Paul Ryan and the Contradictions of Conservatism

Three years ago, U.S. vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan published a short theoretical essay called ‘The Cause of Freedom cannot be separated from the Cause of Life’.[1] There are several reasons why it might be worthwhile to subject this essay to serious scrutiny. Firstly, its author has been lauded as ‘the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment’.[2] One would expect that the only explicitly theoretical document in existence bearing his name would tell us a lot about the current intellectual state of conservatism. Secondly, there has been much talk generally about Ryan’s passion for ideas, often with mention of his attachment to Ayn Rand and staunch social conservatism. Thirdly, and most importantly, the essay styles itself as an attempt to reconcile an intellectual conflict, a conflict between ‘freedom’ and ‘life’. This conflict is the main fault line of the contemporary conservative movement. It is the juncture of the movement’s unquestioning commitment to the interests of capital, and its emphasis on moral and social order. In analyzing the essay carefully, we find that the moral and social dimensions of conservatism – everything that is encompassed with the word ‘life’ – have been almost eviscerated by the absolute and unconditional commitment to economic liberalism, the agenda of free market capitalism.

The essay begins with Ryan’s declaration of ‘unswerving support’ for both free market choice and the ‘natural right to life’. It is unfortunate, he writes, ‘that “life” and “choice” were ever separated and viewed as alternatives’. ‘Choice’ refers here to the sphere of free market capitalism. Under capitalism, he writes, ‘people exercise their right to choose products and services they prefer, to pursue the job or career they desire, the business they wish to establish or deal with, the kinds of investments and savings they favor, and many more options’. The freedom available under capitalism, it is clear, is best expressed by the freedom to choose products. Even life-defining decisions, such as decisions on a career, what to study at college, etc. are essentially conceived as choices concerning which product to invest in. In the next paragraph, this deeply commodified notion of what freedom means is given a distinctly Rand-like flourish in the claim that ‘Individuals grow in responsibility, wisdom, intelligence and other human qualities by making choices that satisfy their unique needs and by avoiding things that do not’. However, the reintroduction of Rand’s perfectionism here only succeeds in forcing the reader to reflect on the impoverished idea of choice that is supposed to support it. A perfectionist idea of freedom would need to show that making choices requires the individual to develop and enhance certain of the characteristic capacities of being human. But if free choice simply means choosing from among the available options on the supermarket shelf, it is not at all clear how it can do this perfectionist work. The underlying problem here, of course, is that Rand’s perfectionism is not a description of capitalism. The idea of heroic individualism depicts the ego that has pulled itself free of the anonymous rabble, but of course this is the exception. The everyday reality for the masses is subordination to the will of others who successfully redefine all human needs as consumer choices.

But what of ‘life’? The idea of ‘life’ encompasses the moral core of personhood. It allows us to make a fundamental distinction, according to Ryan, between ‘persons’ and ‘things’. What distinguishes a human being is that it cannot be subject to the ‘arbitrary will’ of another person. In contrast the car, ‘which I exercised my freedom of choice to purchase’ does not qualify for human rights protection. Hence ‘I can drive it, lend it, kick it, sell it, or junk it, at will’. A human being protected under human rights is thus defined in opposition to things, which are subject to the arbitrary will of human beings, as things that can be handled, manipulated, bought and sold. The distinction establishes, by opposition, the nature of human beings as entities that cannot be bought and sold. This is emphasized in the next stage of the argument, where Ryan outlines what he takes to be historical instances in which the concept of human being has been limited in its scope. The first concerns the sanctioning of slavery in the Dred Scott court decision, which established that ‘Africans were property – things that white people could choose to buy and sell’. The second is the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which, according to Ryan, wrongly refused to qualify ‘unborn children as living persons whose human rights must be guaranteed’.

How does Ryan intend to establish, on the basis of this argument, that ‘choice’ and ‘life’ are not what he calls ‘alternatives’, but rather ‘implicate’ one another? This is what Ryan says

As Thomas Jefferson wrote,“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time”. The freedom to choose is pointless for someone who does not have the freedom to live. So the right of “choice” of one human being cannot trump the right to “life” of another.

The basic point, it seems, is that choice depends upon life. In the narrowest sense this means ‘you cannot make choices if you are dead’. In the broadest sense, it would mean that life (or perhaps the promotion of life) is what gives value to choice, which, again, would introduce a perfectionist strand into the idea of choice. That Ryan means it in the very narrow sense is clear in the next paragraph when he equates ‘diminishing choices’ with ‘reducing the number of human beings who can make choices’. ‘Life’ is merely a biological condition of choice, not a substantive ideal that guides choice and gives it value.

