Walking a strange line
On the philosophy of Paul Ryan
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 15:09
So far in this year’s election discussion, the issues that will affect this year’s presidential outcome have been of far more interest than the candidates themselves. There has been plenty of talk, as always, about the economy and the respective plans of each party’s nominees. Issues of health care, in particular contraception coverage and other women’s concerns, are predicted to play what would seem to be a surprising role in voters’ decision-making. However, the candidates themselves have been rather lackluster. President Obama seems to have adopted “Forward” as the theme of his candidacy this time around, indirectly continuing with the change/choice/progress theme with which he secured his first term- it is something we have heard before. Vice President Biden’s main contribution last time around was a tendency toward doom and gloom; it remains to be seen whether this will continue. Finally, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and apparent wealth have been the focus of discussion and the butt of a number of jokes from the time he announced his candidacy, and are now well-worn topics familiar to anyone who has been paying attention thus far. Only in the last couple weeks has there been anything to talk about. Paul Ryan, the recently-added candidate to the Romney ticket, has finally brought some semblance of life to what has otherwise been an abysmally boring cast of characters.
Ryan presents himself as very much a mainstream, middle-class kind of guy. He lives in the same town as he grew up in and is a parishioner in the same church in which he was baptized. He was a member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Miami University of Ohio, a student who enjoyed studying and discussing conservative economics, and after graduating, it was his mom who prodded him to try his hand at politics. In his books, speeches and public appearances, he presents himself as an idealist and a thinker, one whose social and political philosophy has been formed over many years and has taken inspiration from a number of sources. Ryan has taken flak from the Right and the Left for his policies on education, budget, gun control and environmental and social matters. Taking all this in mind, along with a healthy dose of skepticism, we are left to wonder what the man is all about.
On first glance, it becomes apparent that Ryan has been informed by apparently contradictory sources. On one hand, Ryan has done his time studying Ayn Rand, a novelist and author who seems to have a permanent and unavoidable place on the Republican Party’s mandatory reading list. He has been noted as crediting her with convincing him of the moral case for the free market economy (capitalism). On the other hand, Ryan, a devout Catholic, also considers Catholic social teaching as a core component of his ideology. Rand, an atheist, had nothing complimentary to say about Christianity, aside from an endorsement of St. Thomas Aquinas as one of only three thinkers, including herself), that she felt she could recommend. At the heart of this sentiment was her conviction that altruism and self-sacrifice, staples of Christian thought, were in direct conflict with one’s own best interests as the moral priority, out of which she claimed capitalism naturally flowed. Many social commentators since have commented on the incongruity in the Republican embrace of both faith and what many claim is an entirely contradictory economic system, both of which have high status as key components of Republican ideology. How, then, does Ryan make sense of this.
The divide between faith and free market, as outlined in several church documents on social justice, is not as wide as it would seem. Officially, the Catholic church endorses a morally informed, regulated market economy model and has a pointed distaste for socialism. Among its arguments, it affirms the rightness of private ownership and management of property. In agreement with Ryan and the Republican Party’s dislike of big government, Catholic social teaching argues for private ownership in that it allows for creative use of resources in the form of entrepreneurship, and that it allows for a greater dispersal of power as the means of production are managed by a greater number of individuals. This shares the individualistic tendencies of Ryan’s thought, and is in firm agreement with the idea that, for the most part, if not always, people ought to carry out their economic activities and interactions in what way they please. However, unlike Ayn Rand and the Republican Party, Catholic teaching also emphasizes the need for significant regulation of economic activity by the state. As firmly as Catholicism endorses the essential components of free market capitalism, it also insists that individualism in terms of private pursuit of interests and ownership of property does not necessarily imply private use of the fruits of one’s labor. Solidarity, or consideration of community needs and the common good, is at the heart of every activity undertaken in a Catholic mindset. Fr. Robert Barron, a priest, theologian and social commentator who has spoken on economics with some frequency, has said of ideal free market behavior that, “When necessity and seemliness are met, the rest [that is unoccupied, unnecessary property] belongs to the poor.”
Barron states that, while Ryan has correctly identified solidarity and subsidiarity (a “prejudice” in favor of the most local solution to issues) as the two main factors for considering just economic behavior, there cannot be a preference for one or the other or a lukewarm combination of the two. Rather, both principles must be taken with equal vigor at the same time. Ryan has taken some flak from American bishops, along with left- and right-wing commentators, for “defend[ing] a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” In a speech at Georgetown University, he responded by saying, “Look at the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today… We need a better approach. To me, this approach should be based on the twin values of solidarity and subsidiarity-- virtues that, when taken together, revitalize society instead of displacing it.” He proposes that countering poverty must take place on a community level, instead of relying on federal programs to impose a national solution on a problem which, he says, could be better solved at the local level.