The Big Idea Guy

How a Novelist, an Economist, a President and a saint helped shape Paul Ryan's views about government

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Martin Schoeller for TIME

Paul Ryan may be America's most famous budget wonk. But he's more than a number cruncher. Ryan's budget math is drawn from the political and economic theories of his many intellectual idols. It's possible that Mitt Romney loves the grand ideas of the conservative movement as much as Ryan does, but he certainly doesn't name-check long-dead authors and economists with the relish of his running mate. "Ryan is more of a movement conservative, more a product of the conservative movement" than Romney, says Edwin Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Ryan wants nothing less than to transform government, slashing its size and reach, overhauling entitlements and generally weaning Americans from reliance on Washington--while preserving his vision of Christian values. Here are some of the people whose big ideas Ryan wants to put into practice.


To hear Ryan tell it, no one has shaped his worldview more than the author of the epic novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. "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," Paul told a group of Rand aficionados in 2005. In 2003 Ryan said he gives copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staff as Christmas presents, and he has called her work "required reading" in his office. Rand was a passionate believer in individual freedom who argued that selfishness is a virtue because society works best when people pursue their truest aspirations: "Accept the fact that achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life," she writes in Atlas Shrugged. Rand saw government as an obstacle to happiness; a modern Randian strain on the right argues that government isn't just inefficient and expensive but is actually immoral, creating a culture of dependency that stunts free will.

Ryan's rhetoric echoes this view. "It is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big or the health care plan doesn't work for this or that policy reason," he said in 2009. "It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack." That dynamic, he added, is "what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on."

As his profile has risen, Ryan has sought to distance himself from Rand--especially after liberal Catholic groups bashed his admiration for a woman who scoffed at religion's "blind belief, belief unsupported by ... the facts of reality." "I reject her philosophy," Ryan told National Review in April. "It's an atheist philosophy."


If not an atheist, how about a saint? "If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me," Ryan said earlier this year, "then give me Thomas Aquinas." The medieval philosopher, who wrote extensively about the existence of God and the morality of human behavior, was canonized in 1323 and was later declared the patron saint of all Catholic institutions of learning.

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