I like Rep. Paul Ryan. It’s not that I agree with all of his positions. From a strategic standpoint, I’m also not sure he was the best choice as Mitt Romneys running mate — Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio would have attracted Hispanic support and helped in Florida, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would have provided grit and humanized the presidential candidate a bit more.
But Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee chairman, brings to the ticket a set of skills sometimes lacking in today’s Republican Party. That is refreshing, and important.
Much of the conservative leadership these days views politics through one of two lenses. The first is the Constitution. The founding document obviously captures important American values and traditions and therefore should direct government action. But the singular focus on it taken by many reduces policymaking to legal analysis. The approach is too abstract for Americans who are innately practical. It is too insensitive to mass opinion and legislative prerogatives — whether exercised in Washington or the states.
Ryan recognizes the Constitution must play a central role in American public life. But he is also an empiricist. He is motivated by theory but tests hypotheses about the impact of his proposals using data and quasi-experimental approaches. He understands policies are instruments to incentivize socially valuable behavior and should not be judged simply on how tightly they conform to the Constitution.
Having spent just about his entire adult life working in Washington, Ryan might be prone to look at politics through the second lens, however.
These days too many young Republican leaders have come up through the party as congressional aides, campaign workers, and party organizers. In other words they are professional politicians. Many have very little understanding of the complexity of American society and the very human cost of policy failure. Instead, they see politics as a game and policy advocacy not as a responsibility of public leadership but a way to climb the next rung on the career ladder.
Ryan is far from self-centered, however. This is a serious person who does not take positions lightly and understands policymakers’ decisions have important consequences beyond an individual’s political career.
Ryan has read. He may have immersed himself in Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand at the expense of Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, and Russell Kirk. That Ryan’s life largely has been restricted to Wisconsin and Washington, moreover, probably means he does not have quite the deep understanding of the world a conservative leader should have. Still, he is just 43 and it would be churlish to focus too intently on matters that are more a function of youth than a lack of curiosity or intellectual limitations.
The point is that Ryan sees politics as a competition of ideas and the policy proposals that are derived from them.
He understands the importance of principles like freedom and individual responsibility, but believes the true test of a policy shaped by these ideas is how it performs in the real world.
To many Americans, conservatism is innate and emotive. It is not. It is intellectual and results-oriented. A person should come to their conservatism over time, through exposure to great minds and ideas and their personal experiences and observations of the world.
Too many American conservatives today think like lawyers, radio talk show hosts, or campaign consultants. They need to think a little more like scientists and philosophers. Government should be run by thoughtful people who understand their public responsibilities. Policy proposals should be guided by fundamental principles, tested intelligently and cautiously, and adopted if they demonstrate social value.
Paul Ryan works like this. Regardless of what happens in November, let’s hope his influence on Republicans and the conservative movement continues for some time to come.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.