Ryan on happiness
Paul Ryan speaking
in Denver yesterday:
Guess what? Government doesn’t regulate happiness, government doesn’t define your happiness—you define it for yourself. That’s how we do it in America.
Wow. Sounds completely compatible with, for starters, the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey
; the Supreme Court decision
in Lawrence v. Texas
; homosexual “marriage”; homosexual adoption; smearing dung on an image of the Virgin Mary; body-covering tattoos; piercings; and sex-change operations.
Ryan—observant Roman Catholic, family man, and opponent of abortion—is saying the following, no doubt without realizing it: there is no inherent good in existence, to which we aspire, and in attaining it we attain happiness. We define the good. In fact we define everything, as it says in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:
[T]he most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy [which of course would include our definition of our happiness], are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
As I said in a comment
in December 2002:
In Planned Parenthood, God as the true source of order in existence has been formally replaced by the human self, which is now free to define existence and the universe according to its own desires.
In other words, Ryan (again, no doubt, without grasping the full import of what he is saying) is declaring the non-existence of objective moral values and the ascendancy of freedom over the good—the very definition of liberalism.
- end of initial entry -
Bruce B. writes:
Good catch on Ryan. I would have missed that. He sounds more like a libertarian or Randian than a Catholic.
Timothy D. writes:
Your attack on Ryan today is to take his quote out of context, and shows you trying to make your points at the expense of what your victim was saying.
“Guess what? Government doesn’t regulate happiness, government doesn’t define your happiness—you define it for yourself. That’s how we do it in America.”
You can define your happiness as obedience to objective moral law or anything else. That is how it is done in America. Indeed that is how it is done everywhere outside of totalitarian societies. No planned happiness. To turn his comment about the absence of planned happiness into an attack on his failure to be a perfect Roman Catholic is absurd.
You write: “In other words, Ryan (again, no doubt, without grasping the full import of what he is saying) is declaring the non-existence of objective moral values and the ascendancy of freedom over the good—the very definition of liberalism.
Nothing of the sort is being said. If you were in court your proposal would have been thrown out for want of logical or factual connection. The failure to maintain Catholic doctrine, as you conceive it, in every sentence spoken by a politician is a test no one could pass.
Keep up the good work, friend, but be aware that not every judgment in the Court of Auster will succeed on appeal.
All you are doing, notwithstanding your indignation and rudeness (which I will indulge this one time), is to confirm my point.
August 15, 11:13 p.m.
If you believe this,
You can define your happiness as obedience to objective moral law or anything else. That is how it is done in America. Indeed that is how it is done everywhere outside of totalitarian societies. No planned happiness …
Then you also must agree with Planned Parenthood v. Casey and all the other examples I gave. You believe in a morally libertarian society with no common authoritative standards, and you are angry that I have I shown that Ryan has endorsed the principle of a morally libertarian society with no common authoritative standards. Furthermore, proving that you are a stereotypical libertarian and not any kind of conservative, you describe a society that has common moral standards as “totalitarian.” In other words, America in, say, 1960 was a totalitarian society. So you are outside any genuine conservative or traditionalist discourse.
Also, I was not making Catholic doctrine my authority. All I did was refer to the fact that Ryan is a Catholic.
Timothy D. writes:
Peace! I am neither being rude nor indignant, with your indulgence. I read your stuff every day and am in large measure of agreement. Today I am not in agreement because I think you are stretching a point, metaphorically, to hang a man unjustly. I think you are conflating two propositions.
Let us start at the beginning.
I am trying to convey that neither Ryan nor I are saying what you impute to us.
I do not believe in planned happiness, which I take to be belief in “government-defined” happiness.
Then you also must agree with Planned Parenthood v. Casey and all the other examples I gave.
Well, no, I do not. You are engaging in “Who says this must say that.” Permit me to decline the imputation.
I do not believe in a morally libertarian society.
By contrast, I observe merely that people—rightly or wrongly—are actually free to take up and pursue ideas of happiness that may be wrong or right. That is the tragedy, perhaps, of the human condition, but it cannot be fixed by purely political measures. Freedom inheres in us.
People may take up a wrong idea of happiness, according to you or me.
I am holding that it is politically possible for people in a free society to be wrong. You may think that a fatuous truism, but it is different from asserting that happiness can and should be defined by governments.
The standards by which right and wrong are determined are not themselves subject to democratic vote, and in this I agree with you. I suspect that Ryan would do so as well. By the same token, the standards by which right and wrong are determined cannot be established by the Central Committee, the Supreme Court, the Tsar, the Queen, parliaments, or anyone in political authority. They have a different origin.
I am observing that, outside of totalitarian societies, people actually have the freedom to take up ideas of happiness. Whether they conduce to the good or evil, or the less good, or the bad, is another discussion. [LA replies: In 1960, every state in the Union outlawed homosexual sodomy; did not allow single persons to adopt children; did not allow people to use various psycho active or addictive drugs; and on and on and on. Since the state was stopping people from doing what they thought would lead to their happiness, according to you, the state in 1960 (meaning the several states of the United States) was totalitarian.]
