No one did more to mainstream libertarian ideas about peace, love, and understanding over the past half-century than P.J. O'Rourke, who has died at the age of 74. And like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sid Vicious, P.J. did it his way: by taking a blowtorch to the sacred cows of both the left and right.
"The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn," he warned. "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."
Writing in popular outlets such as National Lampoon, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic, and appearing on NPR's Wait…Wait Don't Tell Me!, O'Rourke distilled the insights of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Hayek with far more oomph.
"Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys," wrote O'Rourke. "When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators."
"Libertarianism isn't political," he insisted. "It's anti-political, really. It wants to take things out of the political arena."
Like his journalistic inspirations Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, O'Rourke was no armchair curmudgeon or Ivory Tower philosopher-king. At his very best—in books like All the Trouble in the World and Holidays in Hell—he engaged the world directly and often at serious personal risk, traveling to war zones and disaster areas in more than 40 countries, including urban and rural hellholes in the United States.
"I have always belonged to the pessimistic wing of the libertarian attitude," he told Reason in 2020. "This is probably because I spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, largely covering wars, insurrections, social upheavals, and disturbances of all sorts….We have a rational side, thank God….But it isn't the only side in our multifaceted—and sometimes pretty ugly—little personalities."
Even as he despaired over a presidential contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump—"I'm appalled by the choice that we've been delivered…I'm worried"—he was never dissuaded from his faith in individuals yearning to be free, whether they live in Chicago or China.
"At the core of libertarianism, as an attitude and as a way of thinking about politics," he said, "is the idea that people are assets."
His elegiac 2014 book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way and It Wasn't My Fault and I'll Never Do it Again, writes his epitaph. Far from being either a screed against his own generation (which is what he expected it to be when he started writing), or a take-no-prisoners attack on millennials, it was instead a funny and thoughtful meditation on how we've arrived at a kinder, gentler country that somehow manages to prize individualism and community, innovation and tradition.
When asked whether the fights between the Greatest Generation, boomers, and millennials had left the country weirder and better off, he told Reason: "I think so. Certainly more tolerant. In fact tolerance I think isn't even a good word anymore because tolerance means, 'Well, I'll put up with you if I have to.' It's more enthusiastic about people's differences of plotting them and embracing them as it were, and that's good.'"
If that's true, it's in no small part due to the contribution O'Rourke offered up, first by making us laugh, then by making us think, and finally by making us want to go out into the world he engaged with such passion.
Photos: Ricky Chung/SCMP/Newscom; Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; SH1/Sam Wilson / WENN/Newscom; SH1/Sam Wilson / WENN/Newscom; Additional O'Rourke images, Associated Press
Watch: "P.J. O'Rourke on Millennials and Baby Boomers." For more P.J. O'Rourke at Reason, go here.