The P.J. O’Rourke Interview

by John Hawkins | October 11, 2010 8:53 am

P.J. O’Rourke is not only knowledgable, he’s one of the best writers the Right has ever produced. Additionally, he’s the single best foreign affairs reporter I’ve ever read. Nobody makes another country come alive like P.J. O’Rourke.

I can also tell you from personal experience that P.J.’s new book Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the [email protected][1] is outstanding. If you won’t take my word for it, then look at the quotes I compiled from his book[2] and make your own judgment.

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of an interview I did with P.J. last Wednesday. Enjoy!

You actually had a short, but interesting chapter in your book explaining why you think our trade balance with China is mostly irrelevant. Could you give people a short, but sweet synopsis of that argument?

Adam Smith was the first to point this out in the Wealth of Nations. The common wisdom at the time, mercantilism was the name it went by, was that the way a nation got rich was by exporting things. In return for the exports they’d get gold. And Smith’s going, I’m paraphrasing broadly here, “You can’t eat gold, you can’t kiss gold, and gold won’t keep you warm at night. Gold is just gold.”

He said the exports, that’s real stuff, and you’re giving it away in favor of gold. He said imports are the good thing. Imports are when you’re getting something you like. You’re getting French wine. You’re getting American tobacco. You’re getting furs from Russia, getting whatever they were getting back in those days. He said exports are the way you pay for those imports. So imports are Christmas morning. Exports are January’s Visa bill.

People getting so upset because everything seems to be made in China — I understand it on the level of the jobs have moved overseas. I think it’s probably an important thing to remember that if the jobs hadn’t moved overseas, they probably would have just gone away. So, it’s not like the Japanese have all of our car making jobs.

Getting back to the point here, we have the example of the Japanese in the 70s and 80s to show us that an export based economy is limited in how successful it can be. There was a moment there that we were just terrified that Japan Incorporated was going to take over the world because they were sending us everything and all we were sending them was little pieces of green paper with pictures of dead presidents on them. Actually, I thought that was a pretty good deal because you can’t drive that dead president, can’t sleep with it, and can’t eat it — and they’re sending us all the stereos, TVs and the cars. Well, they wound up with a huge pile of dead presidents and nothing to spend it on because they didn’t want anything that we had except the occasional tuna we caught so they could eat it for sushi.

So, they started buying America. Remember there was quite a panic about this. They bought Rockefeller Center. They bought Pebble Beach. They bought all sorts of other businesses and resort properties all across America causing a commercial real estate bubble. People have kind of forgotten about this one because we’ve had some bubbles since, but in the 1980s, there was a commercial real estate bubble that burst in the Japanese face.

At the end of the day, we wound up with all the cars, the stereos, the radios, and the TVs that they’d made and we wound up with Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center, that we had foreclosed on, back in our own hands. We even wound up with all their little pictures of dead presidents. And the Japanese stuck their economy where the rising sun never shines.

Here’s a quote from your book, “A hundred years ago when foreign aid was unthought-of except as tribute or a bribe, we were a respected and admired country. After a century of philanthropy everyone hates our guts.” So, should we completely revamp the way we do foreign aid and basically start with the question, “What are we getting for our money?” before we give anyone a dime?

It’s a thought that would occur to me. Now, I’m not talking about straight humanitarian sort of things. It’s like the U.N. I can’t stand the U.N., but there’s no gainsay in the fact that UNESCO has managed to make tremendous progress with vaccinating kids throughout the world. If you have an organization as big as the U.N., it’s bound to do some good somewhere. If you have a foreign aid program as large as our foreign aid, it’s bound to do some good somewhere, too.

But the worst part of foreign aid to me is not the visible foreign aid, not the couple hundred million that we might give to Maui or something, it’s the sort of implicit, under the table, foreign aid that we give to the entirety of Western Europe. We’ve basically said to them, “Gee, you don’t have to defend yourself because we’re going to have the world’s biggest Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. It’s so big that you can spend all your money on your stupid, silly social programs. You can have socialized medicine and let everybody retire at age 28 and do all the rest because you don’t have to spend it to defend the free world, because we’re doing it already.” Now that’s a bad case of foreign aid. I mean Europe’s bigger than we are. The E.U. has more people than we do and it has according to how you measure it, at least as large an economy as we do. So they’re as big and rich as we are, but their defense spending doesn’t come anywhere close to ours.

One of the many, many things you said in your excellent book that I agree with is that there’s only one thing we can be sure of about complex government proposals: That is, they won’t work. So why are there so many people, after a lifetime of experience, who still aren’t getting that?

