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Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand Just Got a Divorce

His antipoverty plan will force liberals to amend their criticism

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You don't need to love Representative Paul Ryan's new plan to reform anti-poverty programs to admit that it's an improvement over his old plan that entailed using increased suffering as an inducement to work. You also don't need to love Paul Ryan's new plan to reform anti-poverty programs to acknowledge that he's left (or perhaps gotten himself excommunicated from) the cult of Ayn Rand.

The Rand-Ryan marriage wasn't a mirage. She loomed large in his biography, his public commitments, and his steadfast unwillingness to compromise.

When he lost his bid for the vice presidency, he took a rhetorical—but only a rhetorical—turn away from Randism. He played up the need to help the poor and reduce poverty, but then reintroduced his basic budget outline which pays for a huge upper-income tax cut and an increase in defense spending with an implicit middle-income tax increase and broad cuts to programs that benefit the very poor.

In deed, not in word, he was still a Randian.

The one plausible exception was a budget deal he struck several months ago with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Patty Murray of Washington. It was a small-bore compromise that replaced indiscriminate cuts to programs that disproportionately benefit the poor with more palatable fee (read tax) increases and separate, targeted spending cuts spread out over years.

In simultaneous tweets earlier this month Jonathan Chait and Jamelle Bouie attempted to resolve the contradiction by noting that ideological extremism isn't necessarily incompatible with tactical pragmatism.

That's true, but unresponsive to the question of Randism specifically, which is ideologically and operationally extreme in almost equal measure. Compromise isn't verboten in the cult of Rand, per se, but in almost every practical sense it is. You're not a Randian if you engage in any compromise at odds with Randian principles. Alleviating poverty with tax increases is at odds with Randian principles.

But Ryan called the taxes fees, and was acting out of necessity, not just collegiality. Without compromise, Republicans might very well have shut down the government for the second time in a single fiscal year. So the question became, Was Ryan-Murray a one-time aberration, or a genuine departure?

It was the latter. Which means Ryan's critics (including yours truly!) should update their critiques.

Even at first blush, Ryan's new poverty plan is flawed in many ways. It also appears to be incompatible with his budgets. Those blueprints call for dramatic reductions in domestic anti-poverty spending (Randian). This plan proposes lumping all of the funding for those programs together and passing it through to select states, in the form of a single, budget-neutral grant (a.k.a. continued, anti-Randian confiscation from producers). I'm eager to see if and how he resolves that contradiction. He won't be the Budget Committee chairman next year, so he probably won't have to.

But he also now proposes spending more taxpayer money on poor people (definitely not Randian) by expanding the earned income tax credit. Ryan would pay for this expansion by cutting other anti-poverty programs (Randian). But also by cutting mostly-unspecified corporate subsidies. He alludes to agriculture subsidies and clean-energy subsidies, but his rhetoric—"Energy companies also receive a number of subsidies"—is consistent with eliminating tax breaks for polluters (kind of Randian, kind of not Randian). This isn't a tremendous departure for Ryan. His overall vision is still pretty radical. But inflexibility is a defining quality of Randism. There is no "mostly Randian." As much as Ryan might prefer a narrative in which he didn't leave objectivism but that objectivism left him, it doesn't really work that way. And from the perspective of his critics, no longer being Randian isn't a great boast, but it's progress of a sort.