transparent little case of ratfucking and the for-profit demagogues—try as they might—could only fluff it into a minor story.

The episode, though, speaks to the fundamental case that Romney and Ryan must now try to make. They need to sell voters on the Ayn Rand Program: that the only way to rescue America is by freeing the Übermenschen from regulatory bondage. Collectivism is a ruse. Only individuals, spurred by fanatical self-interest, can rouse our nation from its imperial decline.

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Rand’s most famous passage is a radio address delivered by the strike leader John Galt at the end of Atlas. It is a soliloquy that might well stand as the Rosetta Stone of modern conservatism:

This country wasn’t built by men who sought handouts…

Sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms, who live on the profits of the mind of others…

Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None-except the obligation I owe to myself…

On and on it goes like this, at once self-victimizing and righteous, propelled by the grievance and paranoia that animates the radio shouters of this age. Rand’s vision is a cartoon of capitalism, in which there is no poverty or environmental ruin or lack of equal opportunity. In her world, generosity is a false and malignant impulse. Nobody is just born rich. They must pursue wealth, and this pursuit is by definition a heroic one. Brave inventors and industrialists hold the key to paradise, if only they can throw off the shackles of religious superstition, liberal guilt, and bureaucratic tyranny.

In other words, Romney and Ryan have to convince voters that capitalism is not just an economic philosophy, but a moral system, and that any attempt to curb its appetites is therefore immoral.

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The Ryan Budget Plan, of which you have probably heard so much and learned so little, is the blueprint for just such a reformation. It is radical document, both in its practical applications and its ethical precepts.

The aged and sick will be left with rationed health care, the rich will be handed trillions of dollars in additional tax cuts, the budget for virtually every sector of government not involving national defense—education, transportation, energy, veteran services—will be gutted.

The plan purports to address our national debt, yet makes no serious effort to balance the budget. In theory, it fosters the pursuit of wealth. In practice, it would merely pad the vast fortunes that already exist. The rest of us (“the unproductive”) would be plunged into a deserved penury. The central moral aim is to obliterate the remaining restraints on personal greed.

It is a document so exuberant in its fraudulence, so nonchalant in its cruelty, and so assured of its own virtue that it could only have been the product of a man born into wealth, schooled by Ayn Rand, and given finishing lessons in Congress.

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If he were still alive, Kurt Vonnegut would look upon young Ryan in sorrow—as a man unable to imagine the lives of those less fortunate than himself. Vonnegut understood that capitalism was a moral system in the exact way that cannibalism is a dietary system. But I’m going to stop talking about Vonnegut now because thinking about him makes me weep.

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Instead let me cite Mencken, who sounds smarter every year. A century ago, he had this to say about the national character:

Since the very dawn of his separate history, the American has been ruled by what may be called a moral conception of life.… There has been no great political movement in the United States since Jefferson’s day without some purely moral balderdash at its center.

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We can all agree that Mitt Romney is not a profoundly moral politician. He is wealthy and ambitious, but his ideology feels situational at best. In choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney has found the moral balderdash to excites his base. He has selected a fellow who embodies the virtues of the archetypal Rand hero: virility (those abs!), productivity (he sleeps in his office!), naïve optimism (that Path to Prosperity!)—a wonk messiah with bedroom eyes.

Ryan is not a lawmaker (in his twelve years, he has passed two bills, one of which was to rename a post office) and he is not by any sane measure qualified to assume the Presidency of the United States. But he is a telegenic ideologue whom the press will treat as a visionary, much like his idol. He knows how to put a fresh face on the old con, how to keep the corporate sponsors happy, how to incite the low-information voter against his own interests, and how to appear earnest when he is proposing ruin.

If he and Romney get elected, the John Galts of the world need not retreat to the mountains to launch their own economy. They will enjoy dominion over the entirety of ours.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →