Paul Ryan: A follower of St. Thomas Aquinas or Ayn Rand?

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin waves as he takes the stage to accept the nomination during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 29. (CNS/Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Viewpoint

Paul Ryan, Republican candidate for vice president, claims to be an orthodox Catholic whose thinking owes more to St. Thomas Aquinas than to Ayn Rand. But this story seems barely more credible than Dagny Taggart's 80-car freight train in Atlas Shrugged that thundered through mountainous terrain from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Wyatt Junction, Colo., at an average speed of 100 miles per hour.

In fact, many of Ryan's ideas and policies appear to be directly at odds with Catholic teaching.

Consider his latest budget proposals. Ryan wants to cut the top federal income tax rate from its current 35 percent (on incomes above $388,350) to 25 percent. Yet he plans scarcely any tax reduction for the least affluent households, those with incomes below $30,000, though they would suffer from cuts in public services. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center calls this "an effort to have low- and middle-class households bear the entire burden of closing the fiscal gap and bear the costs of financing an additional tax cut for high income households." Ryan says he would mitigate this effect by scrapping various tax exemptions, but he hasn't specified them. How does this square with Pope John XXIII's statement that tax burdens should "be proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing"?

Experts reckon that inequalities in America have widened to levels not seen since the early 1900s, but Ryan seems to want them wider still. Back in 1931, Pope Pius XI denounced "the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless." American poverty may be less extreme now than then, but a study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that in 2004 the poorest 20 percent of Americans had "negative wealth" (more debts than assets). That was before the subprime disaster.

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Ryan's willingness to see the superrich still richer can only be justified on the anarcho-capitalist principle that "taxation is theft," which reflects the libertarian belief that one has absolute, unlimited rights to whatever assets one lawfully acquires. But the church explicitly teaches that property rights are not absolute. Hear Pope John Paul II: "The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone." Or St. Thomas: "Man ought to own external things not as his own, but as common, so that ... he is ready to communicate them to others in their need."

Under the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, the Federal Reserve has a dual mandate, to target price stability (minimal inflation) and full employment. But for strict free-marketeers, stable prices take absolute priority over stable livelihoods, because inflation may distort the efficient working of the sacrosanct market. So, in 2008, Ryan tried and failed to repeal the full-employment provisions of Humphrey-Hawkins. But the church's Compendium of Social Doctrine states that full employment "remains a mandatory objective for every economic system orientated towards justice and the common good," citing John Paul II: "A society in which ... economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, 'cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace.' "

Ryan's proposals castigate the Obama administration for "reckless spending on uncompetitive alternatives" for energy sources and for imposing "costly fuel-economy standards" on General Motors and Chrysler. He wants lighter regulation of oil and gas exploration, to "allow the private sector to develop proven sources of American-made energy ... lowering the price of energy here at home." This strategy implies faster exhaustion of nonrenewable resources and more atmospheric pollution. In Catholic terms, it is totally retrograde. "We cannot disregard the welfare of those who will come after us" wrote Paul VI in 1967; in 1987 John Paul II warned against using nonrenewable resources "as if they were inexhaustible." Twenty-five years on, Ryan still wants to maintain our reliance on fossil fuels, simply because they are at present the most competitive. Markets rather than ethics rule his thinking.

Ryan's voting record shows that he opposes tighter controls on private gun ownership. But Catholic bishops have for many years demanded stricter controls and eventual prohibition. Here is a 1978 statement from the U.S. bishops' conference: "Since such a significant number of violent offenses are committed with handguns and within families, we believe that handguns need to be effectively controlled and eventually eliminated from our society." Other similar pronouncements have followed.

On social security, Ryan's successive budget proposals show a strong urge to cut back or privatize state welfare. He lambasts President Barack Obama for placing "trust in an empowered federal government in place of families, local communities, and faith-based groups." This recalls the attitude of earlier capitalists, disparaged by Pius XI in 1931, who "wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone." Like many rich Americans today, they resented tax demands to help those who came last in a harshly competitive economy.

But Catholic teaching insists that poverty reflecting chronic unemployment or exorbitant inequalities is an injustice, not simply a personal misfortune calling for a charitable handout. "The giving of what is due in justice" should not be represented "as the offering of a charitable gift," wrote Paul VI, echoing St. Thomas, who said, "Charity does not abrogate justice but complements it." So we need political action to reform unjust structures and redistribute income where it is unduly concentrated in the hands of a few. Pope Benedict XVI calls this "the institutional path -- we might also call it the political path -- of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly."

Among Ayn Rand's leading ideas were extreme individualism; absolute belief in free markets and the sanctity of private property; adulation of entrepreneurs and traders; and withering contempt for the state. Ryan has admitted to having long been an ardent Rand admirer, but how far can you advance in the GOP if you flaunt your devotion to an atheist who vehemently affirmed women's "right" to abortion? So today we hear little from Ryan on Rand. But anyone familiar with her writings hears strong echoes of Rand's thought in Ryan's politics. Echoes of St. Thomas' thought, however, are faint.

[Angus Sibley, a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and a former member of the London Stock Exchange, is author of The 'Poisoned Spring' of Economic Libertarianism: Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard: a critique from Catholic social teaching of the "Austrian school" of economics.]


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