Mr Right: P.J. O'Rourke

By Karyn Scherer

American satirist P.J. O'Rourke made his name as one of the original gonzo journalists, writing about sex, drugs and politics for National Lampoon and Rolling Stone. More recently he's become a Republican Party poster boy, preaching the gospel according to Adam Smith to a not-entirely-new generation. In this slightly abbreviated interview, Friday Business deputy editor Karyn Scherer talks to him at his home in New Hampshire on the eve of a visit to New Zealand, organised by an Australian think tank.

FB: First off, I think everybody's keen to hear how your battle with cancer is going.

PJ: Excellent - or at least excellent in any substantive way. I've got to go in tomorrow for my six-month testing which includes not having anything to eat today, and drinking horrible fluids. They've given me a clear liquid diet - I believe Scotch counts as a clear liquid.

FB: Without getting into the gory details, what has the treatment process been like?

PJ: It's unpleasant enough. I had six weeks of radiation therapy and two sessions of chemotherapy. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but when it's over, it's over. It's endurable. They'll never give you a clean bill of health, of course, because doctors have to eat too, but apparently the prognosis is very good.

FB: Good enough to sit in a plane for 24 hours anyway, and come to New Zealand. Have you been to this part of the world before?

PJ: I've only been to New Zealand once, about 1989. It was incredibly beautiful, kind of like the ideal of where I live in New England - all that and then some - but I can't say I was there long enough to get any very clear idea. I've been in Australia a bit. I was up there to cover the America's Cup and in '89 to do a book tour. It's all very recognisable - it's immigrant British society.

FB: You may not be aware that what's interesting about us is that we have a former Wall Street currency trader for a Prime Minister - and he's immensely popular!

PJ: (Laughs). Well I knew New Zealand had a very interesting switch from basically a British Labour Party socialist style, to [Roger Douglas] in the 80s.

FB: Indeed, and it's getting interesting again. Roger Douglas is back in Parliament, as part of the new Government.

PJ: You guys are out of sync with everybody, aren't you?

FB: For you in the States, it can't be a good time to be a libertarian, surely?

PJ: I wouldn't say that. In fact, I'd say now more than ever. I myself have been having a wonderful time. I think I've written more in the past six months about politics and economics than I've written in years - not counting the Adam Smith book (On The Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World) - because all of a sudden the people in power are all wrong, instead of being merely half wrong. I'm not as fascinated as some people are with hypocrisy. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. When somebody's being a hypocrite, at least they know the difference between right and wrong. Now we've got a bunch in who haven't the faintest idea of the difference between right and wrong - and to me, that's much, much more interesting.

FB: That was an interesting mea culpa you did in November, in your piece for the Weekly Standard, where you basically said the Conservatives had only themselves to blame.

PJ: The Republican experiment in government here, having both the Congress and the Senate, was an unmitigated disaster. I think it comes down to the fact that the pressure of politics immediately supplanted whatever principles these people had. I wouldn't say, off the top of my head, that they came in as a wildly principled bunch, but whatever faint traces of principle trailed them into office were soon burned off by the opportunities to amass power. I count myself in many ways more conservative than libertarian, but certainly I have a lot of libertarian principles and one of the problems with libertarian principles is they are just at utter loggerheads with the realities of political power.

FB: What do you make of all these articles questioning whether this is the end of capitalism?

PJ: It's ridiculous. Capitalism is a structure of rules and devices for raising capital. All business is capitalistic. You require capital for any sort of business endeavour. It's like damning the air to say that capitalism has finished. The worst thing - and it often runs in the subhead of the same piece - is that the free market has finished. The free market is simply a measurement. It's a yardstick; a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on a bathroom scale, but you can't pass a law making yourself thin. And I feel there are a lot of politicians out there who think that you can, or want to tell the public that the public can.

FB: You were recently in China. What was your impression of the place?