In my opinion, common authoritative standards, such as religion establishes, are desirable and necessary. “Government defined (ideas of) happiness” would be a disaster.
Jim Kalb writes:
Yeah. In America today the only permissible basis for political discussion is freedom, understood as freedom to pursue happiness as you define it for yourself. That plus equality, which tells us that we all should have an equal shot at self-defined happiness.
A working politician has to accept the basics of the setting he’s working in, so conservative politicians have to agree with that. Since as conservatives they want to identify with America, they have to super-agree with it, and claim that they are the true freedom-loving egalitarians and liberals are just wannabes. The claim isn’t very persuasive, and that’s one reason conservatives strike liberals as stupid, obstinate, hypocritical, obsessive, fanatical, and so on.
On the other hand, liberals have their own unprincipled exceptions, to use your expression. The difference is that they are fewer and smaller, so they escape notice. As time goes consciousness gets raised and the standard shifts. That’s why today’s liberalism becomes tomorrow’s conservatism.
Nik S. writes:
“Guess what? Government doesn’t regulate happiness, government doesn’t define your happiness—you define it for yourself. That’s how we do it in America.”
I think you are being too harsh on him. His point was that government should not regulate happiness, nor even define it. Meaning, government should stay out of the affairs of homosexuals rather than sanctioning their marriages. Let gays stay in the closet the way they used to, back in the good old days. [LA replies: How short our memories are. Back in the good old days, most states outlawed homosexual sodomy and various other consensual acts. One of the main reasons homosexuals had to stay in the closet was that homosexual acts were illegal. All that was overthrown by Lawrence v. Texas in June 2003.]
Also, Ryan’s making an issue of his religious beliefs is not necessarily going to help him, politically speaking. When Ryan said, “That’s how we do it in America,” I interpreted that to mean that government should stop making laws that sanction abortion and homosexuality. Let gays stay in the closet and let abortion-hungry baby killers go back to using clothes-hangers, as awful as that sounds. It is far too easy for gays to get married and it is far too easy to abort one’s unborn child at the local state-sponsored abortion clinic—and all of this has been sanctioned and made possible by government. So I interpreted his statement to generally be anti-government, not secularist or humanistic. [LA replies: But it was GOVERNMENT that outlawed abortion and it was GOVERNMENT which never recognized marriages other than between one man and one woman. If you support that government should do those things, how are you anti-government?] However, I admit I could be wrong, and it certainly does not change the fact that Paul Ryan may yet be just another neo-con (re some of your prior entries).
Catherine H. writes:
Perhaps I am missing a deeper meaning in Ryan’s words, but I have to say my first understanding of the quote you posted was a little more low-key. I thought that he was referring to the welfare state and advising people not to rely on the government to solve one’s problems; a glance at the article you linked seems to back up my first thoughts. The difference in interpretation could come from the imprecise language typical of so many modern orators: “happiness” is a loaded term in Aristotelian philosophy. If Mr. Ryan had intended to use “happiness” to mean “the good,” I would agree with your reading of his words. However, he seems to be using the term “happiness” to mean “material success.” (I wonder whether Mr. Ryan is even aware of the classical understanding of “happiness.”) [LA replies: One of the key points in understanding the meaning of political statements, as I have often discussed, is that the “private” or “real” intentions of a speaker do not matter politically. What matters politically is what he publicly says, the principles he publicly advocates. If a man advocates the principle that we define our own happiness (and does this without making any reference to a transcendent moral order that would guide our definition of our happiness), then, whatever his private understanding of the statement may be, in the world of political reality he has signed on to the radical libertarian principle of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. If a man advocates liberal principles, then, even if he thinks of himself as a conservative, he is in reality helping advance liberalism.]
It is a shame that politicians uniformly fail to speak of higher concerns such as “the good,” but I have never expected this society to produce politicians that do. The current Republican nominee and his VP pick are overly concerned with the economy, I grant you, but I do think this quote needs to be understood in context. Ryan is appealing to the lowest common denominator of Republican, as they all do, and is defining his terms accordingly. Unfortunately, for many “conservative” Americans now, “happiness” does mean “material success.” Along those lines, you could argue that Ryan is, in fact, utilizing a watered-down understanding of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
That is not to say that what he is saying is good, only that it is not as bad as you say it is. [LA replies: I am not saying his statement is the end of the world. I am saying that, whether he understands this or not, he is speaking the language of radical libertarianism.]
