Paul Ryan has committed a great sin. He’s dared to challenge the welfare state — we’ll come back to the revealing nature of that “challenge” shortly — and the reaction from the left has been swift and unhinged. This recent column in the New York Times, for instance, manages to suggest that Ryan is a genocidal racist.

Timothy Egan’s argument, if you can call it that, is that some of the ideas Ryan advocates are similar to ones that “English Tories used to justify indifference to” the Irish potato famine — namely that “Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.”

Set aside Egan’s dubious historical account (see here, here, and here). Let’s stipulate that there was a misguided worry about encouraging dependency through giving aid in an emergency. What in the world does that have to do with the American welfare state?

Obviously nothing, and when Egan accuses Ryan of “wagging his finger at the famished” you know we’re dealing not with an argument but with a smear. This is, after all, a country where poor people are far more likely to be obese than famished.

Every smear is motivated by desperation, so what’s the source of the left’s desperation?

On one level, it’s that Ryan has pointed out that the welfare state is pretty bad at lifting people out of poverty, and pretty good at encouraging dependency. The left has a vested interest in treating all welfare recipients as helpless victims, but since it’s so obvious that many welfare recipients don't fall in that category, their only option is to resort to sarcasm and name-calling.

But the deeper fear is revealed by another passage in Egan’s diatribe:

Ryan’s running mate in 2012, Mitt Romney, made the Tory case with his infamous remark that 47 percent of Americans are moochers, “dependent upon government.” Part of that dependence, he said, extended to people “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Food — the gall!

For the record, I was critical of Romney’s 47 percent remarks from the start, since he wrongly claimed that everyone who receives government benefits is a mooching dependent. But what’s relevant here is not that error, but the profound truth that the welfare state caters to those “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

The key word there is not food but entitled — which in this context means that some people have the right to sit back and collect rewards which others are forced to work to produce. The welfare state is based on the view that it is moral to force some people to serve others, and what frightens the left about Ryan and Romney is that they seem willing to challenge that premise.

But the truth is that Ryan and Romney don’t challenge that premise — not fully or consistently. Both do believe that people are entitled to health care, food, housing … you name it. That’s why they both support a “safety net,” even as they warn against “a hammock.”

But there is someone who does challenge the entitlement premise, and it’s no accident that her name makes an appearance in Egan’s column: Ayn Rand. If one person is not entitled to the unpaid services of another person, if it’s morally wrong to treat some people as servants, and to rob people of their hopes and dreams in order to give others the unearned — then, as I and others at ARI have argued, the entire justification for the welfare state collapses.

What the left senses, and what has put them in such a panic, is the fact that there is no justification for the entitlement premise. The only way for them to defend the welfare state, then, is to resort to smears, sarcasm, and character assassination.