on 24 May 2011
P.J. O'Rourke is akin to an American cross between Jeremy Clarkson and Malcom Muggeridge, and as such he is a good recipe for entertainment. His latest book, "Don't Vote!" is mooted as the follow up to "Parliament of Whores", which was a number one New York Times best-seller and regarded -- at least by Amazon reviewers -- as a classic of US political satire. It is a book which is by turns both funny and challenging, particularly to a non-US readership, although the author has been on Andrew Marr's Start the Week radio show and on Night Waves on R3, so presumably he is hoping to sell a few copies on this side of the Atlantic.
Let's start with funny. O'Rourke provides a reliably steady supply of wit. He coins the Bill and Hillary Clinton rules of toleration: `mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself'. He tells us that the `message that the US government sent to the broke banks and beggared financial institutions was: "Don't you ever do this again or we'll give you more money"', which is a nice succinct take on moral hazard. And he reminds us in a distinctively humorous way why as a youth he disagreed with war in Vietnam in the 1960's: `the government was intent on interrupting my fun to send me to some distant place with a noxious climate to shoot people I didn't know, and, what was worse, they'd shoot back'. Indeed, it was probably the lack of a similar impingement on individual liberty which explains why, 7/7 bombers aside, an independent observer might be forgiven for thinking that most UK citizens didn't really care about the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.
O'Rourke also provides some pithy and sage quotes which would not sound out of place on the after-dinner speech circuit: `privilege and opportunity are the names for rights -- opportunity being rights you would like to get and privilege being rights you would like someone else to surrender'; `happiness is hard to attain, harder to maintain, and hardest of all to recognise'; `politics is all taking, no making'; `the reasons for a war may be highly principled. The conduct of a war cannot be'; `inchoate ideas are often more deeply held than any others'. Indeed this last point is probably why O'Rourke equates morality with the doctrines of major world religions throughout "Don't Vote!", as though he were trying to deny the Enlightenment.
On to challenging. O'Rourke tells us about all the serious books he has been reading in his Acknowledgements section: Michael Oakeshott's "Rationalism in politics", a couple of books by Milton Friedman, Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty", and Friedrich von Hayek's "Road to Serfdom". But he then spoils this earnest impression of scholarship by telling us, in a footnote, that he had to have it pointed out to him that Thomas Paine is spelt with an `e'. I was also surprised to see that he had not read any newer political philosophy, given that the aforementioned are all dead.
There are also parts where O'Rourke comes across in a way which will offend the politically correct sensibilities of practically anyone in Western Europe. He shifts into unreconstructed flag waving frequently and without warning, and without letting facts get in the way. In the middle of waxing lyrical about the fact that US healthcare must be fantastic because it is very expensive for instance, he summarily concedes that `there are almost thirty other countries where life expectancy is longer than it is in the US'. Only an American would ask -- and this is a verbatim quote that has not been taken out of context -- `what's the point of other nations?'. At one point he states that `I realised, if my children think homosexuality is acceptable, it could lead them to think something really troubling, that sex is acceptable'. I think he meant `sexuality' not `homosexuality'. I say that because I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he is not trying to come across as a homophobic dinosaur. You would never predict that there would be one country in the Middle-East that this conservative pundit absolutely loves, would you? Comparing nations using the metaphor of an extended family in a folksy American way which probably makes foreign policy easier to understand, O'Rourke asks `why, by the way are we so down on smart, hard working nephew Izzy?'. I'll leave you to find your own answers to that one, but I'll tell you why O'Rourke should not like that one particular country based on his pronouncements elsewhere: because he dislikes US government spending and they get a lot of it.
At points O'Rourke has trouble grappling with some of the grander themes of his book, such as history and economics. Let's take history. To describe the General Strike as offering the `whiff of mob rule' is lazy. The General Strike was remarkably peaceful, and the TUC neither professed to being avowedly syndicalist nor to challenging the sovereignty of parliament. The French revolution(s) had the whiff of mob rule, yes; the General Strike did not. O'Rourke's weakness on British history continues with the assertion that Tony Blair and New Labour's `third way ...killed' the free market. In fact the leading lights of New Labour were about as keen on the markets as Thatcher. This is why the City was regulated with such a light touch (it was and remains less regulated than US financial markets under the SEC) and, for example, the Strategic Rail Authority was established under New Labour to facilitate the final phase of the privatisation of UK railways. Moving outside the UK, O'Rourke states that `the Bolivians' killed Che Guevara. This is true but it is not exactly the whole story. It is generally accepted that the Bolivian army were advised by officers of the CIA's Special Activities Division such as Félix Rodríguez. O'Rourke also sometimes has problems with history's next-door neighbour in the humanities, geography. He offers the questionable analogy that `speaking of Europe, Russia's out on parole, drunk [and] unemployed'. Russia is not in Europe -- ask any Russian. Overlooking this detail would it not be fair to say that Russia was more drunk and unemployed under Yeltsin, who was usually drunk and presided over sovereign default in 1998? Contemporary Russia might be described better and more simply as very nationalist.
O'Rourke does not fare much better on economics. He states that `the free market is a bathroom scale. We may not like what we see when we step on the bathroom scale, but we cannot pass a law making ourselves weigh 165. Liberals and leftists think we can'. O'Rourke means one of two things by this:
a) That you cannot legislate price floors and ceilings, which is incorrect. Yes, price can be legislated, although you are then left with a dead-weight loss, which is an economists' phrase for inefficiency (assuming a price ceiling is below the market equilibrium price or a floor above it). So it is less efficient, but that is different to saying it cannot be done.
b) That a market which does not allow equilibrium pricing is not a free market, which is entirely tautologous. O'Rourke falls into a similar bear trap of circular logic further on in the book when he reminds the reader -- who he assumes has forgotten that a Gaussian distribution is symmetrical around the mean -- that `fifty percent of people are below average intelligence'.
