Lady liberty has found her sense of humour – PJ O’Rourke checks in

Marc Sidwell
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POLITICIANS,” growls PJ O’Rourke, “don’t understand finance at all – even the last little bit. Yet they’re increasingly in charge of it.”

America’s greatest living satirist is back in town and training his anger on the political enterprise. His new book is titled Don’t Vote! It Just Encourages The Bastards. The idea of politicians setting themselves up to manage the financial industry brings out particular scorn. He sees the regulators locking the stable door behind the problems of 2008 with little recognition that it is a different horse that bolts in every crisis.

But in the end what makes him laugh the hardest is the idea of the men in grey suits trying to battle with the City’s finest. “On one side you have the smartest people in the world, ferociously motivated. On the other you have a group of average-to-reasonably smart politicians and regulators. Who’s going to win?” He throws up his hands.

He gives the example too of Bernie Madoff, who, he argues, the SEC missed plenty of opportunities to catch because of the limits of those running it. “Christopher Cox is the smartest guy in Congress. But he’s a lawyer.” Madoff was caught by a mathematician, O’Rourke says, who needed just four minutes to see that the numbers were suspect and just four hours to run the algorithms to show they definitely didn’t add up.

It’s not that O’Rourke thinks that politics cannot achieve anything, though his staunchly libertarian politics are on the side of politics doing far less. Instead, he argues that politics may have reached its limits. “It’s not stupid to think that politics is an effective tool. But its time is coming to an end because the easy problems for free and democratic societies have been solved: slavery, equality before the law; near-universal franchise; the defeat of massive dictatorships. We’re left with the tough stuff.”

It’s an interesting argument, going further than those who see in our current problems only a lack of actuarial care behind politicians’ promises that has left them temporarily overdrawn. O’Rourke suggests that there may a natural limit to what we can ever ask politics to solve on our behalf. Europeans, he adds, are far too fond of politics as the principal tool of problem-solving. “I read the EU Constitution – it has clauses about the specifics of edible meat offal. It’s round the bend.”
On America’s politics, O’Rourke is more equivocal. He is “pretty pleased” with the results of the midterms, with their startling repudiation of Democrat policies, but he wonders how long it will all last. “Have people really come around to the conclusion that government can be too large, or are they just arguing over how government largesse is distributed? It’s too early to say.”

That said, O’Rourke is impressed with the Tea Party, though as a personal friend of John McCain it is probably unsurprising that he shrinks from the idea of one of the Tea Party’s leading lights – Sarah Palin – running against President Obama in 2012: he suggests it would be an act of “random self-destructiveness” by Republicans.

Its deeply-felt opinions make this book, as O’Rourke admits, oddly his most serious yet – even more so than his digested version of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which at least interpreted the sage of Kirkcaldy by such examples as the size of Angelina Jolie’s earning power. This book is “as serious as I get” – though that just means even the most serious sentiments are slashed through with O’Rourke’s trademark wit. “We can’t treat the American government like mom, expecting her to get us off to kindergarten in the morning, fix our meals, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, keep our house clean and our grandparents happy, do the shopping and the gardening, and still somehow make herself interesting to dad. That’s why mom snapped and started drinking and got in that car wreck.”

Indeed, for O’Rourke, the humour and his political views go hand in hand. It’s notable that both he and Dave Barry, two of America’s greatest masters of prose humour, are avowed libertarians. O’Rourke says the two have discussed it. For him, “the libertarianism comes from humour”. Having a strong sense of humour helps keep things in proportion – a certain flair for deflating human arrogance makes it harder to read the communist manifesto with a straight face. “Have you ever read Mein Kampf? It’s like a bad cocktail party where the wine is domestic and warm and you’ve been backed into a corner by a bore with absolutely no sense of humour at all.”

It is thirty-six years since O’Rourke’s first book was published, but he is as good company as ever. The Republican Party Reptile has become America’s equivalent of the great French liberal Frederic Bastiat, a voice of economic conscience, explaining the hard lessons of the free market in words that everyone can understand and enjoy. As the epigraph from Horace in O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores says, “What stops a man who can laugh from speaking the truth?”

Don't Vote! It just encourages the Bastards by P. J. O'Rourke is published by Grove Press (UK) £16.99 hardback

Age: 63

Born: Toledo, Ohio

Lives: New Hampshire,

Family: Married with three children

Education: BA Miami University, Ohio, MA John Hopkins University, Maryland

Books: CEO of the Sofa; Eat the Rich; On The Wealth of Nations; Parliament of Whores

Wisdom: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys”, “Earnestness is stupidity sent to college”