The rising influence of Congressman Paul Ryan and his libertarian ideology reflects a key aspect of American exceptionalism. In no other developed country does libertarianism have as much influence as in the United States, where the right wing has a particularly deep-seated suspicion of government taxation, regulation and public assistance. Ryan has recently faced accusations of hypocrisy for his defense of rugged individualism and hostility to government. Ryan grew up in a privileged family and benefited from Social Security payments when his father died. He has harshly criticized Obama’s economic stimulus despite requesting stimulus funds for his own Congressional district. Ryan’s critics have also underlined the government’s roles, such as building infrastructure or enforcing business contracts, that make private activity possible. However, the individualist ideology promoted by the prospective vice president and his fellow libertarians deserves closer attention.
According to Ryan, Americans have fallen prey to a “domineering government” that “drains individual initiative and personal responsibility.”
“Obamacare” exemplifies this decadence because a state-run health care system is a “deliberate power grab in which government seizes ever more of the economy – and controls more of Americans’ lives.” Notwithstanding the fact that under so-called “Obamacare,” insurance is still mostly provided by private insurance companies Ryan’s view reflects a misconceived sense of individualism. Universal health care does not negate individualism – it helps enable it.
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In The Fountainhead, novelist Ayn Rand – Ryan’s inspiration – extolled unbridled individualism by depicting an ambitious architect vying to succeed on his own. But could a real-world architect fulfill his aspirations if beset by health problems and exorbitant bills? Medical expenses are a leading cause behind the majority of US bankruptcies. Most of the bankrupted are not even poor, but middle-class. Further, approximately 45,000 Americans die every year due to inadequate health insurance. In other words, access to health care empowers people to live their lives.
Paradoxically, America has by far the most expensive health care system in the developed world, as well as the one that provides the least coverage to the public. As a result, it performs poorly on various comparative indicators, such as infant mortality, life expectancy and deaths from treatable problems. Nevertheless, Ryan is manifestly convinced that America would have worse and more expensive medical treatment if it had a universal health care system like those of all other developed countries.
Other examples demonstrate that Ryan’s rugged individualism is rooted in a highly distorted picture of the economic systems existing elsewhere in the West. Ryan has claimed that America is “an upwardly mobile society,” unlike European “welfare states,” yet studies indicate that socioeconomic mobility is lower in modern-day America than Europe. Ryan also received a sharp rebuke from The Economist for claiming that America’s budgetary problems were turning it into Europe even though Europe had lower deficits and government debt levels than America. Despite casting himself as a policy wonk, Ryan seems unfamiliar with comparative policy analysis. Seymour Martin Lipset, the renowned American social scientist, remarked that, “It is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.”
Leaving aside its insularity, Ryan’s worldview also reflects a peculiar conception of democracy. The modern-day Republican Party is extraordinarily hostile to the notion that government should be responsible for people’s basic well-being. Republicans notably emphasize that people are not “entitled” to medical treatment. Most believe that universal health care would be a “slippery slope” towards the end of freedom and liberty. In sum, they identify universal health care as the antithesis of democracy. Conversely, in liberal America, as elsewhere in the Western world, people generally consider medical treatment as a human right and as a pillar of democracy. This difference partly stems from the fact that “right wing” does not mean the same thing in other Western nations. Conservatives in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand commonly believe that the government has important social responsibilities in areas like health care.
The Republicans of yesteryear were more inclined to recognize that the government has such responsibilities. Many Republican members of Congress voted to create Social Security and Medicare, for instance. But the government’s foremost duty is now primarily seen as getting out of the way, as exemplified by one of Ronald Reagan’s quips: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” A misconceived sense of individualism has come to trump nearly all other values.
The case may be made that contemporary Republicans tilt so heavily toward this perverse individualism that they ignore the greater good altogether. Ryan’s stances have earned him a top rating from the National Rifle Association, thereby illustrating the modern GOP’s support for a quasi-unfettered right to bear arms regardless of how this facilitates gun violence. Conservative America’s tendency to decide problems squarely in favor of a speciously defined individual rather than the greater good is further exemplified by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which enabled tycoons and corporations to funnel unlimited sums into political campaigns in the name of individual liberty.
Naturally, this kind of individualism only empowers the few individuals who can donate fortunes to political campaigns, thereby ignoring the vast majority of individuals who cannot. Republicans have generally dismissed such concerns by stating that society must treat all people equally without regard to income differences. Romney and Ryan notably insist that the nation’s acute wealth inequality – unparalleled in the West – is a non-issue. This peculiar conception of equality actually negates effective equality and may be described as “all individuals are equal but some individuals are more equal than others,” to paraphrase George Orwell.
The extreme conception of individualism promoted by today’s Republicans should not obscure the positive role that individualism has played in history. The Enlightenment reflected an intensification of demands for individual liberty and for scaling back the authority that state and clerical authorities held over people’s lives. The Western democracies that gradually evolved from the Enlightenment since the 18th century – the first of which was the United States – have been anchored in individual human rights. On the other hand, Communist regimes have seldom recognized individual rights under the pretense that the perspective of the individual is necessarily encompassed in the collective perspective, which has, ironically, been defined by a handful of individuals exercising dictatorial powers.
Even though individualism is indispensable to democracy, it is a double-edged sword because it can imperil democracy if taken to a poorly defined extreme. A democratic government must strive to protect the individual and the greater good. The likes of Paul Ryan tend to ignore such nuances while claiming that we will be on a slippery slope towards “socialist” authoritarianism lest we embrace unbridled individualism and a libertarian government.
A society that primarily provides for the well-being of a limited share of privileged individuals might be democratic in a procedural sense, but not in a substantive sense. In the words of Louis Brandeis, the former Supreme Court justice, “We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Equality, justice and fairness are pillars of democracy. If people believe that these values should systematically be trumped by individualism or self-interest, then they support, at best, a narrow understanding of democracy.