PJ: Two years ago, I spent quite a long time there. And I was there a year ago too, although that was more Hong Kong. But it's an amazing place. The changes are great. People who say the Chinese economic boom has not come with greater freedoms are only talking about a limited range of freedoms. When people are able to feed themselves, as opposed to unable to feed themselves, that makes them a lot freer. Economic freedoms are a big part of the freedom we use every day. They're easy to mock, but the freedom we use most often, and to the greatest extent, is economic freedom. And so the Chinese all of a sudden have that, and it's extraordinary to see. But it also is an important lesson that economic freedom is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of complete freedom. The Chinese certainly don't have complete freedom. Even before this downturn, the contrast in the developed areas of China and the undeveloped areas of China made you worry for what possible political consequences could come from this. It wouldn't be good.

FB: You're passionate about free trade. What do you think of the way things are going there?

PJ: People will lie about this. Even if they don't always understand the free market is to their advantage, they do understand that free trade is to their advantage, in a macro sense over a long period of time. But nobody seems to understand yet that when you restrict your imports you are restricting the actions of your own people and you are hampering the freedoms of other people around the world to indulge in the harmless exchange of goods. People say free trade causes dislocation. In actual fact, it's the lowering of trade barriers that causes the dislocation. It's not the natural state of things that causes dislocation, so much as it is the changing from the previously unnatural state of things.

FB: Speaking of hypocrisy, though, that's obviously a bone we have to pick with the States.

PJ: Oh, I'm sure. Your lamb is expensive here in order to protect our lambs, of which we don't have that many. I'll tell you, though, if you were a sugar producer you'd be far more angry yet. The poor Philippines - they've got sugar growing all over the place. And the United States, in order to grow these incredibly inefficient and expensive sugar beets, restricts their trade. And then we have our own sugar cane industry in places where it is only marginally productive and economically destructive. Not only that, but we're driving up world grain prices with all this ethanol crap. And this is just sinful, because ethanol causes more pollution in the growing and refining of it than it eliminates in the burning of it. It's more expensive than petroleum.

FB: The tide does seem to be turning against biofuels now, though, doesn't it?

PJ: It does. But there is a biofuel that is reasonably efficient, and it's sugar. We're so busy protecting our sugar industry in the United States, but if we could get cheap sugar from Brazil and the Philippines and so on, we actually could make a biofuel that would economically make sense.

FB: I'm being sarcastic here, but you must have been delighted when Paul Krugman got his Nobel Prize?

PJ: (Laughs). It's funny - I disagree more with Krugman as a commentator than as an economist. The problem is that he is appalled by modern life, and he is silly and bitter and hated Bush. And almost all the objectionable parts of Krugman fall outside economics. He is one of those people - The Population Bomb guy was another famous one (he was actually a butterfly biologist) - who if they stuck to their knitting, the world would be a happier place.

FB: Speaking of which, you've gone from sex and drugs and Rolling Stone, to politics, to Adam Smith. It's an interesting career progression.

PJ: It is. And yet, leaving the drugs aside, it's a natural one because I've always been interested in politics. I started out just making fun of politics, and then I thought 'Well gosh, I'd actually like to know a little bit about this thing that I'm making fun of.' And as I got to know more about politics, I began to realise what a big part economics played in it, and so I couldn't really hope to understand politics if I didn't have some understanding of economics. Then once the economic bug bit me, one thing led to another, you know?

FB: I might be putting my foot in it here, but I'm guessing On the Wealth of Nations hasn't, in fact, hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list?

PJ: Well, actually, we did rather well with it. To our surprise, we did hit number 11. And actually, my timing was a bit off. If I'd had the chance to write it last year instead, with more of a slant of 'How the hell did this happen?', it probably could have done better yet.

FB: Any ideas yet as to what the next book will be?

PJ: Actually, I do. I just came back from a visit with my publisher and in fact some of the stuff I'm going to talk about in New Zealand will be rough drafts of what I'm going to work on next, which is about economic freedom and some of these things I've just been saying, although it is to be hoped I'll make it funnier! It seems like every generation or so, people have to be nudged back to the River Jordan and baptised in free market sensibilities. Certainly, after the Depression and World War Two, Friedrich Hayek tried to do that with The Road to Serfdom, and in the 70s Milton and Rose Friedman with Free to Choose, and such is the degeneracy of the times that now we've got me! So that's going to be my next project. The working title is War on the Poor because it is always the disadvantaged people who end up suffering from these utopian policies the most.

FB: As a father of three, you were threatening to do a book on parenthood at one point. What happened to that?

