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Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Public schools are known for many things, but teaching economics is not one of them. Whether this situation is by design or default is equally debatable as well as a debacle. Economics was not taught in my metropolitan high school fifty-five years ago and the situation has not improved. Little wonder that public discussion of economics, if it takes place at all, is trite and inane causing one’s eyes to glaze over. P. J. O’Rourke (otherwise known as PJ) helps remedy this illiteracy in his treatise designed for the layman.

In his best seller “Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics,” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998) PJ addresses a subject fascinating to most people -- wealth. What is wealth and how do we get it? Or, as O’Rourke puts it, “Why do some places prosper and thrive, while others just suck?”

An American political satirist and writer, PJ holds a graduate degree from John Hopkins University. In 1973 he joined the “National Lampoon” as managing editor. Later he became the foreign-affairs desk chief for “Rolling Stone” magazine where he remained until 2001. It was “Rolling Stone” that subsidized his travel resulting in “Eat the Rich.” He is currently the H. L. Mencken Research fellow at the Cato Institute.

PJ remains immensely indebted to several individuals who coached him through his education in economics not the least of which was Luke Froeb of the Owens School of Management at Vanderbilt University. He cites Froeb’s succinct statement on wealth creation. “The chief virtue of a capitalist mode of production is the ability to create wealth. Wealth is created when assets are moved from lower- to higher-valued uses.”

There is no bibliography in his book. However, PJ does list in his acknowledgments ten books indispensable to the neophyte. He also identifies books to avoid.

In his quest to glean answers to questions, PJ embarked on an investigative world tour. He witnessed “good capitalism” on Wall Street, “bad capitalism” in Albania, “good socialism” in Sweden, and “bad socialism” in Cuba. Other contrasting visits included Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

PJ’s wry sense of humor pervades and enlivens what is otherwise known as the “dismal science.” He is irreverent and at times downright off-color. His wit and hilarity, however, earn him the reader’s forgiveness. He holds the dubious distinction as the most quoted living man in “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.” (“Giving power and money to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” “You can’t get rid of poverty by giving people money.”  “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”)

PJ is inevitably drawn toward Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776). Smith argued that a free market was good for everyone. Smith demonstrated that voluntary exchange created wealth and increased prosperity. Smith saw, and PJ reiterates, that a person’s self-concern and well-being is a good thing. As Smith says, “[H]e intends only his own gain and he is in this...led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” This is the thesis of PJ’s book.

PJ claims that the hardest thing to understand about economics is that it doesn’t need to be understood. Economics is simply the measurement of how human nature affects the material world. Furthermore, economics is not a zero-sum game and, therefore, there is no fixed amount of wealth. Wealth is based on productivity and productivity is expandable. My accumulation of wealth does not cause your poverty. Not grasping this principle results in considerable bad economic thinking.

PJ goes on to summarize the alleged “heartlessness” inherent in the free market and the supposed need for “fairness.” Fairness implies that people have a “right” to (fill in the blank). From an economist’s perspective, “rights” to material things involve making finite goods available to infinite wants. That can only happen if the “fair” society generates unprecedented growth (not prone to happen in a controlled economy) or that goods and services are denied to some in favor of redistribution to others as happened with Obamacare. If so, who gets to decide and enforce the “fairness?”

The point is, you can’t fiddle with freedom by allowing a little here and a little there while retaining your favorite restrictions. Likewise, you can’t fiddle with the free market by skipping the costs while reaping the benefits.

PJ concludes with his typically concise insight designed to inspire a chuckle. “The free market is ugly and stupid, like going to the mall; the unfree market is just as ugly and just as stupid, except there’s nothing in the mall and if you don’t go there they shoot you.”

Having inspired me with his light and lively discussion of wealth creation, I will next render an account of his follow-on book, “P. J. O’Rourke on ‘The Wealth of Nations’,” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007). There he shows how Adam Smith’s thoughts on free trade and pursuit of self-interest, once revolutionary, are vital to the welfare of mankind today.

In the meantime, pick up a copy of “Eat the Rich” in a used bookstore or purchase it online. This is a good summer read.


Dennis M. Patrick can be contacted at P. O. Box 337, Stanley, ND 58784 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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