The Financial Seminary
Summary: Philosophy has always been a driver of social and political evolution in western civilization. Especially at inflection points, like today. Here we look at two formerly obscure philosophers who have been brought to life by the unassailable power of money. Their theories both fight for the soul of the Republican Party. On another day we’ll discuss the philosophical battles taking place for the soul of the Democratic Party. We’ll leave it to our our readers the task of reconciling Ayn Rand’s objectivism with Christianity.
“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
– John Maynard Keynes, chapter 24 of the General Theory, pg. 383 (1936)
“Trouble rather the Tiger in his Lair than the sage among his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but the things of the Moment, to be overturned with the turning of a page.”
— From Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake (1971)
“Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”
— Heinrich Heine, History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, Vol. III (1834)
“It’s all about power and the unassailable might of money.”
— E. P. Arnold Royalton, the great 21st century industrialist and philanthropist
A specter is haunting the Republican National Convention — the specter of ideology. The novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and the economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992) are the house deities of many American libertarians, much of the Tea Party, and Paul Ryan in particular. The two thinkers were quite different, subject to much misunderstanding, and, in Hayek’s case, more often cited than read. Yet, in popularized form, their arguments together provide the intellectual touchstone for Ryan and many others on the right wing of the Republican Party, people whose enthusiasm Mitt Romney needs.
The irony of today is that these two thinkers, in their struggle against the Marxist left of the mid-twentieth century, relied on some of the same underlying assumptions as Marxism itself: that politics is a matter of one simple truth, that the state will eventually cease to matter, and that a vanguard of intellectuals is needed to bring about a utopia that can be known in advance. The paradoxical result is a Republican Party ticket that embraces outdated ideology, taking some of the worst from the twentieth century and presenting it as a plan for the twenty-first.
Romney’s choice of an ideologist as his running mate made a kind of sense. Romney the financier made hundreds of millions of dollars in an apparent single-minded pursuit of returns on investment; but as a politician he has been less noted for deep principles than for expediently changing his positions. Romney’s biography was in need of a plot and his worldview was in need of a moral. Insofar as he is a man of principle, the principle seems to be is that rich people should not pay taxes.
His fidelity to this principle is beyond reproach, which raises certain moral questions. Paying taxes, after all, is one of our very few civic obligations. By refusing to release his tax returns, Romney is likely trying to keep embarrassing tax dodges out of public view; he is certainly communicating to like-minded wealthy people that he shares their commitment to doing nothing that could possibly help the United States government.
The rationale that Ryan’s ideology provides for this unpatriotic behavior is that taxing rich people hinders the market. Rather than engaging in activist politics, such as bailing out General Motors or public schools, our primary responsibility as American citizens is to give way to the magic of the marketplace, and applaud any associated injustices as necessary and therefore good.
This is where Ryan comes in. Romney provides the practice, Ryan the theory. Romney has lots of money, but has never managed to present the storyline of his career as a moral triumph. Ryan, with his credibility as an ideas politician, seems to solve that problem. In the right-wing anarchism that arises from the marriage of Rand and Hayek, Romney’s wealth is proof that all is well for the rest of us, since the laws of economics are such that the unhindered capitalism represented by chop-shops such as Bain must in the end be good for everyone.
The problem with this sort of economic determinism is that it is Marxism in reverse, with the problems of the original kind. Planning by finance capitalists replaces planning by the party elite. Marx’s old dream, the “withering away” of the state, is the centerpiece of the Ryan budget: cut taxes on the rich, claim that cutting government functions and the closing of unspecified loopholes will balance budgets, and thereby make the state shrink. Just like the Marxists of another era, the Republican ticket substitutes mythical thinking about the economy for loyalty to the nation.
The attempt to add intellectual ballast to Romney’s career pulls the ticket downward into the slog of twentieth-century ideology. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, which in its better passages is a paean to modesty in economics, is read by leading Republicans as the formula that intervention in the free market must lead to totalitarianism. This is a nice confident story, with a more than superficial resemblance to the nice confident Marxist story that a free market without intervention would bring revolution.
