Paul Ryan is famously a man with a plan. The Wisconsin Republican has pushed for budgets that radically change tax codes and entitlement programs and boil away much of the federal government.
Although the congressman’s vision is often described in the language of wonkery, replete with numbers, charts and graphs, he is pushing a deeper ideological agenda: Ryan believes that much of what government does is toxic to the American psyche — that government programs designed to help people can actually end up hurting them.
That’s a big idea fighting to be heard in the cacophony of the 2012 campaign. The debate about the proper role of government in American life is the essential question dividing the two political parties — and has been since the New Deal. Ryan has spent years positioning himself to be the chief litigator on Capitol Hill for his side of that debate.
Not so the man at the top of the ticket. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has effectively sold himself to Republicans as a Mr. Fix-It, a businessman with common sense, and though that approach appeals to pragmatists, it will never stir the passions of the GOP’s base.
Ryan, however, brings fully caffeinated ideology to the Republican ticket. Ryan’s America is one built by individuals. The government for the most part needs to get out of the way.
The most detailed version of this philosophy can probably be found in a January 2010 document called “A Roadmap for America’s Future, Version 2.0.” It’s a budget plan that doubles as a Ryan manifesto.
Ryan argues that government “compassion” (he puts the word in quotes) can be corrosive to “the American character.”
“[D]ependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society. The process suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice and government dependency into a virtue,” he writes.
He spells out the danger ahead: “The Nation becomes a sort of vast Potemkin Village in which the most important elements — its people — are depleted by a government that increasingly ‘takes care’ of them, and makes ever more of their decisions for them.”
This is not a new idea by any stretch. It’s a classic conservative position, a reframing of arguments going back decades, even centuries, and it echoes the thinking of, among others, Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman from New York and Cabinet member who Ryan worked for in the 1990s at the think tank Empower America. Other Ryan influences include Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (whose “The Road to Serfdom” was an early evisceration of communist central planning) and the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand (“Atlas Shrugged”).
The manifesto’s focus on self-reliance can be seen as a natural outgrowth of Ryan’s biography: He had to grow up quickly after discovering, at 16, the body of his father, dead of a heart attack. Ryan, unlike Romney, was not to the manor born and worked his way up on Capitol Hill from lowly staffer to committee chairman. He’s a fitness fanatic, a hard worker, a tireless networker. Now he’s on a national ticket and no one can say he glided into that position.
Ryan’s first stab at a “Roadmap” came in 2008, and he expanded and updated it in 2010 to take into account the changed economic circumstances. Ryan has since produced two more budget plans with less philosophical verbiage (no longer is there a section called “Erosion of American Character,” for example), and the “Roadmap” has been renamed “The Path to Prosperity.”
“It’s more than just numbers. It’s more than just spreadsheets. It’s about the character of our country, and the American idea,” said a veteran Ryan staffer made available by the campaign for a background interview.
Ryan’s views have drawn huzzahs from economic and social conservatives but derision from Democrats and progressives, who say he wants to obliterate government as we know it and utterly shred the safety net for the poor and elderly. Ryan’s critics say his vision of government sapping American vigor is a fantasy.
“I think it’s poppycock,” said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. “His ideas are very, very old, and a very abstract ideology. They’re interesting as an extreme statement of a very harsh worldview.”
She added: “I just don’t think there’s evidence that Americans don’t want to work. Americans are working harder for less pay in real terms.”
William R. Hart, a professor of economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who taught Ryan when he was a student there, vigorously supports the Ryan view: “If you pay people not to work, and if you pay them more money if a woman has an out-of-wedlock baby if the father leaves, that’s the kind of behavior you’re going to get. The incentives in these government programs are all wrong.”