THERE ARE A NUMBER of things that need to be said about this mental trajectory, before turning to its central concept of self-reliance. The first is that an immersion in Ayn Rand is a distinctly peculiar form of mourning. Selfishness does not follow from grief, and neither does egotism, or contempt for the weak, or a celebration of the harshness of existence. It is just as plausible—according to the religious traditions, it is imperative—for the mourner to return to the world with a vivified sense of the fragility of life, and with compassion, generosity, patience, and a determination to assist, and to find assistance for people who require assistance. Bereavement can lead in many directions: there is “mal tiempo, buena cara” and there is “sink or swim.”
It is understandable, perhaps, that the spectacle of human powerlessness—and there is no more shattering spectacle of it than the death of a loved one—would provoke, especially in a young person, a fantasy of power, but a fantasy of power is all that Randism is. “A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death,” John Galt proclaims in his interminable credo at the end of Atlas Shrugged, a speech that Paul Ryan reads often (as he assured the Atlas Society in 2005) “to make sure that I can check my premises.” But the witness of mortality has been wasted on anybody who comes away from it with such a self-absorbed attitude about life and death. The loss of his parent hardened Ryan, as no doubt it has hardened other orphaned children; but in the aftermath of his loss he did not rely upon other people less, he relied on other people more. Anyway, his hardening is his problem, and must not be allowed to become our problem. I do not mean to deny Ryan his pathos, but it is he who comes to belittle the pathos of others.