There’s an Ogden Nash quote, “Too clever is dumb.” There is, among the many failings that humans have, a tendency to outsmart ourselves and to look at a complicated problem and think, “By golly, I can figure this thing out.”

It’s a little bit like city planning. People looked at the cities in the early 20th century, which were actually vigorous economic enterprises and interesting vital places to live with lots of opportunity, and they say, “Gosh, this is messy. It smells like horse poop and by golly, we don’t have enough parks, we need more drinking fountains, more places for pigeons to roost, and so on.” So, they began, you know, this urban renewal trend where they would just rip down areas of the city without any thought about what was going to happen. Of course, that’s how we got that stupid highway that had to be replaced in Boston with the Big Dig. It’s how we got housing projects that are unbelievably scary — three times as scary as a nice old slum used to be because they’re three times as high, you know. You just can’t stack poor people too high. No offense to the poor people, I’ve been poor myself, but, you just can’t stack us too high.

There is this human tendency to think, “Let’s just turn this problem over to the experts.” Friedrich Hayek said the worst possible world would be created by taking the leading expert in every field and giving that leading expert unlimited power within his field of expertise.

You’re much more of a Libertarian than a conservative….

…It kind of depends. I’m much more of a conservative in my private life in a lot of ways. But when it comes to politics, I do believe that the Libertarians have a hold of the idea of individual liberty and individual responsibility in a way that other political philosophers do not.

Well, that cuts right to the heart of the question that I wanted to ask you. Like I said, you’re probably more of a Libertarian, maybe not in your private life, but in your political philosophy, yet you make common cause with conservatives. So what do you think conservatives are missing that Libertarians are picking up on? Alternately, if a conservative said to you, “Why should I be Libertarian and not conservative?” What would you tell him?

Well, I think that the general philosophical divide between Libertarians and conservatives is the conservatives tend to rely on tradition, sort of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And if it’s only a little broke, be careful of the fixing you do lest you make the problem worse. conservatives say we have got 2000 at least, maybe 3000, maybe 5000 years’ civilization and let’s learn some lessons from that. Let’s look to the past, see what works, what doesn’t work, and be very careful about changing what we’ve got now lest we change it for the worse. Essentially it’s a rather pessimistic, but rather commonsensical view.

Libertarians tend to take a more rational view of politics and say, “These are some really basic fundamental rules by which we can live. Let’s stick to the rule book. Let’s apply the powers of reason to things like government spending, government programs, projects, and even foreign policy.”

The problem with conservatives is they tend to get stuck in the mud and sometimes the mud they get stuck in is pretty ugly mud. Let’s take the Civil Rights movement, for instance. It was very hard for a lot of conservatives to move forward during the Civil Rights movement and realize that a hideous injustice had been done to a very large percentage of the American population for a very long time and that needed to be remedied. They had a tendency to say, “Well it’s the way we always did it.” That’s not really sufficient when it comes to Civil Rights.

On the other hand with Libertarians, their problem is excessive reliance on reason. Where Libertarians tend to come to pieces a little bit and quarrel with each other is on foreign policy because with foreign policy, reason doesn’t always apply. We’re not always dealing with reasonable people. Hugo Chavez is not a reasonable person. Kim Jong-Il and his son Fatso — they are just not reasonable people. These people are not in their right minds. Vladimir Putin is a bad guy.

And politics is ultimately not reasonable. There are unreasonable aspects of the politics that Libertarians sometimes have trouble dealing with.

I want to quote something you actually said about blogs first of all. “I think it’s kind of a worthless trend. I don’t care much for blogging because it’s undigested thinking, because it comes straight from the heart of the lizard brain or the mouth without due consideration. Very little that gets blogged is of very much worth.”

Now I found that interesting because I admire your writing, but in my mind what really makes you stand out from other people is not so much what you say, but the way you say it. You’re a uniquely talented and funny guy and there are very few people I find like you in the big publications. Maybe it’s because you’re a little too outside of the cookie cutter mold. So to me, it’s kind of odd to hear you say that because when I look for people who remind me of your style of writing, people who are P.J. O’Rourke like, most of them are in the blogosphere.

Well, for one thing you’ve got to take what I say there with a grain of salt because I don’t look at blogs. I think if I was probably thinking about anybody, I was thinking about Andrew Sullivan[3].

That’s very fair about Andrew…..

Yes, he’s kind of the grandfather of somebody sitting around in their pajamas just talking off the top of their head.

