WASHINGTON -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to send the message this week that, contrary to "urban legend," he is not obsessed with philosopher and author Ayn Rand.
"I reject her philosophy," Ryan told National Review on Thursday. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand."
Best known for her novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," Rand advocated a philosophy that emphasizes the individual over the collective, and viewed capitalism as the only system truly based on the protection of the individual. She has been a significant influence on libertarians and conservatives.
Ryan, whose name has been floated as a possible running mate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, appeared to be distancing himself from Rand in response to a public letter he received this week from nearly 90 faculty and administrators at Georgetown University. In their letter, they criticize him for misusing Catholic social teaching in defending his budget, which hurts the poor by proposing significant cuts to anti-hunger programs, slashing Pell Grants for low-income students and calling for a replacement of Medicare with a voucher-like system. They also invoke Rand's name.
"As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor," said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, one of the organizers of the letter. "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
But any urban legend about Ryan's affinity for Rand surely started with Ryan himself, who, prior to this week, had no qualms about gushing about Rand's influence on his guiding principles.
"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," Ryan said during a 2005 event honoring Rand in Washington, D.C., the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April 2009.
During the 2005 gathering, Ryan told the audience, "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill ... is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict -- individualism versus collectivism." The event was hosted by The Atlas Society, which prominently features a photo of Rand on its website and describes itself as a group that "promotes open Objectivism: the philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom."
Ryan also said during a 2003 interview with the Weekly Standard, "I give out 'Atlas Shrugged' as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well ... I try to make my interns read it.” He noted that he "looked into" Rand's work when he was younger, but reiterated that he is a Christian and reads the Bible often.
In 2009, Ryan posted two videos on his Facebook page raving about the importance of Rand's views.
"If 'Atlas Shrugged' author Ayn Rand were alive today, here's the urgent message I think she'd be conveying," Ryan wrote alongside the first video, titled "Ayn Rand's relevance in 2009."
He says in the video:
What's unique about what's happening today in government, in the world, in America, is it's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism. And that morality of capitalism is under assault. And we are going to replace it with a crony capitalism, collectivist, government-run system which is creeping its way into government. And so if Ayn Rand were here today, I think she would do a great job in showing us just how wrong what government is doing is. Not the quantitative analysis, not the numbers, but the morality of what is wrong with what government is doing today.
In the second video, titled "Ayn Rand & 2009 America, Part 2," Ryan says it doesn't surprise him that sales of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" have "surged" since President Barack Obama took office.
"It's that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now. And I think a lot of people would observe that we are living in an Ayn Rand novel right now, metaphorically speaking," Ryan says. "The attack on Democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America is an attack on the moral foundation of America. And Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. This, to me, is what matters most."
Some of Ryan's critics took a shot at him for suddenly distancing himself from Rand.
"Not pure enough on entitlement cuts @philipaklein @robertcostaNRO Paul Ryan on Ayn Rand: 'I reject her philosophy,'" Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, tweeted Thursday.
UPDATE: 5:14 p.m. -- Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert downplayed the lawmaker's apparent change of tune on Rand.
"I wouldn't make too much of this one way or another. Congressman Ryan was not 'distancing himself' from Rand, merely correcting several false storylines that are out there, such as the myth that he requires all of his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged. Saying he 'rejects Ayn Rand's philosophy' was simply meant to correct a popular falsehood that Congressman Ryan is an Objectivist -- he isn't now and never claimed to be," Seifert said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Flickr photo courtesy of Francisco Diez.