“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.”