Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand, and Constitutional Law

Mr. Ryan may have no history as a Randian, but he keeps telling us he does and has made proposals that suggest his pure libertarian heart in the economic realm (except, of course, for his and Mitt Romney's tax plan, which would raise taxes on middle and low income Americans). In a speech last year, he said that "the enforcement of contracts" is protected by the "constitutional cornerstone of our free society." That is constitutional code for a return to the legal regime in place before the New Deal, typified by the famous 1905 case, Lochner v. New York. Lochner was about a maximum hour law in New York: the state legislature said that bakers could never work longer than 14 hours in one day. That law, like almost every other labor law, limited the employers' and employees' freedom to make contracts on their own. After all, the Court implied, if bakers want to work 16 hours in a day, the Constitution gives them that freedom.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (and others) had a different idea. In his dissent, he argued that the Constitution does not exist to enforce one particular economic scheme, i.e., laissez faire capitalism. Eventually, the rest of the Court — and most of the mainstream political arean — would agree. 

Based on his speeches to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, the ultra-conservative Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship (founded by Clarence Thomas's wife), and elsewhere, Mr. Ryan believes that many federal labor laws are unconstitutional. He has never explicitly advocated for an end to the federal minimum wage, but his interpretation of the Constitution would require its repeal. His antiquated interpretation would also destroy collective bargainining rights, scrap federal child labor laws, and end adequate working condition requirements.

As the Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien reminds us, Mr. Ryan supports a radical shift in the mission of the Federal Reserve. Currently, the Fed is charged with both keeping inflation under control and keeping employment as close to 5% as possible. Mr. Ryan thinks that's a pretty bad idea. The Fed should return to focusing solely on "sound money," which, by the way, used to be economic code for returning to the gold standard, but in 2012, means not using monetary policy (interest rates) to worry about unemployment. The Fed's job, Mr. Ryan said in a 2011 grilling of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, was not to print money, but to worry about the inflation monster waiting in the wings, and nothing more. Let us be clear: sustained high inflation is a terrible thing; but, Mr. Ryan is calling for a radical change in the goals of monetary policy that would generally benefit the wealthy at the expense of small business owners and workers who need easier flow of money in tough economic times.

So far, this is quite Randian.

But, the Ryan plan for the future departs from Ms. Rand's libertarianism. He has advocated not only for a constitutional amendment to define marriage based on his particular brand of Catholicism, but for a constitutional amendment that would destroy a woman's right to choose. He believes a fetus is a person. He has committed one of the greatest Randian heresies by insisting that religious institutions should be exempt from federal taxes, and proposes to commit another by giving religious houses and any affiliated institution the right to flout what few federal and state laws would exist under a Ryan regime if those laws conflict with their religious beliefs.

Nor is Mr. Ryan an equal opportunity believer in religious freedom. His website reports with pride everything he has done to support the war on terror, including his refusal to vote for bringing our troops home from Afghanistan, his support for the very costly Iraq War, and, most strikingly, his decision to exempt the military from any cost-cutting in his budget

Ms. Rand would be appalled.

In truth, Mr. Ryan says he's a Randian because, in Republican circles of 2012, it's cool to be a Randian. He leverages the rhetoric of a radical libertarian to appeal to the Tea Party and most Americans' very legitimate, but exceedingly uninformed concern about the debt. Then, he turns back to Congress and votes like a social conservative, a Randian villain. There are many things to like about Mr. Ryan — at least he's talking about our long term fiscal health. But, if you like Ayn Rand, you should not like Paul Ryan.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.



  1. Paul R says

    Or you can hate both Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan. They both have espoused simplistic, selfish, idiotic ideologies that reflect a lack of concern for anyone but themselves. Just like Romney.

    I agree that Rand would hate Ryan, because he’s dumb as dirt. He probably likes her because they have similar last names. It’s cute! But her claim to be a philosopher was similar to his claim of being remotely credible.

  2. Rick says

    I don’t care for Paul Ryan and I think it is beyond hideous that at a time of record income inequality and joblessness, he and Romney would like to gut the middle class further, demolish the social safety net, and reward the already bloated top 1% with further tax cuts.

