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Eating Ideology

Eat the Rich by P J O'Rourke Picador, Sydney, 1998

A version of this appeared in The Institute of Public Affairs Review, June 1999, v.51/2, p.32

Patrick Jake O'Rourke is a people person. Time and again he sets out to slaughter the enemy. But then he gets to know them.

In Parliament of Whores O'Rourke put hard questions to US politicians and bureaucrats alike. He gradually discovered that they are human beings, competent ones, indeed, hard-working ones. Instead of satirising them he admired them.

So with O'Rourke's latest collection of extended essays. In Eat the Rich, subtitled 'A Treatise on Economics', his pen remains as sharp -- and as funny -- on everything, except the people he actually met.

Thank goodness O'Rourke apparently doesn't know the Clintons personally or even those barbs would be blunted.

Still, P J O'Rourke has produced a tasty blend of factual material and notable turns of phrase of the kind that have ensured best-seller status for his previous seven books. He has also managed to avoid recycling material, a flaw marring a couple of the earlier ones.

O'Rourke builds his, er, economic analysis around his travels. With three digressions into 'theory', each of the chapters concerns a different place illustrating a different judgement. Thus Wall Street is 'Good Capitalism' while Albania is 'Bad Capitalism'. For Socialism, the 'Good' and the 'Bad' are Sweden and Cuba.

Then there is Russia, its confusing state reflected in the chapter title: 'How (or How Not) to Reform (Maybe) an Economy (if There is One); Tanzania ('How to Make Nothing from Everything'); Hong Kong ('How to Make Everything from Nothing'); and Shanghai ('How to Have the Worst of Both Worlds').

The book is more than snappy titles. The most revealing chapters are the 'Good' ones. Wall Street frightens O'Rourke, by its size and fury, by the apparent (and actual) irrationality of its movements. Yet he finds that the alternatives would be worse: if investment were run by the Government, it would 'buy shares in the Studebaker corporation' instead of Coca-Cola for sound social reasons, notwithstanding the former being out of business.

Good socialism -- Sweden -- works for three reasons. One is that the lazy have been culled from that land over the centuries by its climate. Another is that it wasn't really socialist until the 1960s anyway. At the start of that decade Swedish taxation amounted to 31% of GDP. Worker benefits were generous, but all tied to employment. Thus the workers (and the professionals and everyone else) worked.

No longer. O'Rourke predicts a crash when foreigners decides to stop lending for the nation's ever-increasing public debt. Or perhaps they can tax their way out of it since, '[o]therwise a marvelously honest people, the Swedes have a blind spot about taking certain property that isn't theirs, as long as the loot is fairly divided.'

What makes the capitalism and socialism 'Good' in Wall Street and Sweden is the third reason for Sweden's continued civility: rule of law. What makes them bad in Albania (he supplies a marvellously lucid account of the growth and collapse of the financial pyramids in that country) and Cuba is its absence.

Tanzania (remember, 'Nothing from Everything') and Hong Kong ('Everything from Nothing') give a more pointed separation between socialism and capitalism through O'Rourke's explication of their history. Between its independence in 1961 and 1994, Tanzania received at least $US20 billion in foreign aid, yet remains one of the poorest countries in the world, due in large part to President Nyerere's collectivisation of agriculture. O'Rourke gives Nyerere his due: he is one of the few national leaders ever to admit that he failed.

Hong Kong's success he attributes to one John Cowperthwaite, a British officer sent to Hong Kong in 1945 to take charge of its economy. Cowperthwaite is quoted by O'Rourke: 'I did very little. All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo' the colony's growth. These included prohibiting the collection of economic statistics, for fear that they would be misused.

The economic digressions are just that. And are perhaps the funniest sections. Only one economic graph appears. Its axes are captioned 'Quality of Things That Can't Be Quantified' and 'Quantity of Things That Can't Be Qualified'. The third of his 'Ten Less-Basic Principles of Economics' is that 'You Can't Get Something for Nothing'. The explanation begins 'Everybody remembers this except politicians.' To illustrate the principle of comparative advantage, O'Rourke compares the productivity of John Grisham specialising in 'bashing the laptop keyboard' and Courtney Love devoting herself to 'caterwauling and plinking guitar strings', against them diversifying into both areas of 'artistic' achievement.

One small disappointment with the Australian version of the book is its cover. In the acknowledgments O'Rourke thanks one Daniel Adel for creating '[t]he little rich guy running away from me'. This is notable enough to be mentioned in a January 1999 radio interview between Brian Lamb and O'Rourke. Unfortunately, said 'little rich guy' makes no appearance on the Australian edition.

Economic education in one easy-to-read book? No. But an amusing journey to the conclusion that capitalism is important to a people's well-being, and rule of law even more so.

© 1999 - Stephen Dawson