When we wish for modern incarnations of the right’s biggest idols, we feed into the myths surrounding them.
I am more than a little disturbed by all these pieces coming out about why the left has no Ayn Rand as a guide or how Ronald Reagan was a “socialist” compared to Paul Ryan. One has to be more than a little careful not to elevate these two icons to acceptable status. Let’s keep Ayn Rand in perspective. She was a talented mass market novelist who wrote David and Goliath myths about a super individualist versus the behemoth society. Her philosophy was not even second rate. Ronald Reagan did not save the economy; his legacy was a crumbling foundation for growth and a rising tide of injustice. It could be seen as a positive to fail to measure up to either of them.
The right’s portrayal of Paul Ryan as a Reaganite is not that far from the truth, but the right then goes on to mythologize and entirely distort the Reagan years. Under Reagan in the 1980s, wages stopped growing, productivity grew at historically slow rates, investment was soft, and the deficit never came down to the levels promised. That deficit was an albatross around the neck of George H.W. Bush, his successor. Meanwhile, deregulation was unloosed, only to be given further impetus by the Clinton administration. The right goes so far as to attribute the productivity boom of the second half of the 1990s — that is, after the Clinton tax hike — to Reagan. How can we take such claims seriously?
Does Ryan go much farther than Reagan did in terms of changing Medicare from a guarantee to a poorly financed premium program? Sure. Would he cut other programs to almost zero? Yes. Did Reagan? No, but probably because he couldn’t politically, not because he didn’t want to. Maybe Reagan had a more generous heart than Ryan’s — he was once a lefty and never a rich kid like Ryan, and his dad worked for the New Deal. But he played the race card in California and on his way to the White House. Is there anything uglier these days than his attacks on “welfare queens” were then?
In the end, Romney and Ryan are both preaching Reagonomics: cut taxes and worry about closing the deficit sometime in the future. Neither tells us the loopholes they’d close or the other programs they’d cut to allegedly meet their deficit targets. Their aim is to reduce the size of government, as was Reagan’s and Milton Friedman’s. The deficit is a secondary consideration, for all the blather about it.
As for why the left doesn’t have an Ayn Rand, I say thank goodness it doesn’t follow a great over-simplifier like her. Her sexually charged novels focusing on an individualist hero appealed to adolescents or those who still yearned for those years. Her economics were derived from her individualism. A Russian by birth, her thinking was animated by her loathing of Soviet totalitarianism — certainly understandable. But she became an ideologue, not a disinterested intellectual. She had no serious friendships with the likes of Hayek and collaborated with few schooled economists other than Murray Rothbard, who later left her circle. She was really more a cult leader than a thinker.
The nation turned conservative in the 1970s and began reading Rand, Hayek, and Friedman again. Milton Friedman’s writings really only caught on well after he published, but he was all over the mass media in the 1970s and won a Nobel prize, which would have been unlikely had it existed when he started out. These books were very accessible as part of the right’s appeal is the simplistic nature of its economics, all captured by a demand and supply curve that economists as far back as Alfred Marshall warned against taking too seriously. Today, the entire economy is portrayed as a supply and demand curve crossing at equilibrium. But we have cause and effect mixed up here. Americans became more conservative not due to the literature, but for a complex number of reasons.
But there have been great leftist successes. J.K. Galbraith was more articulate than any of these conservative authors and wrote major best sellers. The counter-culture of the 1960s was groomed on Marcuse and others. I myself as a student wrote a summary of such writing for the curriculum of Harvard Business School. Why is there no return to these kinds of authors—to Harrington, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, even Eldrige Cleaver? The answer is that the nation and its press are pretty conservative and seek books that reinforce these views.
Perhaps we will get a novel out of Occupy Wall Street that will move young people. I hope so. It seems ripe with possibilities. But there are other books to be read or at least dipped into. The most recent mass phenomenon was a book by French author Stephane Hessel called Time for Outrage! in English. It reportedly sold millions of copies and helped ignite the Arab and Spanish Spring. It is a highly accessible and moving and angry work. Robert Nozick was the popular libertarian philosopher of the 1970s, but John Rawls won the day among serious thinkers. A lot of writers have written about the importance of government recently. Stiglitz has written well about inequality.
So let’s not demand another Ayn Rand, who wrote essentially low-brow literature, or another Reagan, who is now mostly a mythological figure. Let’s keep our sights higher and avoid drawing the wrong conclusions from the right’s past success.