x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

His two cents

Two things made PJ O'Rourke stand out when was making his name as a foreign reporter in the 1980s. The first was that he was a deeply conservative Republican.

As O’Rourke explains, every one cent coin minted costs the US taxpayer two cents.
As O’Rourke explains, every one cent coin minted costs the US taxpayer two cents.

Two things made PJ O'Rourke stand out when was making his name as a foreign reporter in the 1980s. The first was that he was a deeply conservative Republican. It made for an unusual, dissenting voice in an industry that often feigns objectivity or simply reports from the left. There were plenty of right-wing pontificators who were prepared to argue that if Bob Geldof really wanted to help Africa he should be raising money for a ton of explosives to stick under the thrones of half a dozen corrupt rulers. Yet there were very few who concluded as much having gone there, nosed around the corrupt systems, experienced the suffering first-hand and rendered it all in tragicomic prose.

What really made O'Rourke special, however, was his sense of humour. At his peak, he was a very funny writer indeed - he's still the most-quoted writer in the Oxford Book of Humorous Quotations. He may have analysed foreign affairs from a political standpoint, but he was also prepared to snipe at targets on both sides of the fence. That not only made the humour more effective (comedy rarely works when it preaches), but gave his reporting greater authority.

And that tendency is still there. His latest book, Don't Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards, is not a piece of reportage - it is supposed to be a tract in support of conservative liberalism. But it is often funniest when criticising the right. "Conservative policies on immigration are as stupid as conservative attitudes toward immigrants are gross," O'Rourke writes at one point. "George W Bush, at his most beneficent, said that if illegal immigrants wanted citizenship they would have to do three things: pay taxes, learn English, and work in a meaningful job. Bush didn't meet two out of three of those qualifications."

Such a style is suited to foreign reportage, or rather, reportage makes a suitable clothes-horse for this style. O'Rourke writes with exquisite anger about the Middle East, from where, years ago, he penned some of his finest dispatches: "The aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War still makes me sick… A generation later, people were glad to see us [in Iraq] until they noticed that we'd forgotten to bring along anyone to feed or doctor the survivors of shock and awe…" And he is also quick to mock the absurdities of America's involvement in the Balkans: "Where were we when Clinton was dithering over the massacres in Kosovo and decided, at last, to send Kosovan Serbs a message: Mess with the United States and we'll wait six months then bomb the country next to you."

The problem is that O'Rourke overreaches. That epigrammatic approach works very well when interspersed with telling interviews and front-line observations. When the author is trying - and too often failing - to grapple with political and economic ideas, it ends up masking lackadaisical thinking. The entire chapter on climate change pointedly runs to only half a side ("There's not a goddamn thing you can do about it… there are 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want a Buick… go tell 1.3 billion Chinese they can never have a Buick. Then, assuming the Sierra Club helicopter has rescued you in time, I want you to go tell a billion people in India the same thing"). Amusing enough - but does that mean there's no point discussing, say, diplomatic policy or environmental summits?

This tendency towards oversimplification runs deeper when it comes to presenting the thrust of his thesis, namely, that government in America is too big. On the one hand, O'Rourke marshals his anecdotal evidence effectively. He explains, for example, that it costs the US Government two cents to manufacture a one-cent piece, because of a rising commodities market that drove up zinc prices; "In for a penny, in for $16 million of wasted tax dollars spent to put eight billion pennies into circulation." A campaign has started to stop producing the coins. Yet the zinc suppliers have managed to block it by paying a political consulting firm $180,000 to lobby against new legislation. "It is rather wonderful that for a mere $180,000 you can get government to sit there like a lump… what if Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor… or Napoleonic France's invasion of Russia could have been prevented for $180,000. The miracle of democracy - always letting us get our two cents in." He's strong, too, on the Affordable Health Care for America Act 2009, whose 1,990 pages of legislation weren't read by the legislators who passed it, as opposed to the eight pages of US Constitution used "to run a whole country for 221 years".

Brevity in legislation is one thing; here, O'Rourke's argument could do with a little expansion. We know that governments have always passed legislation for its own sake, but there's plenty of it which is necessary. He might have asked how a distinction between useful and useless can be made. Instead he's already moved on to the effect that runaway law has had on America. The growth of government, O'Rourke believes, lead to increased expectation of positive rights - "gimme rights," such as the right to education. In fact, he says, no such right exists. A selfish view? No, he argues: there's an important difference between individualism and self-interest: "To get rid of our positive rights we have to embrace our duties. The helpless and hapless don't have a right to our assistance, but we have absolutely inescapable… duties to assist them."

There's an obvious question here: what happens if people don't do their bit? The danger, according to O'Rourke, is that their duties "get turned over to the committee brain of politics". He's quite amusing on the problems inherent in committee thinking, but concedes politics will always be involved in the execution of those duties, and the extent to which it does so is "where the fun starts". The problem is that it should also be where his argument starts, rather than where it finishes. Instead, we just get a few vague lines on how society needs to provide "ungovernmental ways of being powerful", by which he means decentralisation of government. Oh, and by making money, of course; and it's on this issue that the problem of sweeping generalisation really grates.

O'Rourke is an unabashed free-marketeer, a disciple of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. To say this is unfashionable after a global financial meltdown is an understatement: "Joe Jerk down the road from me, with the cars up on blocks in his front yard, fell behind in his mortgage payments and the economy of Iceland collapsed. I'm missing a few parts of the puzzle myself." Pressing on undaunted, O'Rourke maintains that the historical failures of collectivisation ("the people who are thus collectivized immediately choose any available alternative, from getting drunk on Indian reservations or getting shot climbing the Berlin wall") leave the free market as the only game in town. Its pronouncements are inescapable; as with a bathroom scale, while we might not like what we see, "we can't pass a law making ourselves weigh ten stone". Here, the folksy style positions the free market as a natural and inevitable form of social organisation, which is more than many economists would say for it.

And from this position, O'Rourke argues that government exacerbated the financial crisis. He might be right when he argues elements of it didn't help - just as the South Sea Bubble was born of machinations to fund Britain's budget deficit, so the 2008 crisis was exacerbated by Alan Greenspan's attempts to manipulate interest rates. But he's far less convincing in claiming that the problem was the fug resulting from centralised control: "We've had the rule of law largely in our hands since 1980. Where was the transparency?" It's fine to make this point, but without developing it the Keynesians are hardly likely to shake in their boots.

This is the story of the whole tract. O'Rourke is out of his comfort zone, covering subjects that don't suit his style. His last armchair book, The CEO of the Sofa, worked - but he was talking about wine, music and his neighbours. The funniest section in Don't Vote is where he's talking about today's political "shouters", such Bill O'Reilly and Michael Moore ("We've all backed away from this shouting guy while vigorously nodding our heads in agreement. Often the shouting guy we were backing away from was our dad..."). Ironically, O'Rourke's lack of sophistication means he ends up only marginally less of a ranter himself.

Alan White's work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Observer, Private Eye and The Oldie.