The Ryan budget as a philosophical wedge…and thorn in Obama’s side

by Ryan Streeter on April 12, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Every now and then, clarifying moments in our frenzied public debates reveal how we think about the bigger, or deeper, things in life. Leave it to Paul Ryan to use a budget – not the usual medium of the philosophically inclined – to draw a cultural line in the sand and force people to choose sides.

First, as has been widely reported, when Ryan released the GOP budget, President Obama leveled his “social Darwinism” charge in a fit of sophomoric fatuity. Upon watching him deliver his remarks, I immediately imagined myself in a classroom (say, filled with sophomores) trying to explain the logic of welfare reform, and some student says, “Hey man, that’s like totally social Darwinism, dude.” His classmates snicker, someone high fives him.

The line was only a little more polished being delivered by a suit behind the presidential seal.

This unreflective outrage reminded me of a piece James Taranto did in the fall of 2010. He quotes the New York Times on Harvard’s James Kloppenberg, who explains that Obama is a “philosophical pragmatist”:

It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Taranto proceeds to unravel the notion, which unravels itself for anyone who just reads Obama’s speeches without watching him deliver them, that the man is somehow super-intellectually talented or sophisticated. But let’s suppose Kloppenberg is right and that Obama is a product, even if not a highly reflective one, of this line of thought. It’s actually pretty alarming, unmoored from any noticeable canons of historical thought or practice.

So far, Obama has done little to show that his leftist view of things is moored to much of anything at all, other than what gets regurgitated in the salons of the elite left. His social Darwinism jab was either a very unoriginal application of the pragmatism Kloppenberg ascribes to him, or the product of a guy who doesn’t read material interesting enough to give him a better counter-attack.

His apologists will keep trying to defend him, but there’s no getting around the fact that Obama made himself look small by using reactionary metaphors (I say “metaphors” since he also threw the Trojan horse into the mix, but I’ll let that one lie…). Ryan, on the other hand, emerged from the episode – as his public appearances show – looking like the adult in the room that everyone used to say was Obama’s role.

Second, Ryan has driven the left – this time the Catholic left – a little crazy by saying that his Catholic beliefs informed how he wrote the budget. Ryan said that the Church’s social magisterium requires us to think seriously about subsidiarity and what it means for civil society’s obligation to help the poor escape poverty. He directly challenges the view of a lazy school of social thought on the left that assumes social justice equals larger social welfare programs.

More importantly, as Daniel Henninger writes today:

Paul Ryan insists the debate isn’t over and that its locus is the federal budget, which isn’t just numbers. The budget is the national government’s formal justification for the scale of the demands it makes now and unto eternity on the nation’s citizens.┬áThis is the debate Barack Obama hopes mockery and rhetorical carpet-bombing can kill before the fall campaign.

Back in the good old days informed Berger and Neuhaus’s To Empower People, we had more productive debates about subsidiarity and how it should help us shape welfare reform, education policy, and an overall view of the best ways to help people grow up and get ahead. Ryan has once again pushed us to raise our heads above the fray a bit and think about what all this federal policymaking is supposed to be for.

Ryan has singlehandedly become the biggest thorn in Obama’s side. He reframed the national debate a year ago when he delivered the budget and forced the President and GOP presidential candidates to clarify their views on deficit reduction. Obama was at his worst last year in the wake of Ryan’s budget. And now this year Ryan is pushing the President harder to say what he really believes is the citizen’s relationship to the state, and vice versa.

On the one side we have a coherent worldview, rooted in history and revealed truth, about what constitutes human flourishing and the need for the state to facilitate progress without trying to manage it, and on the other we have a rock-hard statism, informed by punditry more than philosophy, that does not trust lowly private actors to shape a common good themselves.

This is the kind of debate Ryan Republicans should hope to have more openly and loudly between now and November. Hopefully by endorsing Ryan’s budget, Mitt Romney has become a Ryan Republican. We’ll see.