Paul Ryan and Hayek vs Rand | FT Alphaville

Paul Ryan and Hayek vs Rand

Colourful language warning – well, it is Ayn Rand:

[Rand] thinks Hayek’s definition of a person’s “own sphere” in which his views are supreme could be narrowed down to “mere breathing”; Hayek’s rejection of “dogmatic laissez-faire attitude” gets him called “The God Damned abysmal fool”. When Hayek accepts that certain goods, like roads and pollution abatement, need to be supplied by government, he is “so saturated with all the bromides of collectivism that it is terrifying”. When Hayek talks of the “very defined limits” in which individualism “allows” people to follow their “own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s,” Rand thunders, “Oh God damn the total, complete, vicious bastard! This means that man does exist for others, but since he doesn’t know how to do it, the master will give him some ‘defined limits’ for himself”.

– That’s a footnote to Chapter 4 of Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty’s history of American libertarianism. The author cites Michael Berliner’s Letters of Ayn Rand and Robert Mayhew’s Ayn Rand’s Marginalia: Her Critical Comments on Writings of Over 20 Authors for the quotes.

And in the other direction…

Afterward, [Hayek] took questions, which were mostly about Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged.” The leading questions were “What was Rand really like?” and “What is your evaluation of ‘Atlas Shrugged’?”

Hayek’s responses took on the style of a confession. “Although I tried seriously to read the book, I failed, because there was no romance in it,” he said. “I tried even more diligently to read that fellow John Galt’s hundred-page declaration of independence, and I knew I’d be questioned on all that, but I just couldn’t get through it.”

As for Rand, he said he had met her only once, quite recently, at a party given in their honor — “and you should never have two lions at the same party.” The host eagerly brought the two together for the introduction. Here are the results, to the best of my memory: “We had a very brief exchange. She swelled in anger and spun away, remaining only long enough to say, ‘You are a compromiser.’ ”

– A letter to the New York Times from Cornell’s Theodore Lowri (hat tip to Corey Robin).

We looked these up after reading Annie Lowrey’s piece in the New York Times about Paul Ryan, whose thinking on the budget and the role of government generally continues to generate headlines:

Much has been written about Mr. Ryan’s intellectual influences: canonical conservative thinkers like Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist, and Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher.

So Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek didn’t like each other and disagreed on a few things: he was too squishy a libertarian for her taste, and she was too crap a writer for his. That’s neither a secret nor a big deal, really, even if excerpts like those above are lots of fun.

Nor is it of much consequence when a politician cites the influences of thinkers whose ideas competed with each other, taking what one likes from each and discarding what one doesn’t. And indeed, Ryan has both credited Rand with getting him interested in politics and, later, rejected the atheistic parts of her philosophy (the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has a useful history of her influence on him).

But, and we’re well aware that this has been pointed out many times before, it’s also the case that Rand and Hayek seemed to have differing and incompatible arguments for a smaller state.

Rand believed that progress is made on the backs of Great People.  An individualist, capitalist system is best because it gives persons of exceptional brilliance and work ethic the space to produce. These people haven’t just earned whatever monetary rewards come their way, but also the gratitude of lesser people for the civilisational advancements they make possible.

Hayek’s view was that the market process is mysterious and unpredictable; there are too many variables whose interactions are too complex to grasp. And yet the outcomes yielded by a setting of free competition and undistorted price signals are superior to those of central planning. Government encroachment is to be resisted precisely because it would distort the price mechanisms that govern this process.

More relevant to this post, an extension of Hayek’s thinking is that the achievements of successful individuals aren’t due to their personal awesomeness (much as they’d like to believe it) but to an indecipherable combination of factors that can’t easily be untangled, explained, or anticipated. Lots of room for randomness and circumstance to play a role in this line of thinking; some might call it “luck”.

That’s a necessarily simplistic overview of both. And maybe it doesn’t much matter, but given these different justifications for less government, we’d be curious to find out from Ryan — or from any prominent politician who cites both Rand and Hayek as influences, really — which one he finds more compelling.

We’re not an expert in either Hayek or Rand, or in libertarian history and theory, or in political philosophy, or in… anything, really. There’s a lot we probably haven’t considered. This is just something we’d been thinking about lately, and which might be fodder for a lively debate in the comments. Have at it.