Paul Ryan apparently goads his interns into reading Atlas Shrugged. If any of those kids endure Ayn Rand's excruciatingly preachy 1,200-page novel they'll have a way to impress the boss if they ever get some elevator time with him. Somewhere, the guys who got boner-related text messages from Mark Foley are thinking, "Well, it could have been worse."
Atlas Shrugged is a long cycle in which brilliant, statuesque, sexually acrobatic titans of industry outsmart the "moochers" who'd tie them down with government and regulation, written with such redundancy it borders on sadism toward the antagonists. The 1957 novel outlined Rand's moral justification of not just capitalism but the notion that "the pursuit of [a person's] own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life" (a worldview that might get you diagnosed a sociopath if you relayed it to a psychiatrist). It's known to turn whoever reads it into a total dick for at least three months and has gained a cultish following among the type of conservatives who wish to remain total dicks for life.
Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who is now Mitt Romney's running mate, has not only read Atlas Shrugged but thinks he's living in it. "[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," he once said, "and the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." That goes a long way into explaining Ryan's signature piece of legislation, a budget proposal that would kill off Medicare and gut the Affordable Care Act, all while cutting taxes on corporate profits.
Long before Ryan entered it, the 2012 race was cast along Randian lines. (How could it not? During the greatest period of wealth inequality since the Great Depression, the GOP nominated the Monopoly man.) Republicans for shrewd self interest and Democrats for a government safety net. Liberals have been eager to frame it that way because it allows them to assail the GOP as the party of greed and selfishness, two things most people still consider bad.
But it's the wrong perspective. For anyone who counts — or will someday count on — public schools, federally backed student loans, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, there is no rational, self-interested reason to vote for Romney/Ryan ticket.
It's taken 30 years for conservatives to propagate the notion that government aid is merely a trough for lazy inner-city welfare queens, which they've done so well Americans can't even recognize it when they use it. A 2011 Cornell study found that 43 of people receiving unemployment benefits, 40 percent of those on Medicare and even 25 percent of folks on food stamps said they "have not used a government social program." Add in some wedge issues related to God, gays and guns and you have a nation where the poorest states are also the reddest.
But groups that Republicans don't court aren't so confused. At the NAACP convention, Romney said he'd repeal President Obama's healthcare bill and was promptly booed. Later, he said it was because that particular sect "want[s] more stuff from government."
If the Democrats were more politically skilled they'd make "more stuff from government" their slogan. But even they continue to talk about how the public sector can be of service to the One Percent.
A month ago, President Obama said famously, "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed [business owners] to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
The problem with this statement is not that Obama said government is responsible for the success of your neighborhood sandwich shop or sheet metal manufacturer, as the Romney campaign pretended to mishear him saying. It's that he failed to note the truly great thing about roads and bridges: They're more free stuff from the government! They represent the way the government — yes, with taxpayers' money — has provided things that makes everyone's life better in a way the private sector alone could not.
The flaw of Ayn Rand's reasoning was the notion that self interest has anything to do with freedom from the common good. By definition, most people are not better off when a majority of wealth and resources are hoarded by an elite few, which is the status quo Romney and Ryan want to maintain. Don't let anyone tell you they are promoting selfishness. By asking them to give up all the economic protections we've gained in half a century, the Republicans are asking for an enormous self sacrifice from a vast majority of voters.