Clarifying the Problem With Ryan
Over at the Washington Examiner, David Freddoso takes issue with my post on Ayn Rand-fan Paul Ryan’s plan to reduce the debt by cutting taxes on the rich and then dismantling Medicare and Medicaid. He says my argument rests on the assumptions (1) that there is some ideal tax rate mandated by Catholic social teaching and (2) that the current tax rates in this country fall below it.
Freddoso misunderstands my argument. The central purpose of my post was to observe that applying the wrong principles to produce policy suggestions that would otherwise fall within the ambit of permissible prudential disagreement is not itself within the boundaries of that permissible prudential disagreement (as the hierarchs have defined those boundaries). In other words, from the standpoint of a Catholic politician, at least, the principles matter. Nothing in Freddoso’s attempted take-down of my post even addresses this question. Instead, he chooses to attack a strawman.
Admittedly, my post was not as clear as it might of have been, but I suspect from his rhetoric that Freddoso was not interested in trying very hard to read it in the most generous light. The most interesting question to me — and the reason I wrote the post – is why someone like Ryan shouldn’t come in for the same treatment pro-choice Catholic politicians have often received. In his case, it would be more than just the question whether a Catholic can in good faith support his plan (back to that question in a second). There are also specific things about Ryan’s relationship to Randian libertarianism — his strange habit of requiring his staff to read Rand’s work, his statement that Rand was his reason for entering public service — that call into question his motives in structuring his plan the way he has (i.e., as “helping” with the national debt by cutting taxes on the rich and gutting two important entitlement programs for the poor and elderly). I think it is worthwhile for Catholics to call attention to the utter irreconcilability of Rand’s political philosophy, such as it is, with basic principles of Catholic teaching, and the apparent harmony of Rand’s philosophy with the basic architecture of the Ryan plan. Though I admit it’s not decisive, that harmony, combined with the other evidence of Ryan’s Rand-worship and the implausibility of Ryan’s empirical assumptions, seem like relevant data points for the inquiry into his likely principles.
Can Catholics in good faith support the Ryan plan? I have no doubt that, subjectively speaking, they can. On the other hand, I think it’s an important challenge to Catholics who are prone to accept the assumptions that would be necessary to justify support for that plan (e.g., that handing billions in dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans against the current baseline of historically — and comparatively — high inequality and low taxation rates would actually redound to the benefit of the poorest over the long run compared to the available alternative policies) to engage with the empirical support (or lack of such support) for those counterintuitive assertions. Moreover, given a Catholic commitment to social policy that is fundamentally oriented toward the well being of the poorest, I think its fair to hold a plan that appears on its face to simply transfer burdens from the richer to the poorer to a higher empirical standard than a plan that on its face appears to do the opposite. That last point is probably controversial, but it is in a way independent from my bottom line, which is that I don’t think the idea of “prudential judgment” should be allowed to absolve Catholics of various political stripes of the responsibility to do the work of evaluating a plan like Ryan’s against the principles of Catholic social teaching and the relevant standards of sound empirical analysis.