Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has credited philosopher Ayn Rand with inspiring him to enter politics -- and made her 1,000-plus-page opus, Atlas Shrugged, required reading for his staff. "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," he said in 2005 at a gathering of Rand fans. "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." It is a theme that pervades Rand's corpus.
Given the Wisconsin congressman's interest in Rand's writings, Ryan's addition to the GOP ticket has naturally unleashed a flash-mob of analysts parsing his speeches, articles, and signature proposals for evidence of her influence. On domestic policy, the impact of Rand's ideas on Ryan's outlook is marked, though uneven and sometimes overstated. Religion, in particular, has driven a wedge between Ryan, who would enact Catholic dogma into law, and Rand, an atheist, who championed the separation of church and state. But what has received far less attention is Ryan's outlook on foreign policy -- and whether it bears the mark of Rand's thought.
Ayn Rand's foreign policy, if we can construct one from her writings, would be grounded in her view of man's rights and the nature of government. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand argues that the ideal government is the servant, not the master, of the individual. In her view, it is a vital institution strictly limited to one function: to safeguard individual rights. By "rights," Rand means freedom to take "all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life." Critically, the protection of an individual's rights "does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life."
Domestically, this outlook entails a truly free market with absolute legal protection of private property, and without regulations, bailouts, corporate handouts, or entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. (Ryan breaks with Rand by attempting to save, rather than end these programs.) In Rand's political philosophy, however, there is no gulf between economic rights and personal and intellectual ones: for instance, she wrote passionately of the crucial importance (contra Ryan) of the right to abortion, and regarded freedom of speech as sacrosanct.
Like her views on domestic policy, a Randian foreign policy would be guided exclusively by the goal of protecting the individual rights of Americans, and only Americans. Accordingly, the U.S. government shouldn't issue handouts to other countries (through foreign aid or international welfare schemes), nor treat its citizens as cannon fodder (through a military draft). Indeed, Rand was scathing in her analyses of the Vietnam War, arguing that it did not serve America's national interest. "[I]t is a pure instance of blind, senseless altruistic self-sacrificial slaughter," she wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
Of course, there are times when government is obligated to go to war, according to Rand. The crucial standard here is whether the lives and property of Americans are imperiled. The only morally justifiable purpose for war, she wrote, is self-defense. This rules out so-called humanitarian missions, like the tragic Clinton-era mission in Somalia, and the notion that the United States is somehow obliged to serve as the world's policeman. The primary function of the military, in Rand's eyes, should be to deter, and when necessary, defeat foreign aggressors.
Although some of Rand's political ideas have informed the libertarian movement, she regarded any form of pacifism (including Ron Paul-esque passivity) as destructive to national defense. And undoubtedly she would have supported a strong military response to the 9/11 attacks (though, as I have argued in my book, she would have rejected George W. Bush's conception of the enemy and his entire prosecution of the war).