Where is the Paul Ryan of Europe?

August 22, 2012

“European” is Representative Paul Ryan’s insult of choice for President Barack Obama, and for his policies. Yet the influences Ryan cites, and the thoughts behind his plan for debt reduction, were offered by Europeans of the 20th century. Their ideas, the foundations of which were laid in Europe’s turbulent twenties and thirties, have nearly a century later found an influential apostle in the United States.

Like his European precedents, Ryan the savior-theorist has appeared at another turbulent time. The near-century-old politico-economic school he embraces now seeks to prove itself on ground made fertile by the fearful debt that hangs over the world’s greatest power.

The first of these influences, and the one on which his enemies have most eagerly seized, is the controversial capitalist-individualist Ayn Rand. Rand was born, raised and educated in Russia, during the period spanning the revolution that ruined Rand’s comfortably off family. Although many consider Russians to be non-European, Rand was raised in a secular Jewish family in Russia’s avowedly European city, St. Petersburg, and her educational influences were all European.

By allying himself with the views of Ayn Rand, Ryan has taken a great risk. Rand’s extreme individualist thought, and tutelage of a coterie that formed around her, which included former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, was for long (and still is) derided. Yet she, and her rambling, passionate novel Atlas Shrugged became a kind of semi-underground spur to those who found inspiration in the hero’s determination to succeed.

Along with Rand, Ryan cites less controversial figures – Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, protagonists of the Austrian school of market economics, and their disciple Milton Friedman (the only one of Ryan’s galaxy born in the U.S.). From them he has taken a strong aversion to socialism of even the mildest kind, a horror of debt and its effects, and a belief that, loosed from an interfering state, all active individuals will strive to better themselves, and thus society. Those who can, do, but those who don’t would be classed as parasites – and, as Greenspan put it in a letter to the New York Times in 1957 – if they “persistently avoid either purpose or reason”, they will “perish as they should.”

Ryan will not, of course, go that far, and may not believe it. Yet even if time and politics rub away the more abrasive edges of his plan, it will remain radical, and has already been endorsed by Romney, who might be president by early next year. It’s to be taken seriously, not just because of the serious labor entailed (lots of labor went into the Obama debt-reduction plan) and the popularity it enjoys on the right – but also because it chimes with a major, popular stream of opinion in the U.S.: a doctrine of self-sufficiency, individual liberty and responsibility – thundered from a thousand pulpits, woven into a thousand western films and country-and-western songs, and underpinning a thousand political speeches. The framers of the Constitution and the drafters of the Declaration of Independence (Europeans in descent all – or at least British, which some British think is not the same thing) saw the necessary conditions for a free existence in liberty from monarch and established church. Those who settled the land, and slew large numbers of Native Americans to do so, saw in their, or their forebears’, work a justification of their beliefs – and first among these a belief in themselves. However self-serving that belief could become, it has retained its power.

In Europe, that quality doesn’t exist – or at any rate, there’s too little of it for a politician like Ryan to make serious headway. The free-market capitalism of his gurus was as heretical in Western Europe as it was in the U.S. – until the seventies. That’s when, in a Britain labeled the “sick man of Europe” by its neighbors, Margaret Thatcher publicly embraced many of the same figures as Ryan. In the 12 years of her successive governments she reduced the power of the unions (never recovered) and privatized state industries and services – as well as boosted the status of entrepreneurs and small-business people. Yet she could not make any serious inroads into the state education system and certainly not the National Health Service, which survived, beloved and intact, to be a centerpiece of Britain’s Olympic opening ceremony.

“Thatcherism” did not begin and end in Britain: Unions’ powers have declined, and privatization practiced, everywhere. But as a political force, it has proved treacherous to those politicians who tried to embrace it. Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy both pronounced themselves economic liberals, but Sarkozy faltered in his program and lost power, while Berlusconi’s political longevity depended on his not forcing through a free-market program, allied as he was to parties whose base would not stand for it. European conservative leaders like Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt and Germany’s Angela Merkel, the continent’s dominant figure, are centrists. Between the governing style of social democratic administrations and center right or Christian democratic ones, there is little to choose: Both believe the lower and working class must share in the fruits of the state’s wealth and use the machinery of the state to ensure it.

This composite doctrine, with its amalgam of socialist and Catholic social teaching, has no serious challenge from the liberal right (though it does, on different grounds, from the illiberal far right, which is just as wedded to state provision as the mainstream). In part this is because voters wish to preserve the benefits they have and reward those parties that retain or increase them. In northern Europe, it is also because a culture of hard work and low indebtedness remains. That culture is the product, according to Professor Steve Ozment of Harvard, of a Lutheranism that remains strong in social attitudes, if no longer in fervent faith. This is expressed, says Professor Ozment, in “love of one’s neighbor through shared civic responsibility” – love, that is, that depends on the neighbor being responsible, not a “parasite”. Where these attitudes prevail, borrowing usually stays low and state provision is less abused. Angela Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, will tend to remind her neighbors of that.

So who needs Paul Ryan if we still have Martin Luther? Actually, Europeans do need such a figure to set forth his stall, so that we can reflect on what of value there is in it. Indeed, we probably need one more than the Americans. There are many parasites – to put it less abrasively, many who abuse state aid, many who avoid paying the taxes that sustain them, and many who are chronically dependent on the government. We may wish to retain state provision, but we also need to believe that liberty lies in individual responsibility – or we ruin the state itself. Europe has produced many figures who told us this was the case. It’s time to stop exporting them and benefit from their wisdom ourselves.

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