Sunday, September 9, 2012

Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand: Guilt by Association?

New York Times writer Paul Krugman recently attacked Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, claiming that Ryan “gets his ideas largely from deeply unrealistic fantasy novels.”   The specific novel Krugman had in mind was Ayn Rand’s bestseller,  Atlas Shrugged.

Of course there is nothing surprising about Krugman attacking a Republican,  since his columns in recent years have sounded more like they were written by a Democratic spin-doctor than by a Nobel Prize winning economist.  But his attack on Paul Ryan does a major injustice to the novelist Ayn Rand.

My interest in Ayn Rand and her ideas goes back nearly 50 years.  Krugman, sneering at Atlas Shrugged,  claims “the book is  a perennial favorite among adolescent boys.”  But,  he adds, “Most boys eventually outgrow it.”  However my first encounter with Atlas Shrugged was not as an “adolescent boy”: but as a 22 year old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University

Rand was giving a lecture at Johns Hopkins,  and I read Atlas Shrugged to get some background before her talk.  The book horrified and depressed me.  I was not impressed with Rand as a person, either.  I vividly recall how she got unnecessarily nasty with a student who challenged something she had said, announcing  rather snottily that she had not come to Johns Hopkins to engage in debates.  Years later,  when I learned she was a chain-smoker, this did not take her stock up in my book, either.

But even nasty people can have interesting ideas.  For many years I taught a special class at Adrian College in which students read and discussed Atlas Shrugged. The students were some of the brightest and most interesting on campus.  One of them,  who considered himself a Socialist Workers Party fan,  took the class because his adviser told him it would “test his values.”    And I think it did.

Krugman’s put down of Ayn Rand forgets that all political discourse is a mixture of sense and nonsense.  Learning how to tell which is which is an important skill,  and discussing a book like Atlas Shrugged can be an excellent educational tool because the book is loaded with both a great deal of sense and a great deal of nonsense. 

My own take is that Rand’s ideas about “the virtues of selfishness,”  interpersonal relations, and religion (she was a militant atheist) were quite wrong.  But she was on to something really important in her distinction between the power of the sword and the power of  the purse, a distinction which left wingers tend to ignore or to blur.  The 64 page speech by John Galt, which Krugman correctly identifies as the novel’s centerpiece, does a masterful job of sharpening this distinction. 

Does Krugman really believe in guilt by association?  If so, not only Paul Ryan but also other immensely intelligent people like Alan Greenspan and Hillary Clinton would stand convicted. Both were very interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas in their younger years.  And clearly none of these people swallowed Rand’s ideas uncritically. 

It would be nice if Krugman would go back to being an economist and get out of the spin-doctoring business.  Even as a spin-doctor, however,  he should avoid writing more columns featuring excessive generalizations about an important novelist. 

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