Atlas Shrugged, for those lacking the patience to wade through its nearly 1,200 pages of dense prose and equally dense pseudo-philosophizing, is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. Published in 1957, it contains Rand’s most extensive fictional statement of Objectivism, her philosophical justification of unbridled and unregulated capitalism.
Skipping its metaphysics and epistemology, Rand describes Objectivism’s ethics as based on “self-interest,” by which she means that man “is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He exists for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”
Gordon Gekko couldn’t have said it better.
The political system that fosters her ethical construct is “laissez-faire capitalism... a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders [Rand’s emphasis], by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.” Government has only to function as “a policeman,” using “physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders.”
Pitted against the heroic capitalist “producers” acting in self-interest is the great mass of society, alternately labeled by Rand as “looters” or “moochers.” Ryan changed the terminology in 2010 to describe 60 percent of Americans as “takers,” but the idea remains pure Randian.
A year earlier, the Wisconsin Republican said, “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.” Ryan is smitten by Rand’s stark, dystopian worldview: “The fight we are in here is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”
Ryan does have a problem with Rand: She was an ardent atheist, who described religion as “blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.”
So no more gifts of Atlas Shrugged to his staff. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” Ryan now says. “Give me Thomas Aquinas.” Ryan claims that his annual budgets are not rooted in Rand’s Objectivist anti-government values, but in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which holds that issues should be decided at the most local level possible.
After receiving stinging criticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for relying in his budget “on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons,” Ryan wrote Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the Conference, that his blueprint advances “an informed debate in light of social teachings about the well-being of the family, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor and the dignity of the human person."
Ryan has a doctrinal problem: On the one hand he pushes Rand’s Objectivist self-interest; on the other, he justifies his budget as based on his “Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is: How do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?”
Here’s the problem: While Catholic teaching on the poor may not be entirely consistent, it does rely heavily on the concept of “social justice.” Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has denounced Ryan’s budgets from this vantage point: "The Ryan budget does not address debt nor fiscal responsibility. What it does is take care of the very wealthy at the risk of the middle class and people who are poor. That is contrary to Catholic teaching."
In a 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Pope Benedict XVI called for protecting workers’ rights and reducing income inequality. He said, “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic [italics in the original].” The recently retired pope evidently is not a disciple of Ayn Rand. Nor, if initial reports are borne out, is the newly installed Pope Francis.
And what of Thomas Aquinas, with whom Ryan would rather be identified these days? In his Summa Theologica, the summation of Thomist theology, the 13th century Dominican priest wrote, “Whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance.”
Does that make St. Thomas a “moocher” or a “taker?”