Paul Ryan: A Prophet of Conservative Economics?

Weren't the Founding Fathers essentially progressives?

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In Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, Gov. Scott Walker offers a glowing, if fundamentally cliched, rationale for fellow Wisconsite and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

In the print issue of the magazine, Ryan is described in a subhead as “the prophet of Republican economics.” The phrase was generated not by Walker, but rather by a Time editor—and it struck me as an apt descriptor of both Ryan and Walker himself. [Vote now: Should Ryan's budget plan become law?]

The term “prophet” is often vulgarized to mean “soothsayer” or “fortune teller.” And while Old Testament prophets certainly made predictions and claimed to possess supernatural vision, its more accurate sense is more akin to “reformer.” The biblical prophets warned the nation of Israel at various points that it had strayed from its covenant with God; that it had succumbed to decadence and immorality and idolatry; that it would be punished if it did not repent and change its ways.

The author-journalist-classicist Garry Wills defined prophets as those, such as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who crusade from the margins of society and lead the front end of a wedge that ultimately forces change upon “a change-resisting creature like the average human.”

Whatever these people were—if you prefer not to use “prophet” in a secular sense—they were not “conservative.”

There’s an obvious and long-acknowledged tension today between Burkean conservatism—the kind that allows and even favors change, but not necessarily at the expense of the continuity and cohesion of society—and the kind of radical, Randian uprooting that we see championed by many on the right. [See editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

When he announced his budget proposal, Ryan said, “This is not a budget; this is a cause.”

He is probably the most forthright defender of a worldview that sees too-generous entitlements and social insurance as an enticement to national passivity and dependency. Decadence, if you will.

America hangs in the balance. It needs “saving” from a “secular-socialist machine.” America is being judged.

Conservatives’ reflex at this line of thinking usually goes something like this: We’re not progressives; we’re not trying to establish Utopia. We’re just trying to restore the values that made this country powerful and prosperous. It’s the self-styled prophets of the left who screwed everything up.

But consider again those Old Testament prophets, and substitute “Constitution” for “covenant.” (Indeed, politically aware Protestant theologians do this all the time.)

Is this view of the founding not in some sense utopian—a peak of human progress?

Haven’t conservatives of the prophetic variety wound up in a sort of intellectual cul-de-sac, where there are only competing versions of progressivism—one that says its work was finished in 1776, and the other that says it's not finished yet? 

  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Does the Constitution need a balanced budget amendment?
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress increase the debt ceiling?
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