When we wish for modern incarnations of the right’s biggest idols, we feed into the myths surrounding them.
I am more than a little disturbed by all these pieces coming out about why the left has no Ayn Rand as a guide or how Ronald Reagan was a “socialist” compared to Paul Ryan. One has to be more than a little careful not to elevate these two icons to acceptable status. Let’s keep Ayn Rand in perspective. She was a talented mass market novelist who wrote David and Goliath myths about a super individualist versus the behemoth society. Her philosophy was not even second rate. Ronald Reagan did not save the economy; his legacy was a crumbling foundation for growth and a rising tide of injustice. It could be seen as a positive to fail to measure up to either of them.
The right’s portrayal of Paul Ryan as a Reaganite is not that far from the truth, but the right then goes on to mythologize and entirely distort the Reagan years. Under Reagan in the 1980s, wages stopped growing, productivity grew at historically slow rates, investment was soft, and the deficit never came down to the levels promised. That deficit was an albatross around the neck of George H.W. Bush, his successor. Meanwhile, deregulation was unloosed, only to be given further impetus by the Clinton administration. The right goes so far as to attribute the productivity boom of the second half of the 1990s — that is, after the Clinton tax hike — to Reagan. How can we take such claims seriously?
Does Ryan go much farther than Reagan did in terms of changing Medicare from a guarantee to a poorly financed premium program? Sure. Would he cut other programs to almost zero? Yes. Did Reagan? No, but probably because he couldn’t politically, not because he didn’t want to. Maybe Reagan had a more generous heart than Ryan’s — he was once a lefty and never a rich kid like Ryan, and his dad worked for the New Deal. But he played the race card in California and on his way to the White House. Is there anything uglier these days than his attacks on “welfare queens” were then?
In the end, Romney and Ryan are both preaching Reagonomics: cut taxes and worry about closing the deficit sometime in the future. Neither tells us the loopholes they’d close or the other programs they’d cut to allegedly meet their deficit targets. Their aim is to reduce the size of government, as was Reagan’s and Milton Friedman’s. The deficit is a secondary consideration, for all the blather about it.