October 5, 2012 | Back to: News

Paul Ryan and Todd Akin — two peas in a pod

It has been said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste — but so is a blunder. We need to learn from them.

Much has been made of Todd Akin’s blunder, but the moral will have been lost if we don’t recognize that Paul Ryan has made an even greater gaffe. Let me compare these two,

First, Akin’s policy position: Abortion is not justified in the case of rape.

Akin’s supporting justification: “From what I understand from doctors, [conception as a result of rape is] really rare.”

Now, Ryan’s policy position: “The fight we [Republicans] are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism,” said in an interview before the Atlas Society, “Atlas,” as in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

Ryan’s supporting justification: “[Ayn] Rand makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.”

That case for Ryan’s individualism over collectivism is made in Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, and her novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountain Head” (a book that Ryan’s prospective interns were required to read). Ryan himself has said that “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.”

The case for individualism is most starkly put in Rand’s philosophy of objectivism:

“Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”

This is the third of the four central tenants in Rand’s philosophy.

Both Ryan and Akin justify their respective positions citing authority, the authority of philosopher Ayn Rand or, in Akin’s case the anonymous “doctors.”

But these two positions, the primacy of individualism over collectivism and the ability of the female reproductive system to detect and discriminate between the sperm of friend and foe, are not matters to be settled by citation of individual authority, doctors (anonymous or otherwise) or an individual philosopher, such as Rand. Now hear this: These are matters of science and are to be settled by peer reviewed scientific consensus.

So let’s consider the science. Rand’s claim, “Man is an end in himself …” The average grade schooler will tell you that biologists classify species as either solitary or social, with a few notable exceptions. (No, they are not classified as conservative or socialist.) Ours is a social species. We have an inherent tendency to be collective. The scientific basis for our social instinct is the adaptive value of working together.

So, to say that the individual “must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” is very bad science on the most fundamental level. Ryan, the new intellectual darling of the Republican base, in adopting Rand’s hyperindividualism, is just as bad as Akin.

What is it with these people in the House of Representatives? There was a legend reported to have been inscribed over Plato’s academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” May I recommend a legend to be inscribed over the entrance to the House of Representatives: “Let no one ignorant of basic biology enter.” And that goes for science in general. You are entitled (grudgingly) to your own opinion, but not your own science.

If we were allowed to quote individual authority above science, we might include that great Philosopher-Scientist who exhorted us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

This anti-collectivism of Rand and Ryan was a theme in the Republican convention and was denounced by David Brooks, conservative columnist for the N.Y. Times.

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

I don’t mean to overstate the case. Even those who trumpet hyperindividualism and denounce collectivism do so collectively. Witness the Tea Party. It is not possible to deny one’s very nature. The world is a motley patchwork of collectives. Tribalism is rooted in our DNA.

But forget science. Forget philosophy. “Hang up philosophy! Unless philosophy can make a Juliet,” said Romeo. There is just something deeply repugnant about an individual who aspires to public service taking Ayn Rand as his role model.

Jim Hurley lives in Nevada City.

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Jim Hurley


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The Union Updated Nov 16, 2012 12:03PM Published Oct 19, 2012 10:28AM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.