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The Legendary Paul Ryan

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The basic elements of Ryan’s plan are this: The tax code would be collapsed into two rates, with the top rate dropping to 25 percent, but eliminating unspecified tax deductions would keep tax revenues at the current level, as set by the Bush tax cuts. Medicare would remain untouched for those 55 years old and older, but those under would be given vouchers at a capped rate. Given that the Medicare savings would not begin to take effect for more than a decade, that taxes would stay level (at best), and that military spending would increase, Ryan would achieve his short-term deficit reduction by focusing overwhelmingly on programs targeted to the poor (which account for about a fifth of the federal budget, but absorb 62 percent of Ryan’s cuts over the next decade). The budget repeals Obamacare, thereby uninsuring some 30 million Americans about to become insured. It would then take insurance away from another 14 to 27 million people, by cutting Medicaid and children’s health-insurance funding.

This is not a moderate plan. As Robert Greenstein, a liberal budget analyst, summed up the proposal, “It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history.” And yet, Ryan has managed to sell it as something admirable, and something else entirely: a deficit-reduction plan. This is very clever. The centrist political Establishment, heavily represented among business leaders and the political media, considers it almost self-evident that the budget deficit (and not, say, mass unemployment or climate change) represents the singular policy threat of our time, and that bipartisan cooperation offers the sole avenue to address it. By casting his program as a solution to the debt crisis, by frequently conceding that Republicans as well as Democrats had failed in the past, and by inveighing against “demagoguery,” Ryan has presented himself as the acceptable Republican suitor the moderates had been longing for.

Whether Ryan’s plan even is a “deficit-reduction plan” is highly debatable. Ryan promises to eliminate trillions of dollars’ worth of tax deductions, but won’t identify which ones. He proposes to sharply reduce government spending that isn’t defense, Medicare (for the next decade, anyway), or Social Security, but much of that reduction is unspecified, and when Obama named some possible casualties, Ryan complained that those hypotheticals weren’t necessarily in his plan. Ryan is specific about two policies: massive cuts to income-tax rates, and very large cuts to government programs that aid the poor and medically vulnerable. You could call all this a “deficit-reduction plan,” but it would be more accurate to call it “a plan to cut tax rates and spending on the poor and sick.” Aside from a handful of exasperated commentators, like Paul Krugman, nobody does.

The persistent belief in the existence of an authentic, deficit hawk Ryan not only sweeps aside the ugly particulars of his agenda, it also ignores, well, pretty much everything he has done in his entire career, and pretty much everything he has said until about two years ago.

In 2005, Ryan spoke at a gathering of Ayn Rand enthusiasts, where he declared, “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.” Ryan has listed Rand’s manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, as one of his three most often reread books, and in 2003, he told The Weekly Standard he tries to make his interns read it. Rand is a useful touchstone to understand Ryan’s public philosophy. She centered libertarian philosophy around a defense of capitalism in general and, in particular, a conception of politics as a class war pitting virtuous producers against parasites who illegitimately use the power of the state to seize their wealth. Ludwig von Mises, whom Ryan has also cited as an influence, once summed up Rand’s philosophy in a letter to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: You are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan now frequently casts his opposition to Obama in technocratic terms, but he hasn’t always done so. “It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or the health-care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason,” Ryan said in 2009. “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to a government that forces the “makers” to subsidize the “takers”—terms he still employs—is foundational; the policy details are secondary.


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