Galt Goes Global

Did Paul Ryan take his foreign policy from Ayn Rand?

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has credited philosopher Ayn Rand with inspiring him to enter politics — and made her 1,000-plus-page opus, Atlas Shrugged, required reading for his staff. "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," he said in 2005 at a gathering of Rand fans. "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." It is a theme that pervades Rand’s corpus.

Given the Wisconsin congressman’s interest in Rand’s writings, Ryan’s addition to the GOP ticket has naturally unleashed a flash-mob of analysts parsing his speeches, articles, and signature proposals for evidence of her influence. On domestic policy, the impact of Rand’s ideas on Ryan’s outlook is marked, though uneven and sometimes overstated. Religion, in particular, has driven a wedge between Ryan, who would enact Catholic dogma into law, and Rand, an atheist, who championed the separation of church and state. But what has received far less attention is Ryan’s outlook on foreign policy — and whether it bears the mark of Rand’s thought.

Ayn Rand’s foreign policy, if we can construct one from her writings, would be grounded in her view of man’s rights and the nature of government. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand argues that the ideal government is the servant, not the master, of the individual. In her view, it is a vital institution strictly limited to one function: to safeguard individual rights. By "rights," Rand means freedom to take "all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life." Critically, the protection of an individual’s rights "does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life."

Domestically, this outlook entails a truly free market with absolute legal protection of private property, and without regulations, bailouts, corporate handouts, or entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. (Ryan breaks with Rand by attempting to save, rather than end these programs.) In Rand’s political philosophy, however, there is no gulf between economic rights and personal and intellectual ones: for instance, she wrote passionately of the crucial importance (contra Ryan) of the right to abortion, and regarded freedom of speech as sacrosanct.

Like her views on domestic policy, a Randian foreign policy would be guided exclusively by the goal of protecting the individual rights of Americans, and only Americans. Accordingly, the U.S. government shouldn’t issue handouts to other countries (through foreign aid or international welfare schemes), nor treat its citizens as cannon fodder (through a military draft). Indeed, Rand was scathing in her analyses of the Vietnam War, arguing that it did not serve America’s national interest. "[I]t is a pure instance of blind, senseless altruistic self-sacrificial slaughter," she wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Of course, there are times when government is obligated to go to war, according to Rand. The crucial standard here is whether the lives and property of Americans are imperiled. The only morally justifiable purpose for war, she wrote, is self-defense. This rules out so-called humanitarian missions, like the tragic Clinton-era mission in Somalia, and the notion that the United States is somehow obliged to serve as the world’s policeman. The primary function of the military, in Rand’s eyes, should be to deter, and when necessary, defeat foreign aggressors.

Although some of Rand’s political ideas have informed the libertarian movement, she regarded any form of pacifism (including Ron Paul-esque passivity) as destructive to national defense. And undoubtedly she would have supported a strong military response to the 9/11 attacks (though, as I have argued in my book, she would have rejected George W. Bush’s conception of the enemy and his entire prosecution of the war).

Rand viewed deterrence as an especially important — and effective — method of defending American freedom. In her view, the power of a morally confident, assertive United States was considerable, though largely unappreciated. For instance, she believed that if the West had truly stood up to the Soviet bloc by withdrawing its moral sanction, ending the flow of aid, and imposing an airtight boycott, the Soviet threat would have imploded many years before it actually did, without the need for war.

Perhaps most importantly, Rand argued in favor of genuine free trade — without trade barriers, protective tariffs, or special privileges. In her words: "the opening of the world’s trade routes to free international trade and competition among the private citizens of all countries dealing directly with one another." In the 19th century, she argued, free trade liberated the world by "undercutting and wrecking the remnants of feudalism and the statist tyranny of absolute monarchies." Not coincidentally, she observed, this era enjoyed the longest period of general peace in human history (roughly from 1815 to 1914).

Taken together, Rand’s approach implies a re-thinking of the moral values that should inform foreign policy. The result is a foreign policy based on pure, "rational self-interest" — defined as the aggregated ability of individual Americans to enjoy life, liberty, and property unmolested by foreign aggressors. Crucially, it rejects the duty selflessly to serve others, whether they are next door or overseas. So how, then, does Paul Ryan’s foreign policy measure up?

Reading Ryan’s most substantive speech on foreign policy, delivered at the Hamilton Society in 2011, you can certainly hear the reverberation of Rand’s ideas. "[I]f you believe these rights are universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy," he said, partially echoing the Randian conviction that regimes are moral to the degree that they respect individual rights. For Ryan, as for Rand, championing rights leads "you to reject moral relativism. It causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty." Moreover, Ryan falls in line with Rand in his thoughtful promotion of free trade. In his Hamilton Society speech, for instance, he argued in favor of an "expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as our political values" in order to "ensure a more prosperous world."

But if these similarities are meaningful, Ryan nevertheless seems to fundamentally part ways with Rand. In particular, he speaks of the need to "renew our commitment to the idea that America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen," and sees in the Arab Spring the "long-repressed populations give voice to the fundamental desire for liberty." Further, Ryan claims that it is "always in the interest of the United States to promote these principles in other nations." Like President George W. Bush, whose wars he supported, Ryan appears to subscribe to the quasi-religious view that freedom is written into the soul of mankind, and that it is somehow the moral duty of America, the freest and wealthiest of nations, to go forth and wage wars to unchain the world’s oppressed. In all this, he could not be less Randian.

Rand certainly believed that the United States benefits from a freer world. Thus, she held, America should speak up for dissidents everywhere who seek greater freedom. But Rand would only ever consider deploying the military where the rights of Americans hang in the balance — when, in other words, it becomes an issue of self-defense. This critical distinction may well be lost on Ryan, if the media’s parsing of his neoconservative leanings has been fair.

Perhaps as he gears up for the October vice-presidential debate, Ryan will consider re-reading Rand’s work. Anyone seeking to inject more rational and more distinctively American ideas into our nation’s chaotic foreign policy ought to seriously consider Ayn Rand’s refreshingly clear-eyed perspective.

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