    And I would like to see DOMA repealed or declared unconstitutional and marriage equality become a reality (even though I am dubious about its real importance).

    (See folks, I am not the right-winger you think I am?)

    THAT SAID, to say that being in favor of DOMA and against same-sex marriage–or being pro-life on abortion–amounts to “supporting Federal regulation of sexual behavior and intimate relationships” is not justified. Marriage and abortion do not have anything to do with sexual relations, per se. If he were in favor of restoring sodomy laws, then yes, you could make that claim, but as it stands, you really can’t without appearing to be self-serving and just plain wrong.

    It is also a really cheap shot to claim that he “has no private identity” because he has “never held a non-government job”. Please. That just comes across as catty and silly.

    And to call his possible election a “terrifying prospect” is to be overly dramatic to the point of hysteria.

    Nobody should want this guy in the White House, but the sky would not fall if he were elected.

  3. says

    I’ve given up on expecting Republicans to be honest or consistent.

    cries of “we want smaller government!” followed by policies that are the exact opposite of smaller-government.

    they don’t actually understand their own party, all they have are the nonsensical jingoistic sound-bites they’re fed by conservative media.

    it’s two sets of rules. over and over again.

    the people who 10 years ago were freaking out the loudest about Natalie Maines’ comment about “being ashamed bush is from texas” have been saying far far FAR worse things about President Obama. But that’s ok. It’s not un-patriotic when you’re criticizing a president that you’ve convinced yourself isn’t actually an American, I guess.


  4. SamIAM says

    @Rick- if marriage is not about sex (a la procreation), then someone should tell that to the people who use that tired line as a reason for why gays should not get married.

    Also, of course marriage is about an intimate commitment between two people (sex or no sex). Any way you slice it, it is government recognition of that intimate relationship. Period.

  5. Dback says

    It’s always entertaining watching conservatives cling to Old Testament laws and customs about social issues (gays, abortion, capital punishment, racial policies, etc.), then watch them rush for Ayn Rand and her philosophy of “enlightened selfishness” when it comes to discussing economics, specifically anything that might help the poor, working-class, or middle class–they’re always looking for a supposed intellectual justification for lining their own pockets, instead of acknowledging flat-out greed and avarice.

    Quoth Max Von Sydow: “If Jesus came back today and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

  6. anon says

    Randian Objectivism has a lot of internal inconsistencies and contradictions. It’s a popular philosophy for teenage boys to pick up in high school though. Politics isn’t a complex philosophy though: reward your allies and punish your enemies.

  7. Kyle says

    From the Kung Fu Monkey:

    There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

  8. Nat says

    “Randian Objectivism has a lot of internal inconsistencies and contradictions.”

    Not really. I’m not an adherent to Rand, and there are many criticisms that I would make of Objectivism (conflating voluntary altruism with state-coerced welfare stands out), but it is a consistent framework – if only because there isn’t too much to it.

    “One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    While I think The Lord of the Rings is a fine piece of literature, I think Tolkien’s worldview is problematic at best. Tolkien idealized a particular conception of English agrarian society that had little correspondence to reality. And like many religiously-influenced writers, he bought into the idea of the golden age – an idea that is at the root of most conservative visions.

  9. says

    There is a character in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ that fits Paul Ryan’s persona perfectly. His name is Wesley Mouch, a conniving, self-serving moocher lobbyist. In the Randian universe, the good guys have strong heroic names like John Galt, Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart and are always atheists. The bad guys are weak-minded, religion-addled parasitic hicks with execrable names to match – Wesly Mouch, Ellsworth Toohey, cardboard characters right out of the Tea Party logbook.

  10. Diogenes Arktos says

    “he never held a non-government job”
    not exactly – there are reports that he worked at McDonalds and drove the Oscar Mayers Wienermobile

    The bigger problem is that while he is now seeking to propose major cuts to Social Securiy, he received Social Security survivors/students benefits which allowed him to go to college. Just like Ayn Rand who accepted Social Security benefits in spite of her opposition to such programs – and the spin from her supporters on that has been immense.