As Paul Ryan’s star has risen, a meme has developed around him based on his approval of the works and ideas of Ayn Rand: that Ryan forces all of his staffers to read her works.
It has its origin, as far as I can tell, in an offhand sentence in this New York Magazine piece by Christopher Beam. It’s been repeated on multiple occasions by Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait, and a host of leftists on blogs and Twitter (just search for “paul ryan requires” and you’ll find scores of examples). In Beam’s telling, Ryan’s forcing staffers to read Atlas Shrugged — in the telling of David Cay Johnston, The Fountainhead, which he believes is an endorsement of terrorism.
The paranoia this meme has spawned is quite incredible, yet hardly original to Ryan. Read this 1987 New York Times article by Maureen Dowd about Reagan-era devotion to Rand, headlined with the-right-in-the-mist verve “WHERE ‘ATLAS SHRUGGED’ IS STILL READ,” and pronouncing Rand the “novelist laureate” of the Reagan administration and the inspiration for the work of Ryan’s spiritual predecessor, Jack Kemp:
The Man President Reagan chose to be his next Commerce Secretary had all the marks of an Ayn Rand hero. C. William Verity Jr., his colleagues said, was strong. He was a maverick. He bristled with self-esteem. He spent his career building a business and working to unsnarl the cat’s cradle of government regulations. In the picture accompanying the announcement of his Cabinet post, he looked appropriately jut-jawed and steely eyed.
And, as it turned out, Bill Verity was a fan of Ayn Rand. ”I’ve read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and so have my children, and I think it is a very instructive book,” Mr. Verity said, with a forthrightness that Miss Rand would admire. The 70-year-old Mr. Verity, the former chairman of Armco, the steel company founded by his grandfather, clearly identifies with the heroes of ”Atlas Shrugged”: Hank Rearden, a steel manufacturer, and John Galt, a man who glorifies reason and proclaims the sacred importance of the creative individual. Mr. Verity even kept a card on his desk with a passage from ”Atlas Shrugged” instructing that ”how well you do your work” is ”the only measure of human value.”
While the left always seems to take the high ground on issues of tolerance, the rush to paint an entire picture of an individual’s political philosophy based on a book they liked is rather absurd, particularly a widely popular bestseller written by a pro-choice atheist woman (perhaps Ryan ought to stick to J.K. Rowling and Maya Angelou?). While Rand’s books may fail as literature, any full education requires you to be as familiar with Rand’s philosophy and intellectual arguments as you are with, say, Immanuel Kant’s — who Rand famously despised. Perhaps it’s a struggle with being confronted by someone on the right who isn’t a Bible thumper, and needing to paint them as an unserious extremist in some sense — Chait deploys this language, comparing Rand to Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard and accusing Ryan of “requiring his staffers to digest her creepy tracts.”
In any case, the problem with this description of Ryan’s mandate isn’t its ludicrous exaggeration of the dangers of reading Rand. It’s that the meme is completely false.
Always skeptical about the offhand, unsourced anecdote from Beam’s piece (which wasn’t even focused on Ryan), I reached out to several former Ryan staffers yesterday to ask them whether the Budget Chairman had required them to read Rand. While everyone knows Ryan is indeed a personal fan of Rand’s work, not a single one of them said Ryan had actually required them to read the books.
Responses include: “I had already read it prior to working for him, but it is by no means a requirement for employment.”
And “Saying he ‘requires’ his staff to read it is definitely stretching the truth.”
And the flat out denial: “We are not required to read Rand.”
And the example: “I worked there, and I haven’t read Rand.”
Suggesting people should read Rand is hardly a bad thing. Recommending her books is not a bad thing. But it appears the left thinks this is a dangerous thing. Yes, many of Rand’s ideas are dangerous, but primarily to the persistence of crushing bureaucracy, the redistributionist power of the state, and the equality enforcers who would destroy the pursuit of individual exceptionalism. The Simpsons illustrated this quite well.