August 14, 2012 (San Diego) -- Up until presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney named Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan as his running mate on August 10, the safe bet seemed to be that Romney was going to base his general-election strategy on “a referendum, not a choice.” For one thing, that’s Politics 101: as pioneering American political scientist V. O. Key said in the 1960’s, Americans vote on issues but “retrospectively and negatively.”
That means they vote not on what great things the people who want to lead them say they’ll do in the future but on what they haven’t liked about what they’ve already done in the past. Given that the economy has remained in the doldrums since President Obama took office — it hasn’t sunk into recession but it hasn’t soared either, and millions of Americans who want jobs still can’t find them — it seemed to make sense for Romney to run a campaign saying, “Obama’s ideas haven’t worked. Try something else,” without being too specific about what he’d done differently.
Also, Romney had said publicly that that’s the sort of campaign he intended to run. “All I have to do is keep talking about the economy, and we win,” he’d told a journalist from ABC just two months ago. For that he’d got a lot of criticism from the ideological drivers of the Republican party — the Tea Party leaders, people like Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform (author of the infamous “Norquist pledge” by which virtually every Republican officeholder has sworn what amounts to a blood oath never to raise taxes, no way, no how) and the propagandists on talk radio and Fox News — who demanded that Romney not just run against Obama’s record but offer a clear vision of his own. What Paul Ryan offers the Romney ticket, more than anything else, is a ready-made economic plan Ryan has articulated not only in speeches but in the budget plans he’s written and pushed through as chair of the House Budget Committee since the Republican takeover in 2010 and as its ranking minority member before that.
Ryan’s program has basically been what former President George W. Bush called “the ownership society” — and its critics have acidly renamed the “you’re-on-your-ownership society.” It’s based on a series of Right-wing nostrums to the effect that not only is government too big, it redistributes wealth and income to the wrong people — away from the super-rich individuals and corporations that supposedly create all economic value and to working people, low-income people, senior citizens and others who consume government services while paying few or no taxes. It would replace Social Security with individual private accounts and thereby leave old people’s incomes dependent both on the ups and downs of the stock market and their own skills — or lack of same — as investors. It would replace Medicare with vouchers with which senior citizens would have to buy private health insurance — thereby offering them less care for more money than the current system. It would replace Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), the government-funded health program for the poor, including the working poor, with block grants to the states, so whether you got health care if you weren’t covered through your job and couldn’t afford the astronomical costs of individual insurance would depend on the generosity, or lack of same, of the government of your state.
There’s a strong ideological agenda behind Ryan’s plans embodied in the so-called “Austrian School” of economics. Created in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a response to Marxism, the “Austrian School” was founded by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, but it was principally popularized by novelist Ayn Rand. The essence of the Austrian School is that workers don’t create value; instead, value is created by heroic entrepreneurs who deserve all the wealth created by their enterprises. Any government interference with the distribution of wealth and income, whether it’s done directly through taxation to pay for social-welfare programs or indirectly by protecting workers’ rights to organize labor unions, is evil, according to the Austrian School, because it merely takes money away from those who create wealth to what Rand famously called the “moochers” who consume it. Another central tenet of the Austrian School, articulated by Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom, is that any attempt by government to regulate businesses inevitably leads to socialism and makes the individual overly dependent on government.
Though in recent months he’s tried to backtrack from his formerly enthusiastic embrace of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan is on record as saying that Rand’s works — especially her most important novel, Atlas Shrugged — were what led him to a conservative world-view. Ryan told New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, for a profile published in the July 30 issue, “What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” Lizza also quoted a 2005 speech Ryan made to the Atlas Society, a group devoted to Rand’s ideas, in which he said, “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,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” After reading Atlas Shrugged he went on to the works of her inspirations, von Mises and Hayek from the Austrian School, and their principal American disciple, Milton Friedman.
Ryan’s attachment to Rand went beyond his own personal belief system. He told the Right-wing magazine The Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gave his staff members copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and in the spring 2011 issue of Democracy magazine Jonathan Chait reported that by then Ryan was requiring everyone who worked for him to read Rand’s novel. Anyone who reads Atlas Shrugged or Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom will be aware of what a sweeping vision Paul Ryan has for America’s future: essentially a return to the days of the 1880’s, in which the U.S. government openly served the interests of the rich and powerful, and if you were unemployed or became disabled or the bank in which you’d deposited your life savings went under, too bad, you were S.O.L. and all society owed you was a chance to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work … whether you actually could or not. (Rand was once asked whether government had an obligation to take care of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Her response: “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.”)
As a long-term visionary, Paul Ryan is willing to make compromises in the here and now. His 2012 budget made the private vouchers instead of Medicare “optional” instead of mandatory for everyone 55 and under, as his 2010 budget had. He’s not demanding the outright abolition of the welfare state and all government programs that help the sick, the disabled, the poor … yet. But that’s clearly the ultimate aim of his ideology. Chait’s Democracy article quotes a response Ryan gave when he was asked how he could justify massive tax cuts for the rich — even more massive than the ones George W. Bush pushed through in the first year of his presidency, which overnight wiped out the economic surplus of the Clinton years and plunged us deeper into debt — when reputable economists were saying they would make the budget deficit far worse. Ryan answered in classic Randian terms: “Keeping tax rates where they are, and preventing them from going up, is not spending, because that is people’s money in the first place.”
As Chait commented in his article, “When [Ryan] responds to a question rooted in simple accounting with a moral claim … he is saying that the arithmetic of revenue, outlays, and deficits does not matter to him. None of the pecuniary issues that he claims to care about so deeply ultimately matter. He is fighting a class war, which he views as a war for freedom itself.” And by picking Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has signed on to that class war. Romney’s choice of Ryan as his vice-president puts an end to the forlorn hope that as President, Romney would revert to the relative moderate he was when he governed Massachusetts — and it makes it all the more important that progressive voters abandon the delusion that there’s no substantial difference between the Republican and Democratic parties on such basic issues as the role of government in the economy and the right of individuals to be protected from job outsourcing, environmental degradation and the other oppressive actions of private corporations.