Welcome to the Ayn Rand Congress

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing about lightbulbs. When it was his turn to speak, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — a fan of both individual choice and, apparently, incandescent light — argued that Congress should spend “more time expanding [its] choices and less time banning lightbulbs.” To make his point, Paul drew parallels between energy-efficient standards and Ayn Rand’s second novel Anthem, in which the protagonist’s efforts to champion the lightbulb are “crushed beneath the boot heel of the collective,” Paul explained.

“Now, I’m not suggesting that this collective,” Paul said of the Senate, “is against electricity per se, or for quashing individualism. But I am suggesting that we’re against choice.”

Welcome to the Ayn Rand Congress. As I write in a piece for the April 25 issue of the dead-tree magazine, “Rand has always been a lodestar for proponents of limited government.” But never so much as now. Conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck herald her work. Tea Partyers hoist signs that name-check her literary heroes. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chair and GOP man of the moment, has passed out Rand’s novels to staffers and called her the reason he got into politics. Rand’s theory of a two-tiered society — split between the “producers” who shoulder society’s burdens and the “looters” who mooch off their efforts — is one of the strains of thought that animate the Tea Party movement, along with free markets (check), individual liberty (check) and limited government (check). Strands of Rand’s objectivist philosophy are woven through most of Congress’s weighty debates about tax rates and regulations (Alan Greenspan was a Rand protégé), wage scales and social-welfare programs. The 112th Congress has been dominated by apocalyptic debates over fiscal policy; in the last line of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt traces a dollar sign “over the desolate earth.” You could argue that the essential confrontation of this Congress is not between Democrats and Republicans but between people who see income inequality as a major social problem and those who consider it a natural byproduct of an equal-opportunity society.

Ryan has downplayed his interest in Rand, who is a controversial figure for good reason. He told me last year that he wasn’t an objectivist. “I do believe government has a role in making sure we have a safety net to help people who cannot help themselves or are temporarily down on their luck,” he said. “But I don’t want to see government turn that safety net into a hammock.” But his budget blueprint, as Jon Chait argues in this smart piece, is at its core a Randian document; it cuts tax rates for the wealthy (society’s “producers”) while trimming outlays for social programs like Medicaid and food stamps, both of which would be administered via state block-grants. Ryan, Chait writes, has “Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert.”

After Rand Paul referenced Anthem, the National Journal dug through congressional records and found that the philosopher had been cited only 23 times since 1993. Nine of those were by Paul’s father, Ron. (His son, lest we overstate the writer’s influence on his thinking, mispronounced her name.) You can bet that tally will rise in the months to come.