In February 2011 Paul Ryan, who had just been named Chairman of the House Budget Committee by new House Speaker John Boehner, held forth at the Conservative Political Action Conference on the philosophical foundations of Republican economics. Not long before, the House had taken a headline-grabbing but legislatively meaningless vote to repeal the dreaded Obamacare (the first of 33 times they’ve done that – apparently their economics curriculum does not cover the law of diminishing returns) and Ryan’s CPAC speech would outline what else needed to be done and why.
First he painted a preposterous caricature of his opponents’ position. Democrats, he said, believe that government should “try to solve every problem.” Right. As in the Affordable Care Act, which his new running mate Mitt Romney once described as “the ultimate conservative idea, which is that people have responsibility for their own care.” As in cap and trade, which the Republicans once embraced as a sensible “market-based” environmental policy. As in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, one-third of which was tax cuts.
“If you believe that government should be doing more to solve every social problem,” Ryan continued (his audience certainly believed no such thing), “you cannot also believe in limited government. Society’s potential problems are unlimited. So a government that would solve problems without limit must necessarily have power without limit to do it…You know how this story ends. Just look across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Ouch. That crack about Europe was not a very charitable thing to say about the man Ryan claims as his intellectual hero, Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist (1899-1992). It was from Hayek that the Republicans borrowed their “Road to Serfdom” mantra, and it was Hayek whom Ryan invoked later in his speech to take another shot at Democratic “collectivism.”
Whether Hayek would endorse Ryan economics is very much open to debate (as a recent New York Times article details). For starters, there’s this nugget from Sylvia Nasar’s The Grand Pursuit: the Story of Economic Genius, 2011 (page 408): Hayek once received an invitation from the University of Chicago to leave the London School of Economics and come to teach in the U.S. He accepted the invitation but stayed here only a short time before returning to Europe. A major source of his dissatisfaction with life in America? We didn’t have government-sponsored pensions or (drum roll…) universal health insurance.
The House will be back in session on September 10, although Paul Ryan may be otherwise occupied. Would anybody be surprised if the agenda includes a 34th vote to repeal Obamacare?