Since Paul Ryan was announced as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, many progressives and even mainstream media outlets have noted that there's a fundamental tension between Ryan's belief system and his biography. Ryan is beloved by the conservative base because he is, by all accounts, a true believer, deeply influenced by the hyper-individualistic philosophy of romance novelist Ayn Rand. His speeches and talking points and the lengthy preamble to one of his first big budget documents paint a picture of a world divided into makers and takers, those who produce and those who mooch. To Rand, the ultimate good is freedom and all attempts to weave together a social safety net, to alleviate misery caused by misfortune are incursions on that freedom and thus suspect, even contemptible.
And for Ryan, there's a biographical dimension to this philosophy. Ryan suffered through a horrible tragedy in his teenage years when he discovered his father dead of a heart attack in his house. The death shook Ryan and he, says, changed his outlook. It changed the finances of the household: his mother went back to school and they took in his grandmother. Ryan says he concluded that "I've got to either sink or swim in life."
There's a deep existential sense in which that's true for everyone. As conscious, human agents we are all ultimately responsible for our own conduct and the choices we make. But that does not mean we sink or swim alone. In fact, it's almost never the case that we do. And this is where we start to see the deep tension between Ryan's philosophy and Ryan's biography. In Ryan's case, while there's no question the experience of his father's death must have been wrenching and devastating, Ryan and his family were not left to "sink or swim" on their own.... they availed themselves, as they should have, of various flotation devices which helped them not only to survive, but to thrive, preserving their freedoms, rather than diminishing them.
First there's the Social Security survivors check the government started sending the family upon his father's death, which would help pay for his college. There's also the family made well-off in part by government spending, that Ryan was lucky enough to be born into, one of the most prominent in his hometown of Janesville, owners of a large, successful construction company, which got its start in 1884 in railroad construction—which was heavily subsidized by the federal government. The company continued to prosper as it moved into the business of building roads... public roads. It's the same family company that would later hire Paul Ryan as a marketing consultant, giving his political resume a little private sector experience burnish.
Then there's the government paycheck that Ryan himself has drawn for much of his adult life. In the Randian division between makers and takers, those whose living is provided by a government paycheck are squarely on the taker side of the ledger. This dependence on the state while simultaneously castigating and condemning it isn't limited to Ryan. In fact, Rand herself, who famously inveighed against parasites and warned of the deep, corrosive moral threat of sucking at the teat of the state, pulled off the same trick. Accepting government intervention, she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness "is delivering oneself into gradual enslavement."
But never one to lack for hubris, Rand also authored a hilarious justification of people like herself taking advantage of the fruits of that enslavement. On the question of whether her devotees could morally justify taking government scholarships for school, Rand offered comforting advice: "The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them have."
Rand was true to her words: in her later years she collected both social security and medicare under her married name of Ann O'Connor.
My favorite example of this particular kind of contradiction, is when right-wing billionaire Charles Koch attempted to convince economist Freidrich Hayek to move to the U.S. in 1975 in a letter promising that, "You are entitled to Social Security payments...[and] automatically entitled to hospital coverage."
"For your further information," Charles Koch writes, "I am enclosing a pamphlet on Social Security."
Liberals like myself, of course, delight in pointing out these inconsistencies and leveling the charge of hypocrisy: do as I say, not as I do. But I'm not sure hypocrisy is really the right word, here. It's a little like when right-wingers point out that folks at Occupy Wall Street were using iPhones which are, hey! a product of the same global capitalism they distrust. The response for both Occupiers and Rand devotees is that we are all embedded in the world as it is, a capitalist economy with a system of social insurance (inadequate as it may be) and few of us can individually withdraw fully from either.
So it's not hypocrisy that bothers me so much as the ridiculous self-serving selective vision of those who have benefited from personal privilege, social connections, family name and, yes, the welfare state, constantly hectoring others to swim or sink on their own and taking determined, effective steps to destroy policies that give other folks some of the same cushion they had.
That's a problem much bigger than Paul Ryan. One of the most insidious aspects of the culture of success in the U.S. is the way in which it invites those who are successful to write for themselves a story of their own personal overcoming of the odds, their own sink or swim moments, the ways in which their success was produced by some very special, personal individual achievement, conveniently erasing the role that privilege, luck, connections and society played in all of it. That's exactly what Mitt Romney did at a debate earlier this year:
"My dad, as you know—born in Mexico, poor, didn't get a college degree—became head of a car company. I could have stayed in Detroit, like him, and gotten pulled up in the car company. I went off on my own. I didn't inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way."
This is all part of the grand American ethos of meritocracy, a land where people rise and fall on their own pluck, drive and intelligence. A land where we neatly divide equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes and then say we provide equality of opportunity, the mythical level playing field, and whoever comes out the winner in the actual competition, well, then they're the deserving ones. In fact, Paul Ryan himself made precisely that point during his first speech as VP candidate on Saturday.
"We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes... And this idea was founded on the principals of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination, and government by the consent of the governed."
But of course even if you accept this as the mandate of American fairness, equality of opportunity not outcome, how, exactly does cutting food stamps for poor kids preserve equality of opportunity? Or cutting Medicaid by a third, leaving thousands of poor sick people without care? Ryan tells a story of equality of opportunity as the necessary precondition to evaluate individual performance as wholly produced by those individuals—their drive or laziness, their brains or stupidity.
But Ryan, and those who share his worldview, don't prioritize that equality of opportunity in any meaningful way, they don't show any signs of a serious commitment to it. What they are committed to is maximizing the freedom, especially economic freedom, of those who most benefit from society's outcomes at the expense of the freedom and opportunity of those who don't.