Dean Ericson writes:
Understanding Ryan’s seemingly mild statement and the principle on which it stands is key to understanding the failure of “conservatism” to stop liberalism. On its surface Ryan’s statement may be taken as a traditional Republican blandishment for liberty and less government intrusion into people’s lives. And there was a place for liberty in the original American scheme. But that place was entirely subsidiary to the larger principle that God ordered our private lives, that Jewish law and Christian teachings augmented by lessons learned from classical Greece and Rome as well as European and English history would inform the conduct of all the citizens which would lead to a well-ordered society where individuals were free to pursue their own happiness while first following the rules of the supra-ordering context. Liberalism threw out all the supra-ordering context and placed the individual pursuit of happiness at the pinnacle as the sole ordering principle of society. And yet it just sounds so all-American: Freedom! The Pursuit of Happiness! What could be wrong with that? A lot, as it is turning out for if you take away the ordering context then freedom and the pursuit of happiness become a perverse and revolting orgy of disorder, sin, and organized evil. Yet those who oppose liberalism have not understood the importance of the supra-ordering context or have been too timid to champion it. So they opted instead for the easier route of championing freedom, liberation, and the pursuit of happiness, which are liberal principles. In the article linked Ryan offers nothing but liberalisms:
But it’s the opportunity society, the American ideal, where you can meet your potential, nothing is stopping you from meeting your destiny.
It sounds quintessentially American, but the problem is that it’s not informed—explicitly informed—by any underlying code to guide it. What if my meeting my potential and meeting my destiny means running a pornography business? “Well, I personally wouldn’t choose to do that, but don’t let that stop you!” would be the only likely response from these so-called conservatives.
When we know what we believe, we know what we need to do, and what we need is leadership. Here is our commitment to you—we’re not going to duck the tough issues, we are going to lead. We’re not going to blame others for our mistakes, we’re going to to take responsibility.
This is pablum. This is mush for babies. This is why “conservatives” keep losing to liberals. What’s needed is a contest between liberal and not-liberal. What’s needed is non-liberal foundations with a place left open for individual freedom. VFR is one of the few places where this truth is recognized and explained, in full and in depth. Our society mostly hasn’t a clue what the larger picture is and why we keep losing to liberals. They think the solution is more, better liberalism! People like Timothy D. and Nik S. and Catherine H.—people who are on our side—need to wrap their minds about this better so they can become more effective opponents of the liberal disease which is consuming our vitals.
” … a well-ordered society where individuals were free to pursue their own happiness while first following the rules of the supra-ordering context.”
Exactly. This is what all the critics of my criticism of Ryan’s statement fail to understand.
But a further point is to be added. That supra-ordering context was encouraged and enforced, not only by culture and custom, but by law. Government does have an indispensable role in defining and setting the conditions for happiness.
Today’s conservatives think that freedom—including the freedom to define one’s own happiness—is all that’s needed. But as Mr. Ericson points out, if individuals are to make good individual choices for happiness, they must first follow the rules of the good. As George Washington put it in his first inaugural address,
[T]he propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.
Thomas Bertonneau writes:
I have been following the discussion of Paul Ryan’s stump speech, the key line in which is this: “But it’s the opportunity society, the American ideal, where you can meet your potential, nothing is stopping you from meeting your destiny.”
I agree with the analysis that you and Dean Ericson have put together. I also have a simpler response to Ryan’s utterance. It’s utterly fatuous, especially in the “nothing is stopping you” clause. The outstanding characteristic of the actually existing reality in which we live our lives is limitation. All sorts of things are stopping every one of us from doing all sorts of things all the time. Bertonneau will never be a professional basketball player and I’m fairly sure that no professional basketball player will ever have articles published in Nineteenth Century Fiction or The Wallace Stevens Review. The phrase, “You can meet your potential,” is equally stupid because “potential” has no non-situational meaning; like “destiny,” it is where the sum of one’s notions and actions take one. A drunk’s potential is to end up on Skid Row; a lazy bum’s potential is to end up in HUD housing with a welfare check. And those things—and everything like them—become society’s destiny.
A reader writes:
I just wanted to add something to your discussion of the Ryan pick. I saw him at a rally here on Wednesday. He is young, vigorous, and energetic and gave a speech to an enthusiastic crowd. The Nevada Lieutenant Governor introduced him and made a joke about looking forward to seeing the vice presidential debate. I agree. Watching Ryan go up against Biden should be high comedy.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 15, 2012 08:57 AM | Send
At the same time, Ryan’s biography tells us a lot about modern conservatism. He was a beltway operative until he won a safe seat in Congress. He was even a speechwriter for Bill Bennett. He knows as little about the United States as most denizens of DC. Worse, he has a passion for economics, something that was on display during his speech. He addressed ONLY economic issues and probably sincerely believes that a balanced Federal budget and a low marginal tax rate will solve most of the nation’s problems.
As with most economists, he is not necessarily a hollow man but he is two dimensional. On social issues he is probably shallow and simplistic and ill-equipped to engage the issues in any meaningful way—like his mentor Jack Kemp.
At the same time, I believe it was a good pick from a political perspective for the following reasons:
- Ryan brings in tea party voters skeptical of Romney.
- Makes the election about the spending of the last four years and the economy—where Obama is weak and Romney is strong.
- Does not energize Obama voters who might dislike a socially conservative candidate.
- Provides Romney with a strong, articulate supporter—it cannot be claimed that the Democrats are the party of the young with Biden as the vice presidential nominee.
The problem of course is that social conservatives will have to fight and organize to influence Romney should he win. Should he lose, we’ll need an entirely new strategy to try to preserve and repair the country.