Paul Ryan and the Triumph of Theory

Impractical ideologues with their master plans

If Paul Ryan were a liberal, conservatives would describe him as a creature of Washington who has spent virtually all of his professional life as a congressional aide, a staffer at an ideological think tank, and, finally, as a member of Congress. In the right's shorthand: he never met a payroll.

If they were in a sunny mood, these conservatives would readily concede that Ryan is a nice guy who's fun to talk to. But they'd also insist that he is an impractical ideologue. He holds an almost entirely theoretical view of the world defined by big ideas that never touch the ground and devotes little energy to considering how his proposed budgets might affect the lives of people he's never met.

In making Ryan his running mate, Mitt Romney guaranteed that this election will be about big principles, but he also underscored a little-noted transformation in American politics: Liberals and conservatives have switched sides on the matter of which camp constitutes the party of theory and which is the party of practice. Americans usually reject the party of theory, which is what conservatism has now become.

In the late 1960s and '70s, liberals ran into trouble because they were easily mocked as impractical ideologues with excessive confidence in their own moral righteousness. They were accused of ignoring the law of unintended consequences and of failing to look carefully at who would be helped and who'd be hurt by their grand schemes.

Since I'm a liberal, I'd note that these criticisms were not always fair. Many of the liberals' enduring achievements -- from civil rights to environmental laws to Medicare -- grew from the boldness their confidence inspired. But, yes, there was arrogance in liberalism's refusal to take conservatism seriously.

Conservatives, in the meantime, gained ground by asking tough and practical questions: Will this program work as promised? Does it bear any connection to how the world really works? And, by the way, who benefits?

Now, it is liberals who question conservative master plans and point to the costs of conservative dreams. And in Ryan and his budget proposals, they have been gifted with a perfect foil.

How can Ryan justify his Medicaid cuts when, as the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found (.pdf), they would likely leave 14 million to 19 million poor people without health coverage? How can he justify tax proposals that, as The New Republic's Alec MacGillis pointed out, would reduce the rate on Mitt Romney's rather substantial income to less than 1 percent? How can he claim his budgets are anti-deficit measures when, as The Washington Post's Matt Miller has noted, his tax cuts would add trillions to the debt and we wouldn't be in balance until somewhere around 2030?

For Ryan, such questions (and many others arise) are beside the point because his purposes are so much grander. "Only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free," he wrote in the introduction to his "A Roadmap for America's Future" in 2010, "and only a free person can make responsible choices -- between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking."

This is close to the definition of freedom offered by Ayn Rand, Ryan's onetime philosophical hero, in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. Ryan didn't quote Rand, but as the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza observed, he did cite a lot of intellectuals, including Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Georges-Eugène Sorel. Didn't conservatives once dismiss this sort of thing as "a term paper"?

None of this takes away from Ryan's charm or seriousness. My one extended experience with him -- seven years ago, I moderated a thoughtful and exceptionally civil discussion about politics between Ryan and his liberal Wisconsin colleague Tammy Baldwin -- brought home to me why Ryan is so personally popular. He is great to engage with and really believes what he says.

But the issue in this election will be how Americans want to be governed. Republicans mock President Obama for still thinking like the professor he once was, yet in this race, Obama -- far more than today's conservative theorists and to the occasional consternation of his more liberal supporters -- is the pragmatist. He's talking about messy trade-offs: between taxes and spending, government and the private sector, dreams and the facts on the ground. In embracing Ryan, Romney has tied himself to the world of high conservative ideology. As liberals learned long ago, ideology usually loses.

 (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group 

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I find it amusing that the author criticizes the Romney-Ryan party of theory with Obama's party of practice. He fails to address that the for the past 4 years the Obama party of practice has been a party of failure. Deficits, no solution for Social Security or Medicare, no real cost mechanisms in ObamaCare which will cripple us, unacceptable levels of unemployment, and no adequate growth in the economy. 

I agree that Romney-Ryan must get into details and explain how their plan will work, but Obama must offer solutions rather than demean his opposition. His administration and the Democratically controlled Senate has not passed a budget for the past 3 required by Law. Obama wants us to believe that doing the same thing will result in something different.  He proposes nothing new but the same policies that have not worked for the past 4 years. 

