Paul Ryan has been called the “Ayn Rand candidate,” owing to his praise of Rand’s philosophic novel Atlas Shrugged. But her name, and more importantly, her ideas, were absent from last Thursday’s debate.

That should bother those of us concerned about the growth of government intervention in the economy. Rand’s defense of free-market capitalism is potent stuff. Since President Obama was elected, Atlas — which celebrates its fifty-fifth anniversary this month — has sold nearly two million copies. No other thinker in the last century has done more to change people’s minds about markets.

What makes Rand so powerful is that she is not a timid apologist for the free market, but an idealistic champion of it.

Rand’s defense of capitalism is not that it “serves up the goods,” raises GDP, creates jobs, or maximizes “efficiency.” Economists have been showing that since the time of Adam Smith, and although the power of free markets to raise our standard of living is no small matter, it has not by itself been enough to transform people’s attitudes about the market from one of skepticism (at best) to eager embrace.

Nor does Rand rehash clichés about how individuals make better decisions than bureaucrats, or how self-interest, if left unhampered, adds up to “the common good.” She is not your average conservative.

Rand’s defense of capitalism starts by asking a basic moral question: Does the individual have a right to exist for his own sake — or not? Are you the property of the tribe, the king, the church, or “society”? Or does your life belong to you?

Rand’s answer? In Atlas Shrugged, she declares that “your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.” As a result, you have the right — the moral as well as the political right — to spend that life in pursuit of your own happiness.

For Rand, this is not empty rhetoric: it is an ethical principle that should guide and inform all of our political and economic policy decisions.

If your life belongs to you, then no Mullah has the right to dictate what sorts of movies you make. If your life belongs to you, then no bureaucrat has the right to demand you get his permission before you hang up your shingle and have a go at creating a successful business. If your life belongs to you, then if that business succeeds — if dozens or millions of people willingly buy your products — then the money you earn is yours, and no one can confiscate it on the grounds that others “need” it more than you do.

Your life belongs to you, not to others. That is the root of Rand’s opposition to the entitlement state. It’s not because, as she is often accused, Rand hates poor people. It’s that she deeply respects the sanctity of the individual. Morally, no individual, no matter how poor or how rich, exists to serve others.

The opposite, Rand argues, is the principle implicit in the entitlement state: You don’t have a right to exist for your own sake, but have a duty to selflessly serve the needs of others. You may have earned your paycheck through your blood, sweat, tears, and creative thought — but if your neighbor has a need he can’t fulfill — if he “needs” a house or a retirement or a tonsillectomy — your job is to serve his needs, not your own priorities and dreams.

Conclusion? The entitlement state — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, housing subsidies, and all the rest of it — is not just economically destructive but immoral. Instead of leaving us free to make the most of our own lives, it drags us down to the lowest common denominator. The ideal is no longer individual freedom but equal impoverishment.

Rand’s much-needed perspective was nowhere to be found on Thursday night’s stage. Ryan spent the bulk of his time praising entitlements as critical, noble programs that need to be saved, not cut. Maybe that’ll help get Ryan and Romney elected. Very likely Ryan even believes it. But that sort of view will do nothing to further the cause of limited government.

The left’s nuclear weapon against the right has always been the charge that only the heartless and mean-spirited could want to curtail entitlements. By reframing the issue in terms of the individual’s right to his own life and wealth, Rand puts the left on the moral defensive. As Thursday night’s debate made clear, that’s a weapon the right badly needs.