House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget has come under severe attack for daring to curtail some elements of the entitlement state. Although we are certainly not defenders of the plan’s details — it doesn’t even cut spending — what’s striking is how easily its supporters have been put on the moral defensive, and to how devastating an effect.
In a column typical of the attacks on the Ryan budget, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the plan “cruel,” “heartless” and “mean-spirited.” Ryan “has talked a good game about taking care of those in need,” but that can’t be reconciled with cutting the welfare state.
It was nothing new: Every attempt to cut entitlements has been denounced as unethical and immoral. But this time there was a new twist. The real motive behind the plan, critics say, is a philosophic opposition to entitlements — an opposition fueled by the ideas of the controversial philosopher Ayn Rand.
Rand of course was both an uncompromising critic of the entitlement state and a preeminent champion of laissez-faire. But whatever influence Rand might have had on Ryan’s goal — he credits her with inspiring him to go into politics — one thing is for sure: Her arguments have been conspicuously absent in the budget debate.
Frankly, that’s like going to war without a weapon. Rand’s ideas are indispensable in the struggle to limit government: they provide the key to answering the moral argument for the entitlement state.
That argument, Rand argued, rests on an ethical precept we’ve been taught since childhood: your neighbor’s need is a claim on your wealth and property. You are, in short, your brother’s keeper.
Well, if so, then you must keep your brother by providing him with a guaranteed retirement (Social Security), an endless supply of medical care (Medicare, Medicaid, S-CHIP), a roof over his head (public housing), and an education for his kids (public schooling). If self-sacrifice for the needs of others is a moral imperative, then so is the entitlement state.
When Ryan’s critics call his budget immoral, they are counting on a simple train of logic: Since the entitlement state is a moral imperative, anyone who wants to cut it back is at war with morality.
If you are your brother’s keeper, the case is unanswerable. But are you? Rand argued no. While the Founding Fathers recognized a man’s political right to live and work for his own sake, Rand completed the case for limited government by defending the individual’s moral right to live and work for his own sake.
A character in Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged summarizes this outlook: “I refuse to accept as guilt the fact of my own existence and the fact that I must work in order to support it. I refuse to accept as guilt the fact that I am able to do it and do it well. I refuse to accept as guilt the fact that I am able to do it better than most people. . . . I do not seek the good of others as a sanction for my right to exist, nor do I recognize the good of others as a justification for their seizure of my property or their destruction of my life.”
The moral justification for ending the entitlement state, Rand held, is a man’s absolute right to seek his own good and keep the rewards of his work.
Behind all their fiery bluster, Rand observed, the defenders of the entitlement state have a weapon: the tacit premise that a man who demands to be left free to live only for his own sake and his own profit is the equivalent of a criminal who tramples, robs, beats, and sacrifices others. Cut Social Security? That’s no different than stealing food out of the mouths of old people.
This is what Rand challenges. In morality, she argued, a man who truly lives and works for his own sake neither sacrifices himself to others nor others to himself — he produces the values his life requires. In politics, a limited government that protects an individual’s right to the product of his own effort does not sacrifice “the needy” — it refrains from sacrificing anyone by protecting the freedom of everyone. Cut Social Security? To do so is, in reality, to stop depriving men of the wealth they’ve produced.
In Rand’s words, “Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life. . . . Whoever claims the ‘right’ to ‘redistribute’ the wealth produced by others is claiming the ‘right’ to treat human beings as chattel.”
That is the moral perspective that is needed to take on entitlements. If Ryan and others are actually going to scale back the entitlement state, they will find Rand’s intellectual ammunition indispensable.