Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, by P.J. O'Rourke, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 246 pages, $24.00
Those whose exposure to economics is limited to collegiate readings of Paul Samuelson's popular textbook would likely second Thomas Carlyle's characterization of the subject as "the Dismal Science." Economics can indeed be dismal when confined to bewildering graphs, stupefying charts, mind-numbing (and often wrong) theories, and classroom discussions led by tenured careerists who may have never worked outside academia.
But economics is really the study of how people live and act day to day. Economics isn't the study of graphs and currency flows and GNP numbers as much as it is the study of human interaction.
Now comes Eat the Rich, a refreshing look at economics by someone who grasps this point and runs with it. The question P. J. O'Rourke, irreverent author of books such as Parliament of Whores and a contributor to Rolling Stone, seeks to answer is simple: "Why do some places prosper, and others just suck?" Not too different from the question Jude Wanniski, in slightly more elegant form, claimed to answer 20 years ago in his classic The Way the World Works. But O'Rourke has one thing over Jude Wanniski: His book is a hell of a lot funnier.
Open Eat the Rich and the one-liners jump out. On page 46, the "heart-surgery-colored" Albanian flag bears "the image of what's either a two-headed eagle or a very angry freak-show chicken." On page 149: "Measuring the current Russian economic situation against the old Soviet economy is like trying to do arithmetic by tasting the numbers." On page 178, discussing whether the stated reasons for the West's giving Tanzania so much foreign aid–to keep it from going communist–were sensible or not: "The ugly truth is that we care about Tanzanians because they have cool animals."
Credit O'Rourke with seeking empirical evidence to answer his grand question. Or at least credit whoever signs off on his expense account. In preparation for Eat The Rich, he traveled the globe, from Wall Street to Tiranë (capital of Albania), from Sweden to its "evil twin," Cuba. He explored locales such as Russia, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
The charming conceit of this text is that its author has no formal economic training, that he is an idiot on the subject. He just traipses about, poking around and seeing what other peoples around the world do to get by each day. Those familiar with O'Rourke's previous writings will know this to be something of a pose. I recall a hilarious piece he wrote nearly a decade ago lambasting America's skewed agricultural price support system. It was among the most concise and on-the-mark treatments the subject has received. O'Rourke knows more than he lets on, even if he did blow off Econ 101.
He notes that governments don't cause affluence, that citizens of totalitarian countries have had lots of government for decades and nothing of anything else. At the same time, making his point that complete absence of government doesn't work either, he remarks that "for a million years mankind had no government at all, and everyone's relatives were naked in trees."
So O'Rourke sees what works (or, more often, what doesn't work) in various countries, and his observations can be fascinating. His study of the "Good Socialism" of Sweden would seem to present one rather large ideological problem: The country works. Detailing the evils of, say, Cuba is not hard. Far from living in a socialist paradise, Castro's serfs are impoverished and the country is broken down. But in Sweden, people are affluent and relatively contented; the country is peaceful. Is this the real socialist paradise?
O'Rourke describes a society whose redistributive mania has been fully endorsed by the mass of citizens. People happily tax themselves to the gills and voluntarily restrict their personal freedoms as a means to achieve equalized prosperity. Which leads O'Rourke to remark, once it dawns on him that the Swedish Stepford streets contain no loons or nuts, "The last time I walked through Gamla Stan, I didn't wonder where the crazy people were. In Sweden the craziness is redistributed fairly. They're all a little crazy."
Those who advocate Swedish-style socialism are in fact a little bit crazy, at least in thinking it could have any sort of universal application. It can't. Swedes may be willing to shell out most of their income in taxes, but most people aren't. And even those high taxes don't cover the lavish benefits of Sweden's fabled "middle way." And while one country can get away with that, at least for a while, you don't need Kant to tell you that such a system can't work everywhere.
This may sound a bit serious or stuffy. But O'Rourke's charm is that he's not one of the self-serious types found haunting the low-rent neighborhood of cable television networks sponsored by NBC, pompously holding forth on the affairs of the day. None of which means this isn't a serious book. It is. Very much so. It just happens to be slap-ass funny, too. That kind of combination hasn't really occurred since, well, since O'Rourke's last book, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut.
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 administrative 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.
Max Schulz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct scholar with the Frontiers of Freedom Institute.