Leftist Rule for Engaging Conservative Ideas #1: conservatives’ motives are never what they claim. It must be rigorously asserted that right-wingers are invariably driven by impulses more sinister than making people better off or trying to find solutions to the problems we face. New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait knows that lesson by heart—on the Daily Beast, he argues that from the lowliest Tea Partier all the way up to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Right is animated by a view of “the poor as parasites” and “the rich as our rightful rulers,” a dogma we’ve picked up from philosopher Ayn Rand:
Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.
John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”
In 2009 Rand began popping up all over the Tea Party movement. Sales of her books skyrocketed, and signs quoting her ideas appeared constantly at rallies. Conservatives asserted that the events of the Obama administration eerily paralleled the plot of Atlas Shrugged, in which a liberal government precipitates economic collapse.
To be sure, Rand’s ultra-capitalist works have enjoyed a surge in popularity recently, a predicable response to our leaders overreaching in the opposite direction. But it’s not quite true to suggest Rand is universally embraced on the Right; for instance, consider National Review’s March 2009 symposium on Rand, which on the whole takes a dim view of the author (in fairness, she’s much more popular at Big Hollywood).
I haven’t read her, and have no strong opinions about her philosophy either way, but I can certainly tell when mainstream conservative thought is subjected to class-warfare caricatures:
When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit—the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Ryan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse […]
Ryan casts these cuts as an incentive for the poor to get off their lazy butts. He insists that we “ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” It’s worth translating what Ryan means here. Welfare reform was premised on the tough but persuasive argument that providing long-term cash payments to people who don’t work encourages long-term dependency. Ryan is saying that the poor should not only be denied cash income but also food and health care.
The class tinge of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we “reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water.” Ryan won’t say so, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Two main fallacies sink Chait’s argument. First, have and have-not doesn’t have to be an either-or contest. Leftists speak as if one person simply having more constitutes stealing from another, as if there’s only so much wealth to go around. But that’s nonsense for the basic fact that most people, once they have money, don’t just stuff it in a safe and forget about it; we constantly spend it on all sorts of necessities and entertainment, at which point the people we bought from spend it on all sorts of necessities and entertainment, and so on, and so on. This is particularly important when it comes to people in a position to spend their money on creating jobs—you might recognize them as “the rich,” the perennial villains of liberal mythology.
As Rob Port points out regarding the “idea that there is a static amount of wealth in the world”:
If you believe that this is true, I hope you don’t own a business. Otherwise, every dollar you make is actually serving to move your customers closer to poverty. You have to believe that a company like Microsoft or Nike or Target has consigned millions (if not billions) of people to poverty by growing so large.
The second fallacy is in talking about government “rewarding” and “punishing” people. To believe that a tax cut is a “reward” for the recipient, you have to believe the money he’s getting back wasn’t his to begin with, but is basically a gift from Uncle Sam. Likewise, stopping the flow of subsidies is only a “punishment” if the government is taking away money that already rightfully belonged to the beneficiary. But as we’ve discussed before, this understanding of money is bogus. What money the government has, it takes primarily from we the people through taxation. It has no “stash” of its own to draw money from.
Again, I don’t presume to know the genius-to-gibberish ratio of Atlas Shrugged or Ayn Rand’s other works, but when I survey the Right, I certainly don’t see any epidemic of greedy Tea Partiers who want the poor to die in the streets. Kudos to Jonathan Chait for finding a line of attack more original than “racist!,” but if the fruits of Rand’s labors are anything to go by, Chait might have to look for another club to beat us with.