Paul Ryan approaches this year’s election with a superlative attached to his name—Biggest Federal Spending Butcher. The Wisconsin representative led a strict House Budget Committee through a “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a manifesto that annihilates federal spending. He is an unashamed monetary radical, a vocal student of the Federalist Papers, Adam Smith, and Max Weber. And he enjoys a great deal of Republican support in both congressional chambers, as well as in conservative pundit circles.
But Ryan’s very first dalliance with capitalism came from author Ayn Rand. And while he might not support the late female writer’s socially liberal views, she still bears a major influence on his economic outlook. He shies away from admitting it these days, but he knows that her ideas still matter to the pro-life Catholic regarding what really counts—money.
Ryan’s 1980s coming of age coincided with a romantic wave in the Republican fiscal narrative. The communist Soviet Union, long considered the antagonist to capitalism, was crumbling, and Ronald Reagan cheered America as a “shining city on a hill.” Conservatism was the West’s economic trend, and Ryan sought comfort in its crowd. Ryan’s characteristic support for Rand’s brand of anarcho-capitalism, however subtle, is no coincidence.
Rand was born in St. Petersburg in 1905, a world and two generations apart from Ryan. But she endured a similarly volatile childhood. Raised in a wealthy Jewish household, she suffered discrimination from czars and Bolsheviks alike. Rand subsequently fled to the United States, where she began a to screenwriting career. But she soon turned her focus to literature.
Objectivism wove ethics into laissez-faire economics, a system often criticized for its perceived lack of selflessness. For that, it has remained most influential in conservative politics, beginning long before Ryan entered political office. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas refers to Rand’s writings in his memoir, and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has called the author “brilliant.”
And yet it is Ryan’s fiscal conservatism that draws today’s headlines. Perhaps this attention is a product of his vice presidential run. Or maybe his presence draws crowds for his economic consistency with Rand’s message. But because he has been so staunchly a member of Washington’s far-right faction for so long, chances are more likely that the latter is to blame for his rising celebrity.
This was Mitt Romney’s goal. Unlike Sarah Palin of John McCain’s 2008 White House bid, Ryan’s fame is not a “fish out of water” story. He is an insider budget hawk of both record and conviction. And he will, by all indications, restore a nationwide conversation about monetary policy within both sides of the political aisle. In order to get the most out of his emerging presence, both sides must at least do him the honor of debating policy—including his record and the laissez-faire thinkers who have inspired it—provided he does the same. That kind of brown-nosing will keep this election both fair and direct.