By Chuck Leddy
August / September 2007
“The funniest writer in America” talks to Chuck Leddy about some serious issues.
P.J. O’Rourke, one of America’s most popular political satirists, has built his career skewering the absurdities and hypocrisies of political life. Time magazine has called him “the funniest writer in America,” and he’s the bestselling author of a dozen books that blend his laugh-out-loud humor with insightful political analysis.
O’Rourke, an Irish-American who traces his lineage back to County Roscommon, is an equal opportunity quipster, aiming his barbs at everyone along the ideological spectrum.
“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys,” gibes the 59-year-old O’Rourke. Submerged beneath his jovial, cigar-chomping skepticism, one senses in O’Rourke a moralist at work, a man who hopes politics will improve, but who’s seen enough to know better. O’Rourke doesn’t believe politicians can save us, despite their lofty promises. O’Rourke prefers self-reliance or, as he explains it, “A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.”
A study of Adam Smith’s 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations would seem to contain zero comic potential. Smith, a Scotsman, helped invent “the dismal science” of economics over two centuries ago, forwarding theories about the superiority of free market capitalism in his 900-page tome. Yet O’Rourke’s On the Wealth of Nations (Grove Atlantic, $21.95) is both a funny and insightful look at Smith’s revolutionary ideas and how they’ve been interpreted over time. O’Rourke’s book roams lightheartedly from taxation to free trade to Barney (the beloved purple dinosaur) to pajama-clad bloggers. Chuck Leddy spoke with O’Rourke about Adam Smith, and much more, during a stop in San Francisco on his recent book tour.
Chuck Leddy: How has your Irish heritage inﬂuenced your sense of humor?
It’s had a huge inﬂuence. Growing up [in Ohio], the Irish I knew seemed to be divided into the kidders or the hitters. And I had the good luck to come from the kidders.
So all my family relationships were conducted in terms of kidding each other.
I never heard one O’Rourke say to another O’Rourke anything completely in earnest. I guess we Irish have a limited repertoire of the ways we cope with things. There’s laughter; there’s hitting; there’s drinking.
What preconceptions did you have about The Wealth of Nations and what surprised you during your reading of it?
I’ve been writing about politics for a long time, about 35 years now, and I’d had to think about economics as part of that, because a lot of political questions are basically economic questions. I went into reading The Wealth of Nations very much as a fan of free market capitalism, because I’d spent a lot of time overseas in countries that didn’t have free markets. I noticed that countries with free markets were much more prosperous, so free markets seemed better for nations. What surprised me was that Smith underpinned his belief in free markets on the moral grounds of individual liberties and individual equality before the law. I always realized our system worked better, but hadn’t also considered that it worked better on a moral or ethical level.
Was there anything you discovered about Adam Smith that surprised you?
There’s not an awful lot known about him as a person. He was a reticent man, a lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother and his maiden aunt. He didn’t keep a diary, didn’t write letters, or maintain a blog. But he seemed like a very good man, sociable and well liked. He could also be absent-minded. There’s an anecdote about him wandering into his garden on a Sunday morning while he’s thinking through some idea. He was in his bathrobe and slippers, wearing his nightcap. He got so lost in thought that he wandered outside the garden gate and up the road, and he didn’t look up until he heard church bells ringing. He’d walked ﬁfteen miles away, and found himself surrounded by a crowd all dressed up and on their way to church.
How would you apply Smith’s concept of the division of labor to politicians?
Smith was concerned that the division of labor, someone doing the same thing over and over again on a production line, would make people as stupid as a human could possibly be. And we’ve seen this happen with politicians who go around on campaigns saying the same things over and over again, kissing the same babies over and over. But the good news is that this kind of specialization among politicians keeps them out of the “real” economy where they might do serious damage running a company or something like that.
How have Smith’s ideas been received in the developing world?
The truths that Smith was writing about, that free market economies work better than top-down or socialist economies, have been a long time coming into the developing world. We’ve seen it just in the last ten years in China, for example, and now in India. Even in Smith’s own time, free markets didn’t come without pain. There was a Marxist reaction against the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. In many ways, ordinary working people got over the pain quickly, and realized that they were living far better lives than they’d had as farm laborers. But intellectuals, people like Marx, never got over it. Many developing nations became independent in the postwar era of the 1950s and ’60s when left-wing thinking was predominant, and that inﬂuenced their governments in all the wrong ways.
What was Smith’s attitude toward colonialism?
He didn’t like it at all. He was very opposed to the British ﬁghting against American independence. He felt that America should be freely and fully integrated into Great Britain, given full rights. He was also in favor of allowing the Irish to be granted full rights – political rights and religious rights – so that they could be fully integrated into Great Britain. If that had been done in Smith’s era, a great deal of tragedy, such as the Irish Potato Famine, as well as the Irish political trouble that’s come down to us today, might well have been avoided. By the time the British were ﬁnally willing to consider giving the Irish political rights, it was too late and too much justiﬁable anger had been built up.
What might Smith, or you, say to those skeptical of free markets for promoting excessive economic inequality?
Smith is not an apologist for free markets. He’s perfectly aware that they create inequality. But he’s also aware that coercive market structures create lots of inequalities. It’s much better to be poor and under your own control than to be poor at the point of a gun, which was how things were under the old Communist regimes. At least if you’re on your own, you’ve got some chance in life, but when you’re locked up in a gulag you have no chance. Smith understood that for all its problems, a free market system was needed to make all people equal before the law.
What might Smith think of today’s Digital Revolution?
It’s funny; Smith didn’t recognize the coming of the Industrial Revolution in his own time, even though he was a friend of James Watt, the man who invented the steam engine that powered that Revolution. We should be cautious about the predictions we make these days about the Digital Revolution, lest we be equally wrong. Every time some change comes along in society, the pundits all think it’s going to alter human nature. And human nature don’t alter [sic]. The bloggers today face the same problem the 1960s had, when everyone thought they could change the world. The problem with blogging is that there’s no quality control, just as there was no quality control of ideas in the 1960s.
How would you describe the current “state of the Union” from a political satirist’s viewpoint?
I’m trying to cope with the horrors of life through satire. As a satirist today, it’s deﬁnitely a target-rich environment. What’s good for me professionally is bad for the country. As a citizen, and a father, I wish there were far less for me to make fun of out there. But as a writer, I’m glad.
How did you change from a left-leaning 1960s hippie to someone who today champions Adam Smith?
Well, I grew up. I probably would have grown up sooner if it hadn’t been for all the inducements of the 1960s allowing me to remain a child. I grew up in a normal, middle-class American family, but like a lot of people back then, I temporarily went crazy. But the drugs wore off. I had a beer, and snapped out of it. There’s nothing like getting a job to change you. I got a job in 1971 and made $150 a week. When my ﬁrst paycheck came, and they’d taken half my pay in taxes, I thought, jeez, I’ve been ﬁghting for socialism, and we’ve had it all along. But it’s easy for me now to see the temptations of leftist ideologies. Life is difﬁcult, and we want to believe something will make everything alright, whether that something is an idea, a politician, or love. We’re always looking for some easy way out, but by the time you’re my age, you realize there ain’t one. ♦