The Marketing of Paul Ryan
Romney's 'libertarian' running mate is anything but
The Romney campaign is making a major effort to reach out to the Tea Party, grassroots conservative activists, and Ron Paul’s libertarian supporters. They’ve not only invited Rand Paul to speak at the Tampa convention, they’ve also scheduled a “Tribute to Ron Paul” video to be shown to the delegates. However, these are mere crumbs: the video is not likely to highlight Paul’s more interesting positions, such as his vociferous opposition to the American empire and its endless wars.
No, the real cake, complete with quasi-“libertarian” frosting, is Paul Ryan, whose addition to the ticket opens up the prospect of having Ayn Rand, the late novelist and philosopher of “Objectivism,” become a campaign issue. I can’t wait for someone to accuse the Republicans of endorsing “terrorism” on the grounds that The Fountainhead, Rand’s best-selling 1943 novel, climaxes with the hero blowing up a home for mentally challenged orphans. Oh wait …
That some “libertarians” are ready, willing, and able to swallow this guff, I have no doubt. They claim Ryan “gets the free market.” Well, whoop-de-doo! So does the Chinese Communist party, these days.
However, he doesn’t really “get it” at all, not even to the extent that the heirs of Deng Xiaoping do, because he thinks we can still have an overseas empire and a “limited” government, with low taxes and “free” enterprise. The Chicoms — to use right-wing Republican phraseology — are “isolationists,” i.e. their foreign policy amounts to minding their own business and making as much money as possible. Ryan, on the other hand, is all about maintaining “American leadership” in the world, and the way he tells it, “leadership” is a polite euphemism for domination.
In a speech before the Alexander Hamilton Society — where else? — Ryan gave full-throated expression to what American foreign policy would look like under his watch, and while the vice-presidency is an office with little power, from the tone of the speech the office of the Vice President in a Republican administration would once again become a nest of neocons lobbying for more and bigger wars.
Ryan may be a neocon drone, but he’s no Dan Quayle: he realizes, as he put it in his talk to the Hamiltonians, that “our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”
Translation: we can’t have an empire, given our present financial straits. So what’s the solution? To any normal American, who never wanted an empire to begin with, the answer is simple: give up the imperial pretensions to “global leadership,” and tend to our own ill-used and leached-out garden. Ryan, however, is a creature of Washington, and this is unthinkable inside the Beltway: it would be a most grievous blow to the self-esteem of these worthies if they had to exchange the imperial purple for a plain republican cloth coat. Why, no Serious Person would even suggest such a thing! So instead of stating the facts, he makes up some of his own:
“Our fiscal crisis is above all a spending crisis that is being driven by the growth of our major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In 1970, these programs consumed about 20 percent of the budget. Today that number has grown to over 40 percent.
“Over the same period, defense spending has shrunk as a share of the federal budget from about 39 percent to just under 16 percent — even as we conduct an ambitious global war on terrorism. The fact is, defense consumes a smaller share of the national economy today than it did throughout the Cold War.”
This is a flat out fabrication. As David Callahan of Reuters put it:
“Ryan is wrong — and misleading — when he argues that defense spending is shrinking. He says that defense as a percentage of GDP has declined from its ‘Cold War average of 7.5 percent to 4.6 percent today.’ What he doesn’t say is that this share is up from the 1990s. Defense spending ranged between 3 percent and 3.4 percent of GDP from 1996 to 2001, according to budget data from the Office of Management and Budget. Likewise, while Ryan says that such spending as a percentage of all federal outlays is down from 25 percent three decades ago to 20 percent today, he doesn’t mention that defense spending constituted just 16 percent of federal outlays in 1999.”
The infamous Ryan budget wants to raise military spending and declares any cuts off limits because, don’t you know, it’s a “strategic” matter, and not a question of dollars-and-cents. But what is this grand “strategic” vision he wants to throw money at?