PJ: Oh yeah, and I am going to do that. The crisis kind of led me to switch plans around. But no, I've been keeping notes for years. My 11-year-old is getting into target-rich territory. She's funny now, and I think she's going to be funnier yet. I will leave off, however, with descriptions of her childhood and the perilous ages of 16 onwards. I figure I'll have to stop it while they'll still cute, but she's got another year or two of cuteness.

If I can take them from babyhood to the last of the tween years that'll be fine.

FB: Going back to economics, does it concern you that you are probably preaching to the converted, in the magazines you write for and the places you speak?

PJ: Yes, there is no doubt about it. It's one of the tragedies of media. I would, I suppose, prefer to have an outlet on the left but they're not very interested. I do think that's one of the biggest problems that conservative political parties and libertarian thinkers have had. There was a time, obviously back in the 70s, when some minds were changed. But it didn't go very far. Reagan was able to reach out to a certain set of people in the United States, but only to a certain set, and thereupon the Republicans simply gave up trying to reach people. And that was criminal in a way. I think by a year hence, or closer to two years, when I actually get into print about something returning to principles of liberty and individualism and individual responsibility and so on, the bloom will be off the rose with the bailouts and stimulus package and government interference, and maybe one will again be able to talk to people a little bit. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whatever their shortcomings, they had an evangelical streak to them and they were quite effective with it, in two very different ways.

FB: You should be blogging, shouldn't you?

PJ: Firstly, I don't know how to work a computer.

FB: How on earth do you file your copy?

PJ: It's quite the other way around. I can't imagine how I would manage with email. It's just such a massive distraction with email, and BlackBerries, and Twitter, and so on. I have somebody input the stuff and off it goes.

FB: It's true, then, that you literally type it up on an old typewriter?

PJ: Absolutely. Otherwise, if I had a computer, I'd play with it. Exactly what was Rwanda's GDP in 1954, and other such distractions. I do enough of that on my own, just with the books that are sitting around. From that, it would soon devolve into playing Battleships with someone, or whatever.

FB: Do you have a cellphone?

PJ: I have a cellphone, but there are only three people on Earth that have the number. It's just for my wife and I, to co-ordinate picking up children and dropping them off.

FB: Aren't you tempted by the idea that with a blog, millions of people might read it?

PJ: No, not at all. The only thing that makes writing worth anything is that people put some time and thought into it, and you just can't do that on a blog. The thing about a typewriter is that nothing makes the composition of prose faster. What I want to do is have time to think about something, and not be constantly distracted and interrupted. If anything destroys the human race, it's not going to be atomic weapons or global warming or anything - it's going to be attention-span deficit disorder. We'll be looking the other way because someone has Twittered us, when the comet crashes into the Earth.

FB: I know the feeling. My 4-year-old borrowed my iPod the other day, and was complaining bitterly because it didn't have a camera. He discovered functions on there that I didn't even know it had.

PJ: Yeah, my 5-year-old has got the whole television thing going. We're out in the country, so we've got satellite. And I can't figure out how to get anything.

FB: Harking back to that Weekly Standard article, you were saying that Conservatives should have been more pragmatic on issues like abortion. But then quite recently you got stuck into the stem cell debate. How do you square those views up?

PJ: I really do think that one has to be more careful about the social prescription thing. The law is always arbitrary and you can't match up law with morality. What set me off about stem cells is I do think embryonic stem cell research is morally very dodgy, but I was just appalled by President Obama's stated reason for his change in policy... After all the events of the 20th century, to say that we have to pick science over morality, which is essentially what he was saying, is just creepy. He wasn't making an honest argument. He paid a moment of lip service to people's objections and then just launched right into this. Because actually Bush's position on stem cell research was far more nuanced, of all things, than Obama's, for all of Obama's famous nuance. Bush said in his statement that 'I don't think this is right. I don't want taxpayer money spent on this. This is too much of a moral grey area to put taxpayer money in, because taxpayer money is not a voluntary contribution'. He didn't ban stem cell research, by any means, but he said taxpayers shouldn't fund it. It was a much more interesting political compromise than Obama's reasoning, and I was shocked by that.

FB: What are your thoughts on the fact that most countries around the world are getting wealthier, yet people are consistently saying that they aren't any happier, and in fact we now have this massive 'happiness' industry.