Like Marxism, the Hayekian ideology is a theory of everything, which has an answer for everything. Like Marxism, it allows politicians who accept the theory to predict the future, using their purported total knowledge to create and to justify suffering among those who do not hold power. Ayn Rand is appealing in a more private way because she celebrates unbridled anarchic capitalism: it magnifies inequality and brings pleasure to the wealthy, who deserve it for being so wonderful, and pain to the masses, who deserve it for being so stupid. Hayek thought that we should hesitate to intervene in the market because certainty about economic matters was impossible; Rand thought that the law of the jungle was itself a rather good (and sexy) thing.
Though he now prefers discussing Hayek, Ryan seems to have been more deeply affected by Rand, whom he credits for inspiring his political career. It is likely the combination of the two — the theory of everything and the glorification of inequality — that gives him his cheery, and eerie, confidence. Hayek and Rand are comfortable intellectual company not because they explain reality, but because, like all effective ideologists, they remove the need for any actual contact with it. They were reacting to real historical experience, Hayek with National Socialism and Rand with Soviet communism. But precisely because they were reacting, they flew to extreme interpretations. Just as untethered capitalism did not bring proletarian utopia, as the Marxists thought, intervention and redistribution did not bring totalitarianism, as anti-Marxists such as Hayek claimed.
Hayek’s native Austria was vulnerable to radicalism from the right in the 1930s precisely because it followed the very policies that he recommended. It was one of the least interventionist states in Europe, which left its population hugely vulnerable to the Great Depression — and to Hitler. Austria became a prosperous democracy after World War II because its governments ignored Hayek’s advice and created a welfare state. As Americans at the time understood, making provisions for citizens in need was an effective way to defend democracy from the extreme right and left.
Rich Republicans such as Romney are of course a small minority of the party. Not much of the Republican electorate has any economic interest in voting for a ticket whose platform is to show that government does not work. As Ryan understands, they must be instructed that their troubles are not simply a pointless contrast to the gilded pleasures of the man at the top of the Republican ticket, but rather part of the same story, a historical drama in which good will triumph and evil will be vanquished.
Hayek provides the rules of the game: anything the government does to interfere in the economy will just make matters worse; therefore the market, left to its own devices, must give us the best of all possible worlds. Rand supplies the discrete but titillating elitism: this distribution of pleasure and pain is good in and of itself, because (and this will not be said aloud) people like Romney are bright and people who will vote for him are not.
Rand understood that her ideology can only work as sadomasochism. In her novels, the suffering of ordinary Americans (“parasites,” as they are called in Atlas Shrugged) provides the counterpoint to the extraordinary pleasures of the heroic captains of industry (which she describes in weird sexual terms). A bridge between the pain of the people and the pleasure of the elite which mollifies the former and empowers the latter is the achievement of an effective ideology.
In the Romney/Ryan presidential campaign, Americans who are vulnerable and isolated are told that they are independent and strong, so that they will vote for policies that will leave them more vulnerable and more isolated. Ryan is a good enough communicator and a smart enough man to make reverse Marxism work as a stump speech or a television interview. But as national policy it would be self-destructive tragedy. The self-destructive part is that no nation can long survive that places stories about historical necessity above the palpable needs of its citizens. The tragic part is that the argument against ideology has already been won. The defenses of freedom against Marxism, above all the defense of the individual against those who claim to enact the future, also apply to the reverse Marxism of the Republican ticket.
The great political thinkers of the twentieth century have discredited ideological systems that claim perfect knowledge of what is to come and present politicians as scientists of the future (remember, Ryan’s budget plan tells us what will happen in 2083). The way to national prosperity in the twenty-first century is surely to think non-ideologically, to recognize that politics is a choice among constraints and goods rather than a story about a single good that would triumph if only evil people would allow it to function without constraints.
The market works very well for some things, the government is desperately needed for others, and stories that dismiss either one are nothing more than ideology.
About the author
Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale. His books include Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and, most recently, Thinking the Twentieth Century, a book of conversation with Tony Judt (June 2012).