O'Rourke also seems to think that free markets can defy gravity when he states that we can ignore issues of scarcity because, as he puts it, `we know we can make more of everything'. This is akin to making the assertion that it is possible to buy a live dodo as long as you are willing to pay enough. We cannot make more of something when all the required inputs have run out. Like many advocates of unencumbered markets without much of a grounding in economics, O'Rourke wrongly assumes that equilibrium pricing has some kind of magical power to solve all problems of scarcity. To give him his due though, he is sharper on subprime, even if his work here is somewhat derivative. He quotes Adam Smith's observation that `a dwelling-house, as such, contributes nothing to the revenue of its inhabitant'. In more modern parlance: no capital gain on sale should be factored in based on the glib assumption that asset prices will rise ad infinitum, and so a mortgage is best limited to what the borrower can afford to pay back. As O'Rourke points out, this little pearl of wisdom had been forgotten by 2007.
On to the comparatively terra firma of politics. O'Rourke likes negative rights and dislikes positive rights. O'Rourke's real objection to positive rights is not the sensible one that `politicians are careless about promising positive rights and cynical about delivering them', but that `every positive right means the transfer of goods and services from one group of citizens to another'. This strikes the author as unfair, despite the fact that redistributive interventions in the market made by the state are usually legitimised on precisely the grounds of fairness.
He has a couple of attempts at explaining why this is the case. First up is the typically tired I-have-to-pay-twice-for-everything line. I have to pay for healthcare firstly through taxation, and then secondly through choosing to go to a private establishment of my choice for healthcare. Then I have to pay for schooling firstly through taxation, and then secondly through choosing to go to a private establishment of my choice for education. This line of argument works until you get to public goods like parks, or roads, or apparatus of the state such as the army, coast guard, or the police force. It also ignores the option value of a free alternative should O'Rourke become impoverished overnight through, say, divorce. It also ignores economies of scale. It also ignores natural monopolies. After a bit of thought further on in the book O'Rourke gets round to conceding this himself: `it is hard to imagine the advantage of competing networks of private sewer pipes'.
Second is the someone-else-is-benefiting-from-my-labour argument. O'Rourke tells us about his first job: `The pay was $150 a week. I was to be paid every two weeks. I was eagerly looking forward to my check for $300 dollars ...I netted about $160. I'd been struggling for years to achieve socialism in America only to discover we had it already.' Other citizens get at least some goods and services from his labour due to taxation and positive rights. If he disagrees with this he might state that it is unfair that anyone else benefits from his labour given that he has borne the opportunity cost of that labour in terms of time and effort. This is a defensible position to take. O'Rourke might go further and say that he refuses to engage in work where this is the case. But then having declared this, he cannot then work for a private firm that he does not own. This is because profit, not seeing (as Marx would put it) the full value of your labour, and capturing value are different phrases for one and the same thing. Not withstanding the fact that profit is required to incentivise investment, the point remains that in this life you do not enjoy the full value of your labour unless you work for yourself. Past a certain age most people stop complaining about it.
Having passed up on the opportunity to provide a sensible objection to positive rights that he could have obtained by reading Robert Nozick, O'Rourke then attempts to blind side the reader with a reliance on the language of morality that can only be described as nakedly sophistic. O'Rourke argues that `we're too busy running up to our untrustworthy government leaders and thrusting gifts of additional rapacious power upon them so we do not have to take care of Grandma' or, put another way, that `we pay with our freedoms to relieve ourselves of our responsibilities'. Obviously no-one likes someone who abdicates their responsibility and this is morally offensive, in the abstract, to most people. But is not the whole point of liberalism to be able to say: Grandma can do as she likes, unless she is infringing upon my liberty or vice versa, she is not my responsibility? To put it even more straight forwardly, if you are freed of responsibility, does that not increase your freedom? So you've given freedom to increase your freedom; net them out and you are back where you started.
He does have a couple of good points though. O'Rourke states that `I continue to think -- that it is the duty of every politically informed and engaged person to do everything he or she can to prevent politics', and (I think) he thinks this because if small and diffuse amount of power are abused, the result is potentially less damaging than if large and concentrated amounts of power are abused. Diffuse political power inherently produces more stable outcomes, which is a good reason to advocate it, as with O'Rourke's short-control loops for local government analogy. He also unearths the key tension at the heart of liberalism: everyone likes doing what what they want, but they dislike other people doing what they want. `I do not think drugs are bad. I used to be a hippie. I think drugs are fun. Now I'm a conservative. I think fun is bad.' What O'Rourke really means is that other people's fun is bad, which is a hard line to disagree with, particularly at a time when the UK media has been recently dominated by other people's fun in the form of Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, and royal weddings.
The one subject that O'Rourke is consistently good on is foreign policy. His line is simply that the US should keep its fingers out of other countries' pies. Frankly, I'd love to see this philosophy applied by UK governments also, not because I dislike imperialistic adventures per se, but because I cannot see the marginal utility I or other UK taxpayers get in return for the cost borne in increased taxation, reduced domestic spending, or both. O'Rourke is also pithy and to the point on China: `there are 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want a Buick' (he is arguing that global warming is inevitable but I read this slightly differently as `we're stuffed'); and, in a similar vein, `I look around my house and everything except the kids and dogs are made in China'. It therefore follows that only the kids and dog will not get much more expensive as Chinese domestic demand increases and China exports proportionately less of its output.
"Don't Vote!" is entertaining enough to be worth reading, and to be fair to the author a book on politics that is also funny is a tough specification to meet. The weakness of "Don't Vote!", though, is that it aspires to be something more than funny, and this makes it less convincing, if only because satire is best enjoyed without a subtext of half-baked pedagogy.