WASHINGTON - To take the measure of this uncommonly interesting public man, begin with two related facts about him. Paul Ryan has at least 67 cousins in his Wisconsin hometown of Janesville, where there are six Ryan households within eight blocks of his home. And in his new book, "The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea," he says something few politicians say, which is why so many are neither trusted nor respected. Ryan says he was wrong.
At a Wisconsin 4-H fair in 2012, Ryan encountered a Democrat who objected to what then was one of Ryan's signature rhetorical tropes - his distinction between "makers" and "takers," the latter being persons who receive more in government spending than they pay in taxes. He had been struck by a report that 60 percent of Americans were already - this was before Obamacare - "net receivers." But his encounter at the fair reminded him that, for a while, he and many people he cared about had been takers, too.
The morning after a night "working the Quarter Pounder grill at McDonald's," Ryan, 16, found his father, who had been troubled by alcohol, dead in bed. Janesville's strong sinews of community sustained Ryan and his mother; so did Social Security survivor benefits. When GM's Janesville assembly plant closed, draining about $220 million of annual payroll from a town of 60,000, many relatives, friends and constituents needed the social safety net - unemployment compensation, job training, etc. "At the fair that day, I realized I'd been careless with my language," he writes. "The phrase gave insult where none was intended." He has changed his language and his mind somewhat but thinks the fundamental things still apply.
"Society," Ryan writes, "functions through institutions that operate in the space between the individual and the state," and "government exists to protect the space where all of these great things occur." Hence government has a "supporting role" as "the enabler of other institutions." Progressive government, however, works, sometimes inadvertently but often deliberately, to subordinate or supplant those institutions. This depletion of social capital is comprehensively injurious to the culture. And "all the tax cuts in the world don't matter much if you don't get the culture right."
Progressivism aims to place individuals in unmediated dependency on a government that can proclaim, as Barack Obama does: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Meaning, people depend on government for what they are and have.
Few of today's progressives are acquainted with their doctrine's intellectual pedigree or its consistent agenda. Progressivism's founders, however, considered it essential that the nation make progress, as they understood this, beyond the Founders' natural rights philosophy, which limits government by saying (in the Declaration of Independence) that it is "instituted" to "secure" these rights.
Hence Woodrow Wilson, a progressive who understood his doctrine's premises, urged Americans to "not repeat the Declaration's preface." Progressivism preaches that rights do not pre-exist government, that they are dispensed and respected by government as it sees fit and to fit its purposes. Those purposes grow unconstrained by the Constitution that progressives construe as a "living" - meaning infinitely elastic - document. Since 1999, when he became its second-youngest member, Ryan has been an intellectual ornament to the House - and a headache for risk-averse Republican Party operatives. They pay lip service to electing conservatives who will make the choices necessary to stabilize the architecture of the entitlement system and unleash the economic growth that must finance the system's promises. But they want to let voters remain oblivious about the choices required by that architecture's rickety condition.
Such Republicans are complicit with Obama, who demonstrated the self-destructive nature of his now-evaporating presidency by his contemptuous, and contemptible, treatment of Ryan on April 13, 2011. After he loftily aspired to teach Washington civility, the White House invited Ryan to sit in the front row at a speech in which Obama gave an implacably hostile and mendacious depiction of Ryan's suggestions for entitlement reforms. Obama thereby repeated his tawdry performance in his 2010 State of the Union, when, with Supreme Court justices in the front row of the House chamber, he castigated them for the Citizens United decision, which he misrepresented.
Both times, Obama's behavior bespoke insecurity of one who, surrounded by sycophants, shuns disputations with people who can reply. Ryan, however, has replied with a book that demonstrates Obama's wisdom in not arguing with a man who has a better mind and better manners.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.