“Decline is a choice,” avers Ryan, citing neocon oracle Charles Krauthammer, but he never defines his terms, only implies their meaning. What is “decline”? To Ryan, the supposed free market fundamentalist, it has little to do with economics, but is essentially measured by military power. He excoriates Britain for “ceding leadership of the Western world to the United States” at “the turn of the century.” Yet the Brits, exhausted by decades of taking up the “white man’s burden,” had no choice but to pull back: the alternative was to pour money and lives into fighting insurgent peoples from India to Africa and the Far East.
Does Ryan really believe the Brits should’ve held on to India in spite of Gandhi’s heroic struggle for independence? Try explaining that one to the Indian Ambassador, Mr. Vice President.
Yes, Ryan is right when he declares that “the unsustainable trajectory of government spending is accelerating the nation toward the most predictable economic crisis in American history.” What was even more predictable, however, is the response of our elites, who refuse to even scale down, never mind abandon, their grandiose visions of a world-spanning hegemony, because they are ideologically and most important of all emotionally invested in the imperial project. They like comparing themselves to the lords and ladies of the former British empire, and indeed in Washington we have all the pomp and circumstance except for the hereditary titles.
Ryan claims “years of ignoring the real drivers of our debt have left us with a profound structural problem,” and to him this means throwing grandmothers out in the street rather than cut one dime from billions going to Lockheed. The “Ryan budget,” endorsed by House Republicans, would cancel planned cuts in the growth rate of military appropriations, and increase the Pentagon’s budget by $20 billion. He’s right that the trajectory of our debt-to-income ratio is “catastrophic,” yet is patently dishonest in describing what or who is driving us over a fiscal cliff.
I might add that the figures Ryan cites omit the costs of the Iraq, Afghan, and other wars, effectively disappearing $1.4 trillion in debt accrued since 9/11, as Callahan points out. Another dishonest sleight-of-hand from the man who recommends Atlas Shrugged to all his new staff hires. Perhaps Ryan has forgotten one of the key passages of that novel, where the hero describes what Rand considered to be the virtue of honesty:
“Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee.”
Ryan had better start fleeing now, and get a head start, because it’s going to be a very long campaign season.
Standing before the Alexander Hamilton Society and declaring that the US was “unfortunately,” at the turn of the last century , “not yet ready to assume the burden of leadership” from our British big brothers smacks of treason when one considers Hamilton wanted a king, and, by 1790, had become a British agent. Ryan moans that our refusal to assume the reins of empire resulted in “40 years of Great Power rivalry and two World Wars” — as if the Americans are to blame for the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the spark that set that 40-year conflagration to burning! It was a wildfire that would never have touched American shores if not for the strenuous efforts of America’s Hamiltonians to drag us into Europe’s wars. Ayn Rand, Ryan’s literary idol, understood this, which is why she opposed US entry into World War II, and bitterly denounced the Vietnam war.
Ah, but “the stakes are even higher today, says Ryan:
“Unlike Britain, which handed leadership to a power that shared its fundamental values, today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace the basic principles that should be at the core of the international system. A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia.”
It is doubtful the Russians or the Chinese have the either the desire or the capacity to “lead the world” — a grandiose concept that seems to have originated with those who believe civilization would literally go to pieces without the beneficent direction of the right Anglo-Saxon aristocrats.
To Ryan, giving up this hereditary right to world hegemony amounts to accepting “decline,” a choice which “would have consequences that I doubt many Americans would be comfortable with.” Again, the facts burst Ryan’s fanciful ideological balloon: as Ezra Klein points out, Republicans as well as Democrats, when presented with the actual budget breakdown, favor on average an 18 percent cut in military spending.
Heedless of either facts or figures, Ryan barrels on ahead, his inflated rhetoric ascending to the higher realms of moral philosophy and political theory:
“So we must lead. And a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles — consistently and energetically — without being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve. America is an idea.”
Without even getting into what, exactly, this Grand Idea is all about, one has to ask: how can an entire nation possibly be reduced to a floating abstraction? Any nation with a history longer than fifteen minutes is already marked by the passage of time, during which the original intent — or Idea — is revised, if ever so slightly, in response to new circumstances. We have seen that in our own history, and yet Ryan is blind to this obvious fact because his view is essentially rationalistic and anti-historical.
