Objectivism and Paul Ryan’s budget
I was perusing Paul Ryan’s budget the other day, because I’m inclined to torture myself with such things from time to time. As self destructive habits go, it’s pretty benign.
What follows are my thoughts on the spirit of this budget, such that budgets have spirit.
The budget lays out our priorities as a country, and shows anyone who’s looking where we intend to spend our nation’s treasure. You could view the choices that the budget represents as a window into our national character. In that sense, it could be said to be a moral document.
I don’t pretend to have the depth of understanding necessary to fully address each item of the budget, or the dependencies that exist among them; but I do meet the reasonable person standard, and I have gone through the budget a few times.
I couldn’t help noticing the adjectives Ryan uses, and the points he chooses to belabor. I think they reveal an ideologically driven approach to reforming the republic.
Paul Ryan is an adherent of the philosophy Objectivism. Made famous in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, objectivism celebrates the individual in a context of unfettered capitalism. Self interest is the primary motivator in Ayn Rand’s idyll, a world devoid of altruism. It assumes that if you’re successful, then you’ve made good choices in life, and deserve all the fruits of your labor. The idea of giving back to a system that has provided the means for that success would not apply in this moral construct. If you’re not doing well, it is because you’ve made bad choices, better luck next time!
From an objectivist perspective, Paul Ryan’s budget does not disappoint.
Essentially a reset to pre-Obama times. Gone are the regulations and protections that were responsible for making sure we all benefited from a level playing field.
The following is a sample of some actions this budget takes against laws and regulations that served the common good.
- Dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — “responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector”
- Cutting funds from stimulus green energy programs — a portion of the Recovery Act that supports green energy initiatives to create jobs in emerging clean energy sector
- Repeal of Obamacare — Obama’s signature legislation that has provided many people with health insurance that would otherwise have none.
The reasoning is that the removal of such protections makes it easier for “job creators” to set up, hire employees, and conduct business. Presumably, producing an economic climate where it’s easier to lift oneself up by the bootstraps, as the saying goes. This approach assumes equal and fair access to the governmental institutions that regulate our society. This is, however, not the case. We live in a society with institutions that favor whites. This is the experience expressed by majorities in all groups:
“Roughly nine-in-ten (88%) black Americans, including solid majorities across all demographic groups, say more needs to be done to achieve racial equality. A majority (70%) of Hispanics share this view. Among whites, more also say further changes are needed (53%) than say the country has already made the changes necessary for blacks to have equal rights (38%), but far larger shares of whites than blacks or Hispanics think the country has made the changes needed to achieve racial equality.” — Pew Research
Removing protections in order to streamline governmental institutions disproportionately augments already favored white access to these institutions, while eliminating equitable access for everyone else.
Furthermore, the idea that a less regulated economic environment benefits everyone ignores the fact that for generations, unequal access to institutional resources has limited the palette of opportunities available to minority groups. For example, the racial disparity in incarceration rates that disproportionately results in minorities losing rights such as: voting, employment in some fields, publicly funded social benefits and housing, parental benefits, among others, also adversely affects family members to which they are responsible The Law Dictionary — creating a vicious cycle from which future generations find it hard to extricate themselves.
The budget removes environmental regulations effectively allowing fossil fuel exploration and development activities to commence, with relative impunity. Aside from the devastating effects this has on the environment, it ignores the role government plays in creating economic demand as a way of incenting technological development in areas that aren’t yet lucrative. As an example, using governmental spending power as a way of putting the country at the forefront of clean, sustainable energy production. A strategically prudent move given the alternatives provided by fossil fuels.
