Last month Americans for Prosperity-Kansas hosted a summit in Topeka where 400 citizens gathered to learn more about free markets and Kansas politics. It wasn’t all instruction, however, as political satirist P.J. O’Rourke was on hand to entertain the audience while also providing insights into politics and economics.
O’Rourke is the best-selling author of 12 books and contributor to many magazines. He is H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute.
An Easterner, he told the audience that people on the east coast are skeptical of the Midwest, saying it’s awful flat out there. “That’s so we can see you coming,” he said.
The free market, he said, is the greatest repository of our freedoms. He told the audience that “economic freedom is the freedom that we exercise most often and to the greatest extent.” Freedom of speech is important — if you have anything to say.
The free market is a measurement, he said. It tells us “what people are willing to pay for a given thing at a given moment.” While people may not always like the results the free market produce, it isn’t possible to legislate perfect results.
He said that while we may not understand the causes of the recent economic crisis, we do understand business investment, “something the Obama Administration seems to be doing everything it can to prevent.” Business investment defines humanity and civilization.
While O’Rourke heaped criticism on Democrats, he said that Republicans deserve criticism too. “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”
Bush policies such as No Child Left Behind, immigration reform, and social security reform are examples of failed programs or proposals that didn’t make it into law. “Bush said if illegal immigrants wanted citizenship, they’d have to do three things: pay taxes, learn English, and work at a meaningful job. Bush didn’t meet two out of those three qualifications.”
While the Bush Administration disappointed, he said the Obama Administration has just began to disappoint.
Speaking on the role of politics and government in society, O’Rourke said that we keep blaming political problem on politicians. People believe that only if we had better politicians, the world would be better. He countered: “The problem isn’t politicians. The problem is politics.”
O’Rourke told the audience that all society’s ills can’t be cured through politics. “Politicians lie to us, but it’s not like they’ve got much choice. Think about what the truth would sound like on the campaign stump. Even a little, bitty bit of truth. Imagine the politician who said to the voters ‘No, I can’t fix public education. The problem isn’t funding, or overcrowding, or teachers unions, or lack of computer equipment in the classroom. The problem is your damn kids.‘”
He said that after 40 years making fun of politicians, he realized he hates politics — all politics. We use the word “politics” in ways that reveal our true attitude, he said: “office politics,” “plays politics,” someone is a “real politician” — all these have negative connotations. True conservatism, he said, is a room deodorizer, trying to get the bad smell of politics out of our lives.
While partisan political bickering is often viewed as a block to accomplishment, O’Rourke said “We want them to bicker. The two most frightening words in Washington — and right here in Topeka too — are ‘bipartisan consensus.'”
There is a desire by many to stop worrying about politics, but that’s not possible, as we rely on politics for so much. Politicians of both parties want government to solve all our problems. But O’Rourke mentioned government’s poor record of accomplishment: “Government has trouble figuring out where mail goes, and mail has our address right on the front of it.”
O’Rourke told the audience that corruption is ingrained in politics. “When buying and selling are controlled by voting, the first things that get bought and sold are votes.” Politicians understand this, he added.
On the role of lawyers in politics, he quipped “Letting lawyers write laws is like letting pharmaceutical companies invent diseases.”
On economics, O’Rourke said that “wealth is not a pizza, where if I have too many slices you have to eat the Domino’s box.” Wealth is not a zero-sum gain. In a free market there are no losers when someone gets rich, he added.
The political quest for equality leads to fear and envy of the rich. The Biblical commandment to not covet your neighbor’s things needs to be applied to the nation: “don’t whine about what others have — go get your own.”
In an interview after his talk, I was able to ask a few questions. Since much of his talk to the audience was on economic freedom, I asked why isn’t economic freedom more popular?
He said that psychologically, freedom requires taking responsibility. The zero-sum idea — that when someone makes money, they’re somehow taking it from me — is hard to shake. It’s a relatively new idea in human history, and we have not adjusted, psychologically or politically. Also, he said that children today spend a long time in “socialist dependence” in the family setting. Although children are instinctively in favor of private property, they are brought up in a collectivist settings like families, churches, schools, scout groups, and universities.
So have we as conservatives or libertarians not done a good job explaining wealth creation through voluntary transactions?
He said no, this is not taught well at all. The moral aspect of economics is not taught. Economics doesn’t fit into the typical secondary school curriculum, he said, and so students usually don’t received much instruction. There is an element in the education establishment that either doesn’t understand the moral aspects of the free market, or they disagree.
Responding about a question about the push for tax increases in Kansas, O’Rourke said that government spending advocates assume as a given that the spending needs to be done. He said that an adequate amount is being spent on education, but we’re not getting results.
Since many of the people in the audience are activists, I asked what advice he had to start reducing the amount of government we have.
He noted that the paradox is that political involvement is necessary to diminish the role of politics in people’s lives. Moving political power to the local or state level is one way. This requires people to become more politically active. More people need to be more engaged in the decisions that are now being made in Washington. But it’s easy to slough off problems to Washington, O’Rourke said, and this is one of the reasons why government has grown.
I asked about the state sovereignty and tenth amendment movements: Do we risk replacing a tyrannical federal government with tyrannical state governments? He said the idea of sovereignty may apply to the health care issue, as all states are already involved in this area. But states can be just as oppressive as the federal government, referring to the new Arizona illegal alien law.
On climate change and global warming alarmism, O’Rourke said this is a tool people use to increase political power. There is a desire to increase the scope of political power, and “any excuse will do,” he said. Using an observation made by Milton Friedman, he added that solving problems through increasing political power relies on the “absurd assumption that we can somehow find honest and unselfish men to put in control of dishonest and selfish men.” There is a qualitative division between the type of people who go into politics and everyone else, he added.
I asked about those who work for greater government power at the expense of economic freedom: Have they never been exposed to the ideas of free markets, or have they been exposed to these ideas and don’t believe them, or are they simply venal?
O’Rourke said that — putting the best possible face on it, he said — many politicians regard politics as a “counterweight to what they think of as market failures.”
He said that the small “l” left believes that man is good, but that the systems of power in the world are inherently bad. And for most of history, the systems of power have been bad. If the power structures of the world can be changed, the “goodness of people will shine through.” O’Rourke said that this idea is wrong: People are not not good, but they’re not evil; they have a capacity for both. The free market is a method to move power away from the political elite and aristocracy and toward ordinary people.
This represents two different views of the world and human nature. He said that his point of view requires less interference in people’s lives, making it better — or at least less annoying.
He told of a conversation with Cato Institute’s David Boaz, telling him that he is as over-certain in his libertarianism as anyone on the left is in their beliefs. Boaz replied “Yes, but I’m not prescriptive in my over-certainness.”