Should Ryan renounce Ayn Rand to win Irish-American votes?

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

WHEN MITT Romney announced a relatively young, relatively obscure, relatively handsome politician named Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential pick, the world had to familiarise itself with yet another divisive American politician. But something struck me about the way RTÉ’s Nine O’Clock news opened its report on Romney’s choice. He was introduced as “Irish-American politician Paul Ryan”.

Now it’s obviously pertinent that he’s Irish-American – it would be weird if RTÉ failed to mention that a US politician on a presidential ticket boasted Irish ancestry. But the thing is, the phrase “Irish-American politician” has certain connotations, conjuring images of a latter-day Kennedy, and, it’s safe to say Paul Ryan is no John F Kennedy. He’s a Republican, for a start, and at the Tea Party end of the Republican Party for that matter. But more than that, he’s a proudly self-described libertarian, which is about as far as it’s possible to get from the Kennedy tradition without being a Buddhist monk.

Ryan’s libertarianism is inspired by Ayn Rand, the Russian-Jewish émigré who wrote interminable, didactic novels such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, books that sought to celebrate the triumph of the individual over the collective, extolling the virtues of industrial titans and disparaging the “moochers and looters” – shorthand for anybody who isn’t an industrial titan, essentially.

There’s been quite the hoopla about Ryan’s devotion to the Ayn Rand school of thought since Romney named him as his running-mate. Back in 2005, Ryan gave a speech to the Atlas Society – which promotes Rand and her Objectivist philosophy rather than cartography, unfortunately – and the congressman left the crowd in no doubt that he was a true believer.

“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,” he said, displaying a keen awareness of how to pander to an audience. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.”

Being inspired to public office by the works of Ayn Rand strikes me as somewhat akin to developing a passion for geopolitics after reading Lord of the Rings; sure, it’s about various factions competing for a rare resource that grants great power, but it’s not, in any sense, very applicable to the real world.

Ryan has since repudiated his devotion to Rand, going so far as to call it an “urban myth”, but he certainly tried to live up to those beliefs, authoring a proposed budget that sought to balance the federal books by slashing social security and Medicare – just the sort of fate for the “moochers and looters” that Rand would have approved of.

In some ways, it’s remarkable that Ayn Rand is one of the most significant and influential political philosophers in this day and age, given how cracked her economic theories were, not to mention her plots. But in other respects it makes perfect sense. That “greed is good” spiel that Gordon Gekko gets so much credit for is pure Rand – avarice as a force of nature that must not be tempered or restrained. This is the US, after all, the country that fetishises the notion of rugged individualism as part of the national identity, and which exalts money-making like nowhere else on Earth.

But that’s why trying to define Ryan as an “Irish-American politician” seems so incongruous: libertarianism and Irishness just don’t go very well together, on either side of the Atlantic. Around these parts, there’s little appetite for strong political ideology of any stripe – it’s as if having firmly held beliefs about the effects of different types of public policy is kind of, well, abnormal. Sure, the Progressive Democrats left their mark, but for all the mantras about deregulation and liberalising the economy, the PDs were libertarian in much the same way Labour are socialists: there’s a vague resemblance, if you squint, but the realities of appealing for Irish votes precludes embracing any -isms too strongly.

As for the New World, being a card-carrying Democrat is almost as much part of Irish-Americanism as being baptised a Catholic.

We can speculate all we want as to why Irishness and libertarianism don’t really mix; the influence of the Catholic Church is one obvious place to start, in that the Vatican has never been a strong advocate for the merits of individual freedoms, while that thorny colonial past probably contributes, too. And it’s true the strong sense of community that typifies both Irish society and to a certain extent the North American diaspora doesn’t really encourage unfettered individualism.

On the other hand, I suspect Ryan doesn’t need to renounce libertarianism to convince us of his authenticity. After all, if a quick visit to the motherland and a pint of Guinness is enough to make Barack Obama as Irish as Peig Sayers, Ryan can probably get away with a few words “as Gaeilge”, and he’ll be clasped to the nation’s bosom.

Unlike Ayn Rand, we’re very accommodating like that.


Shane Hegarty is on leave

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