The quandary of the decade is how to defuse our debt bomb. With slow economic growth and aging populations, Europe and the US have accumulated an avalanche of debt. Financial experts and economists insist that downsizing our appetites and paying off debt are top priorities. But how? Voters and politicians know that they must sooner or later buckle down to sacrifice and fiscal responsibility. But in the spirit of St Augustine who said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet,” they are taking a long time to take the plunge.
Enter Ayn Rand.
A champion of unrestrained capitalism and individualism, this controversial Russian-American novelist and philosopher has been the inspiration for many of the austerity policies drafted by young Turks in the Republican Party.
Congressman Paul Ryan’s response to the Obama Administration’s budget, The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal, has Rand’s fingerprints all over it. Since Ryan is chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee and a potential vice-presidential candidate, his ideas are worth examining. Speaking at a Washington DC conference of Ms Rand’s supporters in 2006, the Congressman acknowledged that his “career was shaped by the writings of Rand”.
(I should note that he recently told the National Review, “I reject her philosophy”. A fan of Rand jibed, “Well, I suppose that’s how things work in Washington, DC. As they say: if you want a friend, get a dog.” But as for her economics, who knows?)
The continuing influence of a woman who died in 1982 may seem implausible. But Alan Greenspan, the much lauded former Federal Reserve Chairman, was another fan. According to a new book, Ayn Rand Nation, by Gary Weiss, Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle. He contributed articles for her Objectivist Newsletter and has never disavowed her philosophy. In the 70s, Greenspan used his reputation to arrange appearances for Rand at the White House.
Rand called for the elimination of all safety net programs including the minimum wage, welfare, social security and Medicare. Writing during the early decades of the Cold War, her novels glorifying rugged individualism and self-reliance — The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – have sold steadily and continue to inspire devoted readers.
Rand taught her acolytes that everyone must be 100 percent self-reliant and that it is wrong to give government assistance to those who come up short or are suffering hardships. She summed her belief system up in the handy slogan “the virtue of selfishness.” (In the 70s, as her health deteriorated, Ayn found some flexibility and she and her husband signed up for Medicare.)
Although born into a Jewish family in Soviet Russia, Rand was bitterly anti-religious and called God “a crutch for weak minds.” All this makes somewhat suspect Congressman Ryan’s insistence that his austerity plan is thoroughly Christian. He declares he is applying traditional moral principles like responsibility, temperance and prudence, even though the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and charitable groups claim that the plan amounts to balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plan nearly the same as Ryan’s. Its goal is to reduce the current US$15 trillion budget shortfall over 20 years by cutting social safety net programs by $4 trillion. While there is a consensus that significant spending cuts are essential, Ryan and Romney demand sacrifices from everyone, but exempt the wealthiest Americans from the pain. This seems to have been taken straight from Rand’s playbook.
Programs like Federal health care, food subsidies and other social spending that benefit lower income people would be slashed. Services for the poor and low-wage earning families – people whose incomes have been shrinking and who were hit hardest by a five-year US economic meltdown – will be badly hurt. Tax reductions would continue a 30-year trend which has drastically increased the share of federal taxes paid by middle income and lower income groups.
Proponents of harsh austerity solutions appear sincere in believing they are applying Christian or Biblical moral tenets, but their claim sounds as off-key as a rusty high school band. Although we must, as a society, reach a consensus on how to reduce our debt, we have to tread carefully. We cannot sacrifice the cherished ideals of our Christian-inspired democracy on the altar of an ideology which despises compassion and altruism.
In short, we need sounder guides than Ayn Rand. This is what she had to say about altruism in his book Philosophy: who needs it?
“Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: ‘No.’ Altruism says: ‘Yes.’”
Does anyone want to live in an America where altruism is regarded as the most despicable crime of all?
David J. Peterson is an author and a high school teacher with a degree in economics. He lives in Chicago.