A nation cannot be a mere idea for the simple reason that America, like all other countries, is a place; in our case, one with vast plains, fertile valleys, burning deserts, towering mountains, and two long coastlines fronting two oceans separating it from the ire and intrigues of foreign princes — a place which, at the time of the Founding, was a sparsely populated and incredibly rich wilderness relatively free of European exploitation. It wasn’t settled by ideas, but by people — real live actual human beings, some of whom were the bearers of certain concepts which had a catalyzing effect on the course of American history. What’s interesting is that Ryan fails to mention the primary idea that motivated the American colonists, which was opposition to foreign domination and the legitimacy of the British monarch. Even Hamilton, who wanted to place a crown on George Washington’s head, embraced the essential spirit of the American Revolution, which if it can be called anything was certainly anti-imperialist. Indeed, it was the Founding Fathers who warned us not to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” and explicitly opposed the export of our revolution in the French style. Apparently the neo-Hamiltonians have surpassed even the treason of their idol.
From these soaring heights of philosophical expostulation, Ryan executes a rather bumpy landing into the lower planes of actual policy, but not before enunciating an axiom most puzzling:
“There are very good people who are uncomfortable with the idea that America is an ‘exceptional’ nation. But it happens that America was the first in the world to make the universal principle of human freedom into a “credo,” a commitment to all mankind, and it has been our honor to be freedom’s beacon for millions around the world.”
Where in the Constitution or in the other founding documents of our country is it written that we have “a commitment to all mankind”? A commitment to do what? It only gets crazier as Ryan continues building the fantastical structure of his argument. The result is a monument to the intellectual emptiness of the America-is-an-idea bromide pushed by neoconservatives like that old bore Ben Wattenberg. “America’s ‘exceptionalism,’” avers Ryan, “is just this”:
“While most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America’s foundations are not our own — they belong equally to every person everywhere. The truth that all human beings are created equal in their natural rights is the most ‘inclusive’ social truth ever discovered as a foundation for a free society. ‘All’ means ‘all’! You can’t get more ‘inclusive’ than that!”
Or more contradictory. For if America is “exceptional,” along with Americans, then how is it we’re just like everybody else on earth? If our exceptionality doesn’t belong exclusively to us, we cease being exceptional. Perhaps we can forgive Ryan this lapse into complete incoherence: after all, we don’t expect our rulers to be philosopher kings, even if that’s how they see themselves. All this abstract theorizing, which no one takes seriously, is meant to get him to a the point where he can argue the following:
“Now, if you believe these rights are universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy. It 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, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests.”
Such a dizzying leap of logic leaves the listener breathless, and somewhat disoriented: Ryan doesn’t tell us why recognizing the universality of “human rights” ought “clearly” to form the “basis” of one’s foreign policy views. A foreign policy is not a moral philosophy, which Ryan seems to belatedly recognize by citing the “tension between morality and reality.” How he resolves that “tension” is particularly interesting.
Giving the example of the Saudis — “with whom we share many interests” — he notes the “sharp divide between the principles around which they have organized their state and the principles that guide the United States.” His recommendation: “ We should help our allies effect a transition that fulfills the aspirations of their people.” He supposedly “hears voices within the Kingdom” calling for “reform,” however “in Syria and Iran,” he says, “we are witnessing regimes that have chosen the opposite path.” In that case, we ought to give full-throated denunciations of “the jack-booted thugs of Syria and Iran.”
Our principles, Ryan declares, must be “tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions,” but isn’t it funny how “humility” always come into play when the petro-tyrants of the Kingdom are concerned, yet plays no role in our relations with Syria or Iran? This policy of selective humility is highly convenient for Ryan, because it enables him to align himself with whatever powerful lobby is pushing for war — or a policy of complicity in repression.
For all his calls for “consistency” and “morality,” Ryan is just another cynical self-aggrandizing opportunist, whose “principles” consist of appeasing the military industrial complex, the Israel lobby, and the neoconservatives, who have been “briefing” him on the Party Line. If he is the “intellectual leader” of the Republican party, then it is time for the GOP to declare intellectual bankruptcy.
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