Selfishness As Virtue: The Narcissistic Politics Of Paul Ryan
Often labeled a “reformer” for his determination to privatize Medicare and Social Security, Paul Ryan on closer inspection appears to be simply another Republican politician – like his new patron Mitt Romney – whose first priority is his own self-interest.
Both the ideology and the legislation he champions prove that he is utterly sincere in his admiration of Ayn Rand, the kooky libertarian author who elaborated her philosophy in a book candidly titled The Virtue of Selfishness. (The flavor of this 1964 essay collection can be gleaned from its original title, The Fascist New Frontier. Its first draft included a Rand screed that compared President John F. Kennedy with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.)
Ryan is a millionaire – one of the most affluent members of Congress – chiefly owing to a series of inheritances from his own family and the family of his wife, an Oklahoma heiress. And like Romney, he would certainly benefit from the tax proposals in the “Ryan budget,” which provides even greater benefits for wealthy families like his own than the Bush budgets that he supported during the past decade. The Romney-Ryan ticket’s chief policy preoccupation, in fact, is cutting their own taxes yet again while gutting government functions that serve the middle class (while raising taxes on them).
But the self-serving short-sightedness epitomized by Ryan’s ideas extends well beyond cutting taxes for himself and people like him. Consider his voting record on energy and environmental issues, where he has been a faithful servant of Big Oil and “skeptic” of climate change caused by carbon emissions.
That record happens to coincide perfectly with the interests of his wife Janna and her father, a lawyer representing oil and gas interests. Ryan and his wife have already inherited millions of dollars from a trust established by her family; and they own shares in several companies leasing property in Oklahoma and Texas to energy firms that benefit from taxpayer subsidies protected in Ryan’s budget. Although Ryan occasionally complains about “corporate welfare,” he and Romney both oppose any reduction in the multi-billion-dollar tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry.
As for Ryan’s own inherited wealth, it is money that mostly came from the huge construction company established by his great-grandfather in the 19th century. Ryan Incorporated’s success grew from the construction of railroads, then highways, airports, bridges and other basic public infrastructure – in short, from government contracts. (Its website proudly outlines the company history and notes that today “the Company performs residential, commercial, industrial and power site work, landfill construction and capping and full-service golf course building/remodeling for both public and private customers.”
But while Ryan benefited personally from more than a century of construction that helped to create American society and a prosperous middle class, his budget serves only the super-rich generation of termites who would allow U.S. infrastructure to crumble, rather than provide sufficient resources to maintain and modernize it. Should the Ryan budget ever become law, very little or no federal money will remain available in future decades for such basic purposes of government. That is fine with him, evidently because Ryan’s own fortunes are no longer tied to the family construction business. (His cousins who still run the company would be wise to vote for anyone but him.)
Then there is Ryan’s longtime obsession with abolishing Social Security as a public insurance system, which first drew attention to him during the Bush administration in 2005. The Bush White House suffered political disaster by pursuing a privatization plan as he urged them to do. Strangely, while Ryan is decades away from retirement age, he has already collected Social Security in the form of survivor benefits. For two years he received a check every month, following the tragic early death of his father when the future Congressman was only 16 years old.
Thanks to Social Security, Ryan was able to save money for college – a story similar to that of Senator Al Franken’s wife Franni, who lost her father at an early age and attended college thanks to federal survivor benefits. But while Franni Franken’s experience ensured that she and her husband became staunch defenders of Social Security, Ryan is eager to deprive future orphans of the guaranteed support that he received.
If selfishness is truly a virtue, then Ryan is without peer. His ideas comprise a taxonomy of narcissistic public policy – from taxes to climate change, infrastructure, and social insurance — that would surely gratify his idol.