Draw­ing a new bat­tle line

The Covington News - - The Second Opinion -

For­get con­ser­vatism ver­sus lib­er­al­ism, cap­i­tal­ism against so­cial­ism, or even Democrats fight­ing Republicans. In pick­ing Paul Ryan as his vice pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate, Mitt Rom­ney has drawn a new bat­tle line. Throughout his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Paul Ryan has been an out­spo­ken cru­sader in what he calls the “fight be­tween in­di­vid­u­al­ism and col­lec­tivism.”

Sit­ting squarely in the in­di­vid­u­al­ist camp, Ryan draws ideas and in­spi­ra­tion from Rus­sian-Amer­i­can au­thor and philoso­pher Ayn Rand, whose works At­las Shrugged and The Foun­tain­head are re­quired read­ing for his con­gres­sional staff. Speak­ing in 2005, Ryan told At­las So­ci­ety mem­bers, “I grew up on Ayn Rand… The rea­son I got in­volved in pub­lic ser­vice — if I had to credit one thinker, one per­son — it would be Ayn Rand.”

In her writ­ings, Rand preached her phi­los­o­phy of “ob­jec­tivism,” which in­cludes a ba­sic tenet that one’s moral­ity should be di­rected solely by ra­tio­nal self in­ter­est — the pur­suit of one’s own hap­pi­ness. She re­jected as “evil” the no­tion of al­tru­ism or putting an­other’s in­ter­ests above your own. Like Ryan to­day, she railed against col­lec­tivism, writ­ing “Col­lec­tivism means the sub­ju­ga­tion of the in­di­vid­ual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not mat­ter. Col­lec­tivism holds that man must be chained to col­lec­tive ac­tion and col­lec­tive thought for the sake of what is called ‘the com­mon good.’”

Ryan’s as­cen­dancy in the Repub­li­can Party as House Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­man and now pre­sump­tive vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee has him sud­denly seek­ing dis­tance from Rand. In a re­cent Fox News in­ter­view, Brit Hume asked, “Are you a dis­ci­ple of Ayn Rand?” The con­gress­man replied, “No. I re­ally en­joyed her nov­els, At­las Shrugged in par­tic­u­lar… I later in life learned about what her phi­los­o­phy was, it’s called Ob­jec­tivism. It’s some­thing that I com­pletely dis­agree with. It’s an athe­is­tic phi­los­o­phy.”

This new spin is a po­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity to re­as­sure the GOP’s reli­gious right. Surely those who still in­sist the pres­i­dent is a Mus­lim de­spite 20-plus years of pro­fessed Chris­tian faith and the ab­sence of any other ev­i­dence will not read­ily ac­cept Ryan’s about face?

Back in 2005, Ryan told At­las So­ci­ety mem­bers, “It’s so im­por­tant that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand’s vi­sion, her writ­ings, to see what our gird­ing, un­der rid­ing prin­ci­ples are.” This is not just some nov­el­ist whose works he fan­cied; Ryan refers to Rand the way most politi­cians in­voke the words of our Found­ing Fathers.

I am not at­tack­ing Paul Ryan, and I’m not un­sym­pa­thetic to his views on a dif­fi­cult strug­gle. I just think he’s mis­taken to see the con­flict be­tween in­di­vid­ual rights and com­mon good as a fight that must be waged to the death. That’s what wor­ries me.

I too read Ayn Rand’s nov­els as a young man. I found in­spi­ra­tion in strong, clear-minded, self-aware, char­ac­ters who cher­ish in­de­pen­dence. Such in­di­vid­u­als are the foun­da­tion of a healthy democ­racy, and we are los­ing ground to­day in fos­ter­ing those val­ues of self-suf­fi­ciency. But, in­di­vid­u­al­ism is not enough. The great in­ven­tions and wa­ter­shed achieve­ments of mankind re­sult from strong, in­tel­li­gent, mo­ti­vated in­di­vid­u­als work­ing col­lec­tively to ac­com­plish more than they could alone.

I re­ject Rand’s (and thus, Ryan’s) bi­nary no­tion of in­di­vid­u­al­ism ver­sus col­lec­tivism. For what­ever flaws we suf­fer in gov­er­nance, I be­lieve in community. I em­brace the vis­i­ble and in­vis­i­ble ties that bind us. I know my ac­tions im­pact oth­ers — not just in my neigh­bor­hood, but also around the globe. My moral­ity says I must own up to the con­se­quences my ac­tions have for all hu­man­ity and for all life on this planet.

As the flight at­ten­dant says when I fly, “Se­cure your own oxy­gen mask be­fore at­tempt­ing to help a child.” I must meet my own ba­sic needs be­fore I can help an­other. But, from there, I have a freely ac­cepted duty to as­sist where I can. And, I count on oth­ers to be there for me. In­ter­de­pen­dence has been part of hu­man ex­is­tence since pre­his­toric men and women first gath­ered in caves for mu­tual pro­tec­tion.

Our so­ci­ety ad­heres to in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic prin­ci­ples of cap­i­tal­ism be­cause we know no bet­ter way. But, most of us also care about some­thing greater than our­selves. We freely risk our well­be­ing in serv­ing our coun­try or sav­ing oth­ers in peril. We see sol­diers as heroes and praise good Sa­mar­i­tans who risk their lives to drag some­one from a burn­ing car or dive into dan­ger­ous wa­ters to res­cue a drown­ing per­son.

Ayn Rand wrote un­apolo­get­i­cally about the “virtue of self­ish­ness.” I hope Paul Ryan means it when said he rejects her phi­los­o­phy. I’m just not sure.

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