The illusory appeal of Ayn Rand
One of my best friends in high school was a big-time believer in libertarianism, the political philosophy that gives paramount importance to personal liberty and rejects the right of government to interfere with the rights of the individual through taxation and other forms of social and economic interference.
We had many lengthy discussions, debates and arguments, sometimes satisfying, sometimes not, which were probably fairly common among secondary and post-secondary students back then.
I think of my friend, who went on to Amherst College and then to medical school, whenever I hear of Ayn Rand and her popular novels, including The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, that serve as almost-sacred texts among libertarians.
Libertarianism has always had a small but very loyal following and the candidacy of Ron Paul for president in 2008 tapped into that demographic.
So, it didn’t surprise me that when the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, held its annual meeting in Washington this past weekend and conducted a preference poll for president in 2012, the leading vote-getter was Paul.
While Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are given a lot more attention by the mainstream media, the hard-core conservatives who attend meetings like CPAC have a special place in their hearts for the uncompromising anti-government doctrine of Paul, Rand and their ilk.
You might expect me to dismiss the extremist libertarian philosophy much as many conservatives attempt to marginalize the more liberal members of Congress, like Dennis Kucinich, as examples of tinfoil hat-wearing maniacs.
But the truth is that you can learn a lot from the ideology you find at either end of the political spectrum. And what you find is that the mainstream of the Republican Party is a lot closer to the extremism of Ron Paul and Ayn Rand than most Democrats are to true socialist dogma.
Take County Executive Scott Walker, who never met a tax he didn’t hate and would like nothing better than to privatize most county services; and Congressman Paul Ryan, whose plan to privatize Social Security and Medicare would endanger the foundation of health and economic security for every American who is elderly or hopes to be someday.
Much to the chagrin of the most liberal Democrats, a single-payer system that would give the federal government control of the nation’s entire health insurance system and a jobs program that would put the unemployed to work on federal programs, needed or otherwise, have never really been entertained as options from the supposedly socialist-leaning Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Leader Harry Reid.
Now Walker, Ryan and national Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner routinely spout libertarian-like philosophy where the free market is heralded as the ultimate force of good in the world.
But when they are in power, even good Republicans like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Tommy Thompson find that government has an important role to play in influencing how private enterprise is conducted in our society, for better or worse.
It may be somewhat simplistic, but Republican policies tend to shovel government largesse in the direction of business interests while Democrats generally support programs that benefit low-income and other disadvantaged people.
The people who cheer libertarian rhetoric tend to be attracted to Ayn Rand’s fairy tales of self-made men who are masters of their own universe.
Democrats, and even most Republican officeholders, are more familiar with the real world where we live in an interdependent society that requires good public schools, safe roads and bridges and the very best police and fire departments.
Nobody likes paying taxes, but it’s pretty hard to argue for a society that doesn’t need the services that a good, efficiently run government provides.