Regarding military spending
Much of the verbiage dedicated to the military indicates an increase in conventional military spending — more stuff with which to fight a conventional war. Threats in the middle east related to “Radical islamic terrorism” come up as justifications. There are multiple views on the causes of terrorism, and a thoughtful discussion on them is beyond the scope of this article, but in broad strokes here are a couple of opposing views:
- One view holds that when there exists circumstances of “social and political injustice . . .” and “The belief that violence or its threat will be effective, and usher in change.“ then terrorist tactics may be utilized. — The Causes of Terrorism
- Another view holds that terrorism is essentially hard-coded into Islamic ideology. ”Islam is a core part of the ideological foundation for Islamism. Islamism in turn is the main ideological foundation for Islamic terrorism, though often supplemented by leftist nationalism.” — The Actual Root Causes of Islamic Terrorism
I think the former is closer to the truth, and I think Ryan probably believes the latter. Neither view supports the idea that dropping bombs on a point on a map is likely to have any effect on this threat. In my view dropping bombs contributes to the conditions under which people choose terrorism as a reasonable response to the violence being done to them. We need to win the hearts and minds of people, making terrorism a less attractive option. Spending money on education, foreign aid, human rights seem like reasonable approaches. None of these angles are explored in this budget’s discussion of national security
Ryan began the section on the Military with a graphic that enlarges and highlights the following words from the Constitution: “Provide for the common defense,” but, interestingly, no sections dealing with issues related to the less fortunate among us, had a graphic highlighting the words: “Promote the general welfare”
The approach to justifying changes to social programs goes something like this:
State the problem:
The [ . . . ] Federal program is failing to help it’s targeted group due to wasteful inefficient spending at the federal level, and it’s creating a cycle of dependency that must be broken.
Prescribe a solution:
- Restrict the ability of the executive branch to interpret laws governing safety net programs in a nuanced fashion. For example, keep the executive branch from being able to provide waivers of the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program” (TANF) work requirement. “To restore adherence to the letter and the intent of the law”
- Push it back to the states, because they know best. For example, “The federal role in education should empower states and local communities, not hinder them with regulations and strip away their power”
The problem with the first approach is that it leaves holes through which some will fall. A nuanced approach is required; these laws are not a one size fits all proposition.
The idea of pushing authority, and responsibility back to the states is more problematic. The argument is that states know best how to allocate resources to benefit their constituencies. However, in this day and age where people are more mobile and state borders mean less, one can simply move to a state where benefits are more generously distributed to those in your demographic. A federal role in administering these programs is a stabilizing force.
On the subject of education, a common understanding of what it means to be educated needs to be considered. Just as the laws of Nature are universal, so should the knowledge and awareness of those laws be universal. For example, in 1999 Kansas was embroiled in a struggle between Creationist and Science based educational approaches to teaching the origins of the universe and life (NYtmes). This disadvantages students coming out of an educational system that fails to meet the needs of a job market requiring high tech skills; and disincents companies from locating to states with populations lacking relevant skills.
Kansas has since pulled out of that dive — guardian, but I feel a federal presence in this and other areas of public life, provides a moderating influence.
With changes in the tax system resulting in more dollars headed for the coffers of the rich, money that would have been distributed to the poor, goes unspent, generating less tax revenue to support these social programs.
Oh . . . and then there’s that whole obamacare repeal thing. We’ve all been following the news on that one. No need for me to reiterate anything here.
In the end, we’re (or at least I’m) left with the question — why? Why do it this way? It all seems to come back to Objectivism’s celebration of the individual. Individuals succeed or fail on the merits of their own decisions, with little recognition of the resources and support the larger community brings to bear on their good fortune.
Ayn Rand herself had trouble reconciling the obvious pro-social tendencies exhibited by people. She felt that they were diseases imposed by society early in life. Qualities that allowed our early hunting and gathering ancestors to succeed: altruism, cooperation, and watching out for one another, confounded her views on perfect self-reliance. Rand tried to explain this by suggesting that even if man, as a species, began with social instincts, that civilizing forces would “make him an individual” — pbs.org. Civilization effectively reduces everyone to being either a winner or a loser, or in Paul Ryan’s words “makers and takers,” we reward one and punish the other. It’s a zero sum proposition.