The next 90 days will hopefully provide more answers for us all. However,  I would rather try something that I could called reasonable and different than another 4 years of the same.

Ryan and Romney Medicare plan has proposed a voucher program for those under 55 to take effect in ten years. .  [actually a firing squad] Medicare to be killed ten years from now. Why is there a ten year wait time? The GOP is counting on  the elderly now [me and my wife]to  be stupid and selfish enough to vote GOP by saying 'hey  it won't hurt me.'

The 1% have generational greed. [remember "1980s starve the GOvernment" If it takes 10 years to finally execute Medicare and Social Security with vouchers and privatizing SS they and their heirs can wait. They know all about delayed gratification. They believe  the voting dopes will go along with a 10 year Medicare execution because it will not effect them. They might even trim the age back to age 50 and then wait 15 years ..might get more votes that way..  greed can be patient,


Obama has not address the bi-parisan commission he set up on Social Security and has not proposed "any" reform of Social Security that is headed for a fiscal cliff. What Obama has done is cut $500 million out of Medicare. If you think that will increase provider participation and increase access to care, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

Ryan's budget, while replete with details and analysis to back it up, was a "House" proposed bill. It was expected to be negotiated with the Senate to reach a compromise solution. Obama and the Democrates have not proposed "anything" and neither have they proposed a budget in 3 years.

 All we mostly hear about is misinformation about Romney-Ryan, not proposals or solutions that address our problems. What we don't need is another 4 years of the same failed policies.

As a citizen, all I want is to be able to understand how each side will address the real issues. Unfortnately, we will likely end up with a decision about the lesser to two evils.

It is depressing. As a social scientist who leans left on economic issues and right on social issues I find myself equal parts annoyed by the media from both directions. That said, I have rarely seen - just as a matter of looking honestly at data - a theory as discredited as the Republican view on the relationship between tax cuts, government revenues and corporate self regulation in a free market system. Of course under some conditions (laid out by Keynes long before it was scratched on a napkin by Dr. Laffer) cutting taxes can lead to increased revenues but it is not a law that works like gravity under all circumstances. In addition, if one always endeavors to implement an economic paradigm to its fullest logical extent - whether it be social or market oriented - it will fall flat because not all systems within our society fit into either paradigm. Insurance and the military, for example, are systems that do not work well with a profit motive. Efforts to shoe-horn them into that type of system inevitably lead to disaster. There is an old saying that the worst enemies of a given idea are its staunchest proponents because they will inevitably push the concept too far. In practice, government and corporate power need to check each other and work out, in Niebuhr’s phrase, “tentative and uneasy compromises” so that neither overpowers the whole system.

I don't know why it isn't clear to everyone who lived through the crisis that preceded Obama's presidency that such a vast and structural failure – one that led prominent architects of that system like Alan Greenspan to admit their worldview had been shattered - could possibly be resolved in four years. It boggles the mind. Did the system have to actually collapse for all to appreciate that grandest of failures? Wasn’t it enough that the people behind it suddenly looked to massive government intervention to save themselves to understand the magnitude? And yet, annoyed as I am that the Republican party wasn’t forced to close up shop after that fiasco (not to mention their mortgaging of our position in the world through pointy headed foreign policy misadventures) I lay a good deal of blame at the feet of the Democrats. A lesser reason is that Obama and his group over-promised and undersold the reach of their efforts to ameliorate the problems we faced – that’s a tactical error. The greater strategic failing is that Democrats never resolved the basic contradiction they have: they want to convince the working class that they are on the side of middle income and below people and yet their expressed values betray them as alien to those constituents. Studies of public opinion for the last half century are clear on few things. But two strong, consistent trends are there: First, lower income people are more socially conservative (prior to Kinsey people thought the opposite by and large). Second, all people vote based in part on drawing short-cuts about issues based on who they trust. When they see politicians like Nancy Pelosi seeming to only show genuine concern about the “values of Hollywood” working class voters like Joe the proverbial (since it turns out he’s not an actual) Plumber naturally trust their instincts: why should they trust the values of the left on more esoteric things like how an economy functions when these individuals sniff in the air with contempt at middle class views on God and country. At a certain point the Democrats needed to decide whether they wanted to stick their necks out for the working class and risk alienating proponents of the liberal social agenda (most of which will resolve  over the coming decades in a “liberal” fashion anyway) or continue to alienate the very people whose interests they claimed to have front in center. It’s about who you trust. And much as I wish it weren’t true, working class people don’t trust liberals and persist in believing their ideas are impractical. It simply doesn’t really whether the impractical label is no longer true. That is not the straw which stirs the drink. (The commentator is a social scientist working for a non-partisan organization and wishes to remain anonymous. He is a subscriber under his real name.)