…Especially the “straight from the…mouth without due consideration” part. Go ahead.

Another thing is that I find writing extremely difficult and I put a lot of work into making it sound like I don’t put a lot of work into it, if that makes any sense. Hunter Thompson and I used to have long talks about this. Hunter, of course, produced the kind of writing that sounded like he had jacked himself up on drugs and just like let his mouth fly. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Hunter was a meticulous craftsman. Writing was agony for him. He really considered what he did to be a sort of poetry and he was trying to build rhythms. If you read his best stuff, it does read like poetry in a way, you know.

Yes, it was brilliant. Brilliant stuff.

It is absolutely brilliant, but it was hard. If you sat Hunter down and just had him blog, there would have been a great deal of sort of, kind of mumbling. Because he really had to think about this stuff for a long time, had to work it all out, and frankly, no offense to Hunter’s memory, but some of Hunter’s later work reflected what it was like when Hunter wasn’t taking the time and wasn’t really putting that intense effort into his writing. So, I guess from just from a craft point of view, I’m a little suspicious of blogging. But then, maybe I’m also a little envious because there are people out there who are far more fluid writers. I mean writing being difficult does not necessarily make that writer any better than somebody for whom it wasn’t difficult.

Anthony Trollope would be a good example. Anthony Trollope wrote like 2000 words a day no matter what. Sea sick on a ship in the middle of the ocean? He would go down to his cabin, green in the face, and write 2000 words every single day, no matter what. And to my mind, his writing is a lot better than Henry James’ writing, whereas Henry James would agonize over every sentence and everything was very difficult.

So, in my comment there you may detect a bit of ignorance and a bit of envy. Then also, maybe I’m just blowing smoke out of my boxer shorts.

Last question, P.J. This is a bit of a broad question. But, you’ve been in this business a long time. You’ve seen a lot of shifting political winds out there. So what’s different about what’s going on in politics today than say, how things were in the late 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s?

I don’t think we’re living in wildly different times. People will say to me, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen politics so polarized!” and I’m going, “What are you talking about? Don’t you remember the war in Vietnam? Don’t you remember Nixon? What about the end of the Carter years? What about the early Reagan years? What about 1860? That was polarized. Half the country left.” So, we’re not living in the most polarized times.

We are living in a time of unusual attention to political fundamentals. In this respect, I would compare it to the moral crusade of the 50s and 60s that was the Civil Rights movement. In the Civil Rights movement, we were taking a good hard look at rule of law and equal application of the rule of law to all people. I think this can also be said about some of the more sensible feminist arguments, too. Not the Bella Abzugs, but women were arguing that they had a right to equality before the law. And here we were leaving out a very large minority of Americans who were being totally, totally left out of rule of law. In the second case, a full half of our population was being left out of certain aspects of society, limited in their opportunities, not so much by law but more by social attitude. So these were a very fundamentalist inspection of our founding principles as a country and whether as a political society, were we living up to them? I think we’ve got the same thing going on now.

The issues are somewhat more complex here and probably a little less like morally urgent. But nonetheless, Tea Party people, the 9-12 people, and other sort of people who feel allied to them, at least in attitude, are saying, “Wait a minute. We set up a political system that was supposed to have limited interference in our personal lives, limited interference in our economy, limited interference in local government, and we have very specific well defined roles in all these things. But, we’ve just let this thing get totally out of hand. This has just grown to a point where it’s not so much the things that it does are bad. They’re good, bad, and indifferent. But, there’s just too many of them.” It’s like a kid being allowed to run wild. It’s not that everything they do is bad; it’s just that they’re doing so much of it. They’re just out of control.

We’ve allowed our federal government to get out from under us and we need to reign it back in, give it a little clearer parameters about what its duties and responsibilities are, what we want it to do, and how much it’s allowed to spend to do these things.

We’ve had a number of episodes with this in American history. Obviously the Civil War was one. Jacksonian Democrats were saying. “This is what started out to be a country based upon equality, but it’s become a country dominated by the elite.” The Agrarian Movement of the late nineteenth century, while being harebrained about economics, free coinage of silver and so on…They had their problems, but their point was well taken that there was a whole area of the American economy that had been ignored in favor of the eastern and northern industrialist. They were certainly right that protectionism had been instilled in the American political system, contrary to the spirit at least of the Founding Fathers. So it’s another good thing that’s going on, but it’s not unique.

Excellent! P.J., I appreciate your time.

Well, you’re very welcome.

  1. Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the [email protected]:
  2. quotes I compiled from his book:
  3. Andrew Sullivan:

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