The real reason choice cannot ‘trump’ the right to life of another is ultimately because the awareness of oneself as a bearer of rights is dependent on recognition of one’s status as a rights holder by the community. This, as Ryan acknowledges, is what defines the transition from the state of nature to political society in which rights are guaranteed. To violate another’s right is ultimately to assault the community that recognizes and guarantees those rights. The question of which rights to recognize is a question of fundamental identity for the community. Another story of the struggle of African slaves and their descendants for emancipation would emphasize that the concept of human being emerging subsequently was constructed in this struggle, where racial characteristics were decided to be irrelevant to full personhood. The idea of ‘human beings’, then, did not pre-exist these struggles for emancipation of Africans and later of the women’s movement. It was an affirmation of the community of its fundamental values and ideals. It is these ideals and values that have excluded the idea that human beings can be treated as possessions. The need to invoke, and then immediately to suppress, these substantive ideals marks the central antagonism running through Ryan’s text. The text invokes the notion of ‘life’ and associates it with moral values. Yet it cannot actually say anything about these values. It does not, as we saw, say anything about the content of the ‘universal human rights’ on which the argument depends. This is not because of the author’s personal reticence. It is a reflection of the real social conditions that here impose themselves inexorably on the language of the author. It is because there is nothing left of ‘values’ once the entirety of life itself – except the bare remainder of pure biological life – has been instrumentalized in the service of maximizing consumption in free market capitalism, as the exercise of the freedom to choose among products and services. What passes for values talk here, an invocation of ‘life’ as a principle for circumscribing choice, is the ghostly apparition of what was once a vibrant discourse. The author calls up that moral discourse, but it is his failure to make it speak that speaks volumes about the objective contradictions of modern conservatism.

The total and encompassing commodification of values in the service of markets becomes explicit at the end of the essay:

Rather than seeing children and human beings as a benefit, the “pro-choice” position implies that they are a burden. . . . In contrast, pro-life conservatives . . . see human beings as assets, not liabilities.

Having eviscerated the content of moral and social values in the service of capitalism’s demand to marketize all areas of life, Ryan has literally nothing left on which to set the moral distinction he wants to establish. Recall that what distinguishes a human being is the fact that it is not something that can be bought and sold. Unlike cars, human beings cannot be treated as things subject to the will of others. What, then, marks this unique value and status of human beings? The distinction here collapses on itself, revealing its emptiness. Human beings are a ‘benefit’ or a ‘burden’; they are an ‘asset’ or a ‘liability’. This is not a misstatement or a lax formulation on Ryan’s part. It is the inevitable consequence of the instrumentalization of the substance of moral value under capitalist economic arrangements. Once ‘life’ has been emptied of moral content and reduced to mere biological existence, there is no moral space left for marking the value of human beings other than in the instrumental terms of the market. What marks the unique status of human beings? They cannot be bought and sold as things. What is the difference marked by this distinction? Human beings must always be treated as assets rather than as liabilities. The most disturbing aspect of this is the suggestion that what we value in human beings is what makes them instrumentally useful to us. While this is certainly not commensurable with a traditional conservative idea of the social body, it seems to be fully infused with the pure social Darwinism of the Randian hero and his or her defiant resolution to separate from the anonymous crowd.

The claim that the role of the state is to ‘secure the right to life and other human rights that follow from that primary right’ is very hard to square with Ryan’s strong social conservatism, evinced in his support of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as one to criminalize flag burning, and his support of laws making it more difficult for gay couples to adopt children. And, of course, there is Ryan’s unquestioning support of the Patriot Act and other assaults on civil liberties such as warrantless wiretapping. Assuming that this is not just calculated opportunism, how can the statement that government’s job is to guarantee ‘the universal human rights of its citizens’ be reconciled with the commitment to an aggressive policy of state action that holds civil liberties in low regard and actively promotes and indeed enforces a distinctive and encompassing moral vision on its citizens? The civil liberties part of this motley collection of beliefs are the legacy of the public and social order plank of traditional conservatism, with a strong state necessary to prevent the disorder of unrestrained capitalism from escalating into serious social unrest. They are in contradiction with the discourse of liberty, but it is a ‘necessary’ contradiction, since it is justified by the de facto operation of capacity as a messy, divisive and discordant system, which ceaselessly generates civil unrest and external conflict in its development. But what about the perfectionist idea of marriage, the absolutist position on abortion, the unflinching opposition to recreational drug use, the enforcement of patriotism? The principle that Ryan sets as the counterpart to free market choice, ‘life’, cannot possibly bridge this gap. Even in the case of abortion, it is farcical to suggest that the pro-choice position elevates the principle of market choice above ‘life’. ‘Choice’ does not here mean ‘market choice’, the choice among products. It speaks to the fundamental conditions that make choice possible, including the right not to be used against one’s will by another being (the fetus). The conflict is not a clash of life versus choice; it is a clash of two different interpretations of the wrong of treating a person as a thing. In other words, it is about two different interpretations of life. Unlike the social order plank of conservatism, these moral elements cannot be explained by a discord between the theory and the practice of ‘actually existing’ capitalism. They do, however, provide an important measure of psychological security in a world where ‘all that is solid melts into air’. The idea of permanent, foundational values offers the promise of stability and continuity in a world where capitalist markets act according to the principle that nothing is sacred save profits. The moral absolutist and free market elements of conservatism feed off each other in this pathological way, where increasing economic vulnerability engenders the retreat to cultural absolutism, which once more allows the individual to withstand further social and economic disintegration.

