Consider his foul three-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, one of many unholy relics of the old Soviet system. The hardships he records I can only hint at, but they involve disgusting and sweaty Russians cramped together, nasty overflowing restrooms, stiflingly hot cars, and (worst of all) a shortage of vodka. The lesson learned can be reprinted in full: The train is "reeking, grubby, airless, and clamorously loud," he writes. "This is central planning. And anybody who advocates central planning--from Gennady Zyuganov to Sidney Blumenthal--should be made to get down on his hands and knees and lick the Irkutsk-to-Vladivostock train." Somehow, I can't quite picture Hayek saying it the same way.
O'Rourke goes from countries that don't work to one that does--er, did--Hong Kong. Why did the former colony work? Because it was essentially unplanned. Its British overlords made Hong Kong successful, if those are the right words, by doing little or nothing.
Such laissez faire "isn't Tanzanian ad-ministrative sloth or Albanian popular anarchy. Quite a bit of government is required to create a system in which the government leaves people alone." "Doing nothing" is a relative term, O'Rourke explains. It really means keeping taxes and regulation to a minimum, maintaining the rule of law, and ensuring the currency is sound.
O'Rourke does us all a great service by providing a little history lesson on Hong Kong and giving appropriate credit to Britain's postwar administrator, John Cowperthwaite, who served there from 1945 until the early '70s. Histories tend to exalt government leaders who do and act and build and generally expand the state, whether it is Teddy Roosevelt or FDR, Mao or Stalin. Cowperthwaite, however, accomplished more good than those grandiose and arrogant dreamers ever could. Naturally, he is virtually unknown.
When he first arrived in Hong Kong to implement the recovery, Cowperthwaite wisely recognized that the island was recovering nicely without him. He thus inflicted as little government as possible on the island, leaving it to prosper of its own accord. That sensible ethic reigned until the communist takeover in 1997.
By the end of his journeys O'Rourke has a pretty good idea why some countries prosper and why others just suck. And it boils down to some simple things: the rule of law, private property, limited government, sound money, personal freedom.
He waxes philosophical on these points, and even a little theological, as in his hilarious reflection on the 10th Commandment and what God thinks about the politics of envy: "If you want a donkey, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don't bitch about what the people across the street have. Go get your own." The message to all wealth redistributors "is clear and concise: Go to hell."
Eat the Rich is a book written for people who might want to know more about economics "but have never gotten further into the subject than figuring out a trifecta at Belmont." Now, if O'Rourke would only write a book about handicapping. I have no illusions that he could help me decipher the Rosetta Stone of the Racing Form or figure a way to hit a daily double, but at least I'd be laughing while losing my shirt.