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Foreign Policy in Voice for Reason
Foreign PolicySelf Defense & Free Trade

Galt Goes Global

by Elan Journo | August 28, 2012 |

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has credited
philosopher Ayn Rand with inspiring him to enter politics — and made her
1,000-plus-page opus, Atlas Shrugged,
required reading for his staff. “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,” he said in 2005 at a gathering of Rand fans. “The fight we are in
here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus
collectivism.” It is a theme that pervades Rand’s corpus.

Given the Wisconsin congressman’s interest in Rand’s
writings, Ryan’s addition to the GOP ticket has naturally unleashed a flash-mob
of analysts parsing his speeches, articles, and signature proposals for evidence
of her influence. On domestic policy, the impact of Rand’s
on Ryan’s outlook
is marked, though uneven and sometimes overstated. Religion, in particular, has
driven a wedge between Ryan, who would enact Catholic dogma into law,
and Rand, an atheist, who championed the separation of church and state. But
what has received far less attention is Ryan’s outlook on foreign policy — and
whether it bears the mark of Rand’s thought.

Ayn Rand’s foreign policy, if we can construct one from her
writings, would be grounded in her view of man’s
and the nature
of government
. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand argues that the ideal
government is the servant, not the master, of the individual. In her view, it
is a vital institution strictly limited to one function: to safeguard
individual rights. By “rights,” Rand means
freedom to take “all the actions required by the nature of a rational
being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of
his own life.” Critically, the protection of an individual’s rights “does
not mean that others must provide him
with the necessities of life.”

Domestically, this outlook entails a truly free market with
absolute legal protection of private property, and without regulations,
bailouts, corporate handouts, or entitlement programs like Social Security,
Medicaid, and Medicare. (Ryan breaks with Rand by attempting to save, rather
than end these programs.) In Rand’s political philosophy, however, there is no
gulf between economic rights and personal and intellectual ones: for instance,
she wrote passionately of the crucial importance (contra Ryan) of the right to abortion, and
regarded freedom
of speech
as sacrosanct.

Like her views on domestic policy, a Randian foreign policy
would be guided exclusively by the goal of protecting the individual rights of
Americans, and only Americans. Accordingly, the U.S. government shouldn’t issue
handouts to other countries (through foreign aid or international welfare
schemes), nor treat its citizens as cannon fodder (through a military draft). Indeed,
Rand was scathing in her analyses of the Vietnam War, arguing that it did not
serve America’s national interest. “[I]t is a pure instance of blind, senseless
altruistic self-sacrificial slaughter,” she wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Of course, there are times when government is obligated to
go to war, according to Rand. The crucial standard here is whether the lives
and property of Americans are imperiled. The only morally justifiable purpose
for war, she wrote, is self-defense. This rules out so-called humanitarian missions,
like the tragic Clinton-era mission in Somalia, and the notion that the United
States is somehow obliged to serve as the world’s policeman. The primary
function of the military, in Rand’s eyes, should be to deter, and when necessary,
defeat foreign aggressors.

Although some of Rand’s political ideas have informed the
libertarian movement, she regarded any form of pacifism (including
Ron Paul-esque passivity) as destructive to national defense. And undoubtedly
she would have supported a strong military response to the 9/11 attacks
(though, as I have argued in my book,
she would have rejected George W. Bush’s conception of the enemy and his entire
prosecution of the war).

Rand viewed deterrence as an especially important — and
effective — method of defending American freedom. In her view, the power of a
morally confident, assertive United States was considerable, though largely
unappreciated. For instance, she believed that if the West had truly stood up
to the Soviet bloc by withdrawing its moral sanction, ending the flow of aid,
and imposing an airtight boycott, the Soviet threat would have imploded many
years before it actually did, without the need for war.

Perhaps most importantly, Rand argued in favor of genuine
free trade — without trade barriers, protective tariffs, or special
privileges. In her words:
“the opening of the world’s trade routes to free international trade and
competition among the private citizens of all countries dealing directly with
one another.” In the 19th century, she argued, free trade liberated the world
by “undercutting and wrecking the remnants of feudalism and the statist tyranny
of absolute monarchies.” Not coincidentally, she observed, this era
enjoyed the longest period of general peace in human history (roughly from 1815
to 1914).

Taken together, Rand’s approach implies a re-thinking of the
moral values that should inform foreign policy. The result is a
foreign policy based on pure, “rational
” — defined as the aggregated ability of individual Americans
to enjoy life, liberty, and property unmolested by foreign aggressors.
Crucially, it rejects the duty selflessly to serve others, whether they
are next door or overseas. So how, then, does Paul Ryan’s foreign policy
measure up?

Reading Ryan’s most substantive speech
on foreign policy, delivered at the Hamilton Society in 2011, you can certainly
hear the reverberation of Rand’s ideas. “[I]f you believe these rights are
universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on
foreign policy,” he said, partially echoing the Randian conviction that
regimes are moral to the degree that they respect individual rights. For Ryan, as
for Rand, championing rights
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.” Moreover, Ryan falls in line with Rand in his thoughtful
promotion of free
. In his Hamilton Society speech, for instance, he argued in favor of
an “expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as
our political values” in order to “ensure a more prosperous world.”

But if these similarities are meaningful, Ryan nevertheless seems
to fundamentally part ways with Rand. In particular, he speaks of the need to
“renew our commitment to the idea that America is the greatest force for
human freedom the world has ever seen,” and sees in the Arab Spring the
“long-repressed populations give voice to the fundamental desire for
liberty.” Further, Ryan claims that it is “always in the interest of
the United States to promote these principles in other nations.” Like
President George W. Bush, whose wars he supported, Ryan appears to subscribe to
the quasi-religious view that freedom
is written into the soul of mankind, and that it is somehow the moral duty of
America, the freest and wealthiest of nations, to go forth and wage wars to
unchain the world’s oppressed. In all this, he could not be less Randian.

Rand certainly believed that the United States benefits from
a freer world. Thus, she held, America should speak up for dissidents
everywhere who seek greater freedom. But Rand would only ever consider deploying
the military where the rights of Americans hang in the balance — when, in
other words, it becomes an issue of self-defense. This critical distinction may
well be lost on Ryan, if the media’s parsing of his neoconservative leanings
has been fair.

Perhaps as he gears up for the October vice-presidential
debate, Ryan will consider re-reading Rand’s work. Anyone seeking to inject
more rational and more distinctively American ideas into our nation’s chaotic
foreign policy ought to seriously consider Ayn Rand’s refreshingly clear-eyed

About The Author

Elan Journo

Senior Fellow and Vice President of Content Products, Ayn Rand Institute