Underlying the emptiness of the right’s moral language is the fact that the unswerving promotion of the marketization of all aspects of life, promoted by the libertarian strand of conservatism, and the consequent, steady erosion of the public sphere have resulted in questions of ultimate value being pulled out of public discourse and made the exclusive concern of the private preference of individuals. Questions like ‘what do we owe the elderly who are no longer able to work’?, ‘What are our obligations to the sick, and the dying’?, ‘How should we treat the most vulnerable members of society’? are no longer part of a community’s public discussion as it seeks to define itself and the obligations owed by all to each. They have now become almost exclusively matters of market preference. Values become living and vibrant in this public discussion of the community in which it clarifies its deepest ideals and beliefs. But when the question of obligations to the elderly has been turned into the merely private one of ‘which retirement plan should I choose among the available options’, or when the question of communal responsibility for the sick has been turned into the personal choice of the vulnerable individual (‘Which health care plan should I choose in case I get sick?’), moral and social values are subject to a damaging erosion that leaves nothing in their place save the ubiquity of choice and the utter moral emptiness of ‘life’.

Without this social dimension, where values are articulated and defined in a community’s discussion about its moral identity, the moral life is hollowed out to the point where what looks like values talk is in fact nothing of the kind. The unconditional support of capitalist economic arrangements in modern conservatism has resulted in the evisceration of the moral and social dimensions of conservative thought. It was in response to this that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the Ryan Budget according to ‘moral criteria’ that stipulate society’s obligations to the most vulnerable. The Bishops’ argument can be seen as attempt to resuscitate the moral substance of ‘life’ as a moral order for capitalist practices. In contrast to Ryan’s severe reduction of life to the biological condition of market preference, the Bishops assert that ‘life’ has an ineliminable moral and social dimension. The Bishops’ position is certainly pro-life (though not for the same reasons as Ryan), but it also includes a mission to help the poorest, to minister to the sick and the frail, and to fulfil a whole host of communal and social obligations.

But if the public space for sustaining the communal meaning of moral and social values has disappeared, why is there so much values talk? What passes for moral discourse in American public life today has very little in common with a community’s discussion about its moral identity. Most often, it appears as a defensive reaction to the disappearance of previous moral certainties as a result of the aggressive incursions of free market capitalism into the sphere of daily life. Thus as longer working hours and the necessity of two full-time working parents in the household erode parents’ capacity to give their children a moral and social education, a moral panic is created and cynically encouraged by stoking fears about the effects of secular sex education or the normalization of LGBT relationships. But values talk can only become a genuine public discussion about moral identity if defensive response can give rise to the question about communal self-definition: ‘who are we and what kind of life best expresses our collective moral identity?’ But this move from the private and defensive to the public and constructive is impossible without recreating the public space that has been eviscerated by free market capitalism. And it is this very public space, in which a community clarifies its moral identity, that has been gutted by the libertarian strand of conservatism, which has followed the dictates of the market in privatizing all moral questions. The result is that values talk remains at the level of defensive self-assertion and ressentiment-fueled self-presentation. But because it can never address the causes of the moral devastation it continually bemoans, it is destined to remain a social wound that can be cynically rubbed for political effect.

In Paul Ryan’s essay, the decay of moral discourse is registered in the emptiness of the concept of life. Genuine values talk would have to encompass public discussion of the moral substance of life, including of course its incompatibility with the social conditions that restrict all of our choices to mere market choices, matters of private preference rather than public identity. Benjamin Barber writes that ‘it is precisely through democratic participation and the ensuing government intervention that we regulate private choices to constrain their negative sides, and that we focus on the public things that really matter to us as members of a civic (and civilized) community’.[3] If Barber is right, then moral discourse simply will not survive the gutting of the public realm that is the explicit aim of aggressively pro-capitalist conservatives like Ryan. But this is not only opposed to the public and collectivist vision of progressivism and left politics. It also undermines the values discourse of traditional conservatism.

Roger S. Foster is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Social Science at City University of New York. 


[1] The book in which the essay figures, Indivisible, is available for download on the Heritage Foundation Website.

[2] David Stockton, ‘Paul Ryan’s Fairy-Tale Budget Plan’, New York Times 8/13/2012. Stockton was a Budget Director in the Reagan Administration.

[3] Benjamin Barber, Consumed (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), p. 142.