PJ: Yeah, it is out there, isn't it? Obviously material goods do make us much happier at the point between starvation and a full belly, but probably past a point something else has to come into it. I always figure it's their damn problem. (Laughs). Among the various complaints that we can in good conscience not bother to listen to is: 'I'm too rich. I'm too thin. I'm too pretty.' I'm sorry, you should go over and yell it into a bucket. Don't bother me with it.

FB: Who do you think are the gonzo journalists of today? Is it Jon Stewart? Who do you enjoy?

PJ: I'm not paying that much attention to younger journalists, to tell the truth. Getting over 60 has certain benefits, one of which is you no longer have to pay attention to popular culture. There is that terrible fuzzy period between 40 and 60 when you know you're out of it, but you feel you shouldn't be and you're kind of embarrassed by it. I'm past that. But television cannot replace the printed word. That much is evident.

FB: I'm glad you think it's evident. As a print journalist, I'm no longer so sure.

PJ: I know what you mean. I don't know how things will reconfigure themselves, but it is my hope that sooner or later people will realise how very little thought can be squeezed into a minute of television.

FB: Journalists these days do seem to be a different breed, don't they? There doesn't seem to be a lot of humour around, in print.

PJ: I don't know whether you suffer from the same problem we do here, but I blame it on journalism school. Because journalism was, up until very recently, a trade. It certainly wasn't a calling, and nobody ever went to work on Fleet St, back in the bad old days, for a big American daily, hoping to speak truth to power. You went to work to get free sporting tickets, and you didn't have to get up early in the morning and lift heavy things.

FB: Did you happen to see the Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer interview?

PJ: I don't watch much television. My father-in-law is an avid follower of the stock market and he watches Cramer. I don't know why because he doesn't actually think much of him. My father-in-law is quite deaf, and Cramer is quite loud. I've never understood the purpose of being loud on television, because that's what the volume knob is for. But anyway, when you go by my father-in-law's house at night with the windows rolled up you can still hear Cramer. So I thought Cramer had it coming to him. On the other hand, there is a side of Stewart that is just a smart little scold. He exploded at this friend of mine, Tucker Carlson, once. He came on Tucker's show to promote his own book and bawled out Tucker for not being serious enough. It was bizarre. These people spend too much time being famous or something. People think that because they're good at one thing, they must be good at other stuff, or because they're right about something they know about, they must be right about things they don't know about.

FB: Is it possible to still be funny when you get old, without being too cynical?

PJ: I'm not sure you can be too cynical. I've been a curmudgeon for years. The thing that humour runs up against is not cynicism, it's anger. A good friend of mine, Mike Kelly, who was the editor of The Atlantic and who got killed in Baghdad, used to say the thing that really really ticked him off about President Clinton was that he made him lose his sense of humour. He got so angry at Clinton that he lost his sense of humour. So the danger is not sliding into cynicism, the danger is sliding into anger.

FB: How much time are you going to be spending in New Zealand?

PJ: I'm not sure. I just go where I'm told. I'm not sure who's in charge. Ronald Reagan made a very funny remark once: 'People tell me I'm the most important man in the world, but every morning when I get up, there's a fellow who comes in with a piece of paper telling me what things I have to do during the day. I'm not sure who he is, but he is the most powerful person in the world.' As a happily married man, and father of three, I take orders.

P.J. O'ROURKE ON ...

Human rights

"There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."

Adam Smith

"Smith's logical demonstration of how productivity is increased disproved the lamentable idea (still dearly held by leftists and everyone's little brother) that bettering the condition of one person necessarily worsens the condition of another. Wealth is not a pizza. If I have too many slices, you don't have to eat the Domino's box."

Government

"Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

Liberalism

"At the core of liberalism is the spoiled child - miserable, as all spoiled children are, unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, despotic and useless. Liberalism is a philosophy of snivelling brats."

Celebrity

"If you say a modern celebrity is an adulterer, a pervert and a drug addict, all it means is that you've read his autobiography."

Republicans & Democrats

"The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."

P.J. O'Rourke will be speaking at a dinner in Auckland for the Centre for Independent Studies on April 30. For details and tickets go to www.cis.org.au.

- NZ Herald

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