I am one of Paul Ryan's constituents.  I have attended several of his "Listening Sessions" in our District.  Most of the time listening means we get to listen to Paul.  He has charts and graphs and scary "facts and figures" all in a neat powerpoint.  He is glib and personable because he and his staff control the show.  Trying to raise a contrary point or question at one of his listening sessions is pretty much futile.

His strong, and I would say blind, faith in conservative economic theory comes out in every point he makes.  Any suggestions that government at any level might have something to contribute to solving our economic problems caused by his economic theories are dismissed as wasteful and ineffective. 

I would characterize his economic theories as warmed over 18th, 19th, and mid-20th century ideas which had more validity before we got to the end of the 20th century and are currently in the 21st century.  He espouses old, tired, and in many ways failed theories.  We need some new ideas to re-imagine and re-shape the economy for the 21st century.  (Actually, Pope Benedict's encyclical "Caritas en Veritate" is a good place to start).

From a practical standpoint, Mr. Ryan's votes, since he got into Congress into 1999, have contributed greatly to the creation of our current financial problems, particularly the deficit.  He has voted for two major tax cuts, voted for two wars without paying for them, and voted for a prescription benefit for seniors without paying for it and at the same time, prohibiting the government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. 

I don't think President Obama has done a great job, but he has done some good things in his term.  A number of his economic policies stopped the great recession from becoming a second great depression.  Obamacare is another significant achievement which is already giving many families and individuals health coverage opportunities which they would not otherwise have.  I am disappointed that Obama has not been more forceful in curbing the military-industrial complex and ending the Bush wars more quickly.  One of the best ways to improve the economy is to redirect the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on wars and the military to creation of jobs at home in education, health care, energy, and infrastructure.  Unfortunately, neither the Democrats or Republicans want to touch that sacred cow. "You can't have guns and butter" is a practical norm we don't hear at all these days. 

If Obama had been a pragmatist in his first two years instead of an ideologue, he would have embraced Simpson-Bowles, used his Democratic Congress to pass the idea, and our country would be poised for, and moving into the future. Obama wouldn't even be facing a challenge to re-election; it would be a slam dunk. As it is, Obama and the Dems passed theories, and the country is still puttering around wondering when change is going to begin.


Paul Ryan played in a Catholic basketball league in high school. That's his only connection to anything Catholic; he didn't attend Catholic highschool nor Catholic college or university. So as far as Catholic thought he's an autodidact. Some of the thinkers he says influenced him like Ayn Rand were anti-Catholics. He couldn't or wouldn't quote any Catholic Pope or Catholic thinker on any social thought espcecially on the so-called free market. Romney calls him a good Catholic; he may well be. But a Catholic thinker? I think not.



The Bishops called the Ryan plan immoral. Enough said. If you want to live in a country with a very small government and low taxes move to Somalia. Reasonable taxes and right sized government are the price of living in a civil society.

As Dick noted, Ryan was prized for his height not his intellect nor his devotion to the faith. His ideology and deprecation of any even conservative compassion for the poor, sick and elderly, the young, uneducated and unemployed, the innocent children living in starvation and mean surroundings all belie any such claimed devotion to the gospel. His behavior and rhetoric are abhorent examples of blame the victim politics and a narcissic desire to be loved by his rich friends. He is not a good man.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment