Last week The Daily Caller sat down with P.J. O’Rourke to discuss his new book, “Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards,” his tenure at Rolling Stone magazine, his shift from left to right, and the real threat posed by government (hint: maybe you should sweat the small stuff).
You can read part one of this interview here.
P.J. O’Rourke: I said this at the beginning of the book, but after 40 years of talking about this stuff, it was time for me to figure out what I was talking about.
TheDC: Shit or get off the pot!
P.J.: Shit or get off the pot, yes. Try to put my thinking into some sort of order.
TheDC: Do you think you were successful?
P.J.: Not for me to judge. But it was an interesting exercise. I really had to think through a lot of things that I had approached mostly on a certain gut level. Or I’d thought about parts of them but I hadn’t thought about all of them. I had to sort of get my logic in order.
TheDC: Did you find that be a dispiriting exercise?
P.J.: No! It was fun, but it was difficult. I don’t claim to be the kind of deep thinker that Michael Oakeshott was, but I came away from the experience of trying to formulate my political thought with more sympathy for Oakeshott’s crap prose style. [Laughs]
It’s not easy to do. The ideas at the core of one’s political view beliefs are not easy to explain.
And if you’re going to try to do that and make jokes—
TheDC: –then you need Fuck, Marry, Kill!
P.J.: Exactly! [Laughs] Fuck, Marry, Kill!
TheDC: So, you use that game in the book as a way to organize ideas into freedom, responsibility, and politics, but you don’t say where you first heard about it.
P.J.: I guess I didn’t explain it. I got it from my wife.
TheDC: Had she read about it on the Internet or something?
P.J.: No, no it was a game she and her friends played.
TheDC: No way.
P.J.: Yeah, yeah. Though not as teenage girls, apparently. Some friend of hers worked for a big PR company here in town, and they were out on a boat some time drinking, and some friend of hers said it was a game from her teenage years.
TheDC: That’s the kind of game that will get a man fired in corporate America.
P.J.: Though not a woman.
TheDC: No, because it’s charming when women talk about fucking and killing.
P.J. Exactly! If a man were to pick three women—
TheDC: –one of whom he would kill!—
P.J.: Oh yes. [Laughs] And the other he would…well, yes…have his way with…well, he would go directly to, uh–
TheDC: –to jail!
P.J.: Yes, yes.
TheDC: To prepare for this interview, I re-read most of “Parliament of Whores.” You’re much more sympathetic to government in that book than you are in “Don’t Vote.”
P.J.: I think it’s always easy to be sympathetic to parts of the government in detail; in their concrete manifestations. Because obviously, we don’t have government for no reason.
TheDC: When writing about the phantom acceleration problem that Audi had in the 80s, you come across as sympathetic to the Department of Transportation (DOT), for instance.
P.J.: Yes. I found myself surprised by how much I liked the guys—and they were mostly guys—at the DOT. They were real engineers; real car guys. And they were faced with what to them was an interesting engineering problem, and they were honestly trying to figure that out.
And you can’t go out on a missile cruiser, like I did for “Parliament of Whores,” and come back without saying, “Wow, that is really cool.”
Even the dumber parts of our government are not run by idiots. These are ordinary people like us, doing a job. By and large, they’re trying to do it as well as they can. Or at least as often as people in the private sector try to do as well as they can.
So, I’m fond enough of government in its concrete manifestations. When you stand back and look at it in the abstract, that’s how you see where the damage gets done. Then it’s possible to have a kind of generalized anger about it.
Sometimes you get individuals with really bad ideas who are really good at acting on those bad ideas, like [Democratic Massachusetts Rep.] Barney Frank. But by and large, people in mid-level and lower levels of government are just people trying to do a job as capably as they can, not thinking about the big picture more than the rest of us think about the big picture.
TheDC: So when you get angry, what do you get angry about? If you’re capable of looking at an agency or a department and saying, “These are just people making their bread, they’re not especially malicious or dumb”; how do you make those concessions and still get angry about government?
P.J.: Well, abstract anger is great for rhetorical carrying on. You can go on endlessly about the post office, but it doesn’t mean you’re mad at your mailman.
TheDC: I like my mailman.
P.J.: I like mine too! We have a little post office in New Hampshire, and I have a little p.o. box, and it’s all quite nice.
TheDC: Do you mourn the fact that your mailman may one day be a specific casualty of a very general rage?
P.J. Yes. Because there’s no change, including change for the better, that isn’t disruptive. This is one thing that being in one’s 60s teaches one. It’s one of the things that makes me a conservative. All change is bad.
But sometimes it has to be done.
I don’t begrudge postal employees their salaries, I don’t begrudge them their retirement benefits. The fact that they’re going to end up working for UPS is going to be sad and disruptive.
TheDC: Especially with these suspicious packages!
P.J.: I love it: “Suspicious packages from Yemen.” Like there’s some other kind? [Laughs]
[Assumes arch tone]: “We carefully inspected this package from Yemen.” Well, yeah. [Laughs]
TheDC: And here, every time a tourist forgets his fanny pack in front of the White House they shut down—
P.J.: –the entire city! [Laughs]
TheDC: You talk about various political problems in the book. Do you think the biggest problem is that these people actually want to be in charge?
P.J.: That, of course, is the key problem with politics. Political systems are run by self-selecting politicians. We don’t draft people; it’s not jury duty. Maybe it oughtta be. But that would require like, the kind of radical change in society that I as a conservative am against. [Laughs]
But at any rate, they select themselves to go do this stuff, and then they act like the kind of people who would select themselves to go do this stuff.
I know politicians that I like, but I don’t know any politicians who I could imagine being. I have sympathy for politicians, but I have no empathy. I can’t get inside their heads. Who the fuck would want to do this?
TheDC: I can’t imagine wanting to do it either. I remember when Rep. Eric Massa—the tickler from New York—spilled his guts about how hard it was to be a freshman congressman because they spend all this time chained to a desk, begging people for money.
P.J.: And the older congressmen make them stand on one leg and spell “rhinoceros,” and they have to wear beanies—
TheDC: –propeller beanies!
[So much laughter]
P.J.: What a weird thing to want to be.
TheDC: And yet they want it anyway.
P.J.: Not only do they want it, they really want it.
I remember talking to Andy Ferguson, who is my favorite political writer on the face of the earth, and I remember saying, “You know, there’s something I have to ask you about these people. They spend the day at 35 spaghetti dinners, and then they have to get on the phone and beg people for money. That’s not something any of the rest of us would ever want to do. It’d be gun-to-the-head.” And Andy said, “Don’t you kid yourself. They love it. They love making those calls. They love putting people on the spot.”
[Imitates stereotypical congressman] “Hey Alex, it’s really good to talk to ya. We’re having a little trouble here in the 4th district and we really could use your support. I know you came across with $500 last year, but this year, we could use…”
They like doing that!
TheDC: That’s gross.
P.J.: It’s really gross! But there you have it.
I think standing further away from the political system than in “Parliament of Whores”—which is about what happens, this is arguably about why it happens, or the principles behind it happening—standing further away, I realize that it’s disturbing from a distance.
There’s this feeling—and I talk about it in the book as “committee brain”—that no matter what you do, or how excellent the people are that you put in charge of the political process, it’s still a political process and they’re going to be politicians.
That’s why the basic message of the book is that we really have to restrain the political aspect of our society.
TheDC: Reduce the scope.
P.J.: Yes. Because the reason we don’t want all wages determined by the government, all health care determined by the government, all hiring and firing determined by the government is not because any individual one of those things is so bad (although one could argue that they are), it’s because that means our whole life is in thrall to this lunatic committee system headed up by self-selecting jerks. And that can’t just be good.
We’re better off being unjustly fired now and then, and unjustly hired now and then, getting paid inappropriately now and then…we’re better off facing the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune than putting ourselves in the hands of the system and the people who inevitably run the system.
It’s just a bad idea. It’s like living at home with your mother forever.
TheDC: Libertarians like to play a little game where they ask, “Are we more free now than we were 20 years ago?” There are all these sliding measures, and you can give more weight to some types of freedoms than others, but everyone who plays eventually comes to the same conclusion, which is that we have more access to drugs and abortions and lots of previously marginalized people can do things they once couldn’t, but in return for all that TSA agents get to look at our genitals before we can board an airplane. In other words, we’re becoming innocuously less free, which is something you touch on in “Don’t Vote.”
P.J.: That’s right. We’re comfortably less free. That rec room that mom had redone for us as a little apartment in the basement is quite comfy. It’s got a mini fridge, high-speed cable access…
TheDC: Mom does our laundry…
P.J.: It’s nice.
TheDC: How do you see that tide being turned back? “Don’t Vote” is somewhat prescriptive, but it’s also got a section proposing high-seas piracy as new source of tax revenue. That’s funny, but it also seems like a frustrated response to what’s going on.
P.J.: I think it’s very, very difficult to roll this back. The only thing that will cause us to roll back the continued intrusion of the political system into our personal lives seems to occur during a financial crisis. Basically, that’s the lesson of Margaret Thatcher, it’s probably the lesson of Reagan; it’s definitely the lesson of France and Spain right now.
What happens is that as political systems expand infinitely, they run up against the laws of math. They can’t get enough money to fund all this crap. And in the process of attempting to get enough money to fund all this crap they put the brakes on society, they put the brakes on economic expansion, they put the brakes on prosperity, so you wind up with a situation like Europe, where you’ve got high nominal unemployment, but huge structural unemployment. People aren’t even looking for jobs, or they’re doing bogus job-like things. You get slow growth and bad opportunities for small businesses.
I’ve actually had people say to me, “P.J., quit being a reformist, this thing has actually got to get much worse before it’ll get better.”
TheDC: Are they worried that you’re going to be successful? That Washington is going to pick up “Don’t Vote,” and everything will change?
P.J.: [Laughs] I don’t think they’re really afraid of that. But it sounds like is a right-wing Marxist point of view: “We have to heighten the contradictions before the revolution comes.”
I think the American people have enough common sense, and I see the Tea Party as a manifestation of that common sense, to say, “Wait a minute. We can’t possibly afford all this shit.”
It’s just getting bigger and bigger. Where does it end? The end of this is everyone and everything being controlled politically in every aspect of their lives. And even if you have the people you like in charge of the political system, and at least half the time we don’t—
TheDC: –when the other half of the country does.
P.J.: Right. But even if you have the people you like in charge of the political system, it’s still fucked up.
TheDC: I think progressives would even admit that the people they chose to lead the country haven’t done everything they promised. We’re still at war, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still in place, immigration is on the back burner.
P.J.: But you know what they’re blind to? The little stuff. The ever-expanding network of rules and regulations. You want to ask me, philosophically, what the worst law that’s been passed in the last quarter of a century? It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act.
TheDC: Oh no! You can’t go there! You heard what happened to Rand Paul!
P.J.: I know! They put you in a wheelchair and roll you off the deck of the cruiseship!
TheDC: Well, you’re not running for office. Lay it out for me.
P.J.: The reason I am so opposed to the Americans with Disabilities Act is not because of curb cuts. Once we got the baby, and we’re using a stroller—
TheDC: You liked curb cuts!
P.J. I liked curb cuts! Curb cuts are a great thing! And all the ramps that were built everywhere, skateboarding kids love those ramps.
TheDC: If they’re skateboarding on ADA-mandated handicap ramps, they’re not doing drugs.
P.J.: Exactly. [Laughs] Actually, you’re probably wrong.
TheDC: You’re probably right. Kids these days can multitask. They can bake and skate.
P.J. They’re probably not doing pot.
TheDC: I don’t know, man. Pot’s great.
P.J. Well, I can’t imagine skateboarding on pot. I have trouble working a television control on pot, let alone a skateboard. But nevermind.
Because the law requires that people who have disabilities have equal benefit of all public space, you’ve just passed a law that says that people who are blind are going to get the same benefit out of Avatar 3D as people who aren’t blind. It can’t be done. It simply can’t be done.
They just passed a law making everything fair.
TheDC: Which is impossible.
P.J.: It’s impossible.
TheDC: But you can fuck a lot of people over trying to make it possible.
P.J. Yes you can. Those minor details are the thing. Mayor Bloomberg’s taking the salt out of the food, Michelle Obama’s sticking carrots in our school lunch, and you can’t smoke closer than 30 feet to the door of the building, and everything has to have a ramp, and no organizations can be allowed to not have women, and now no organization can be allowed to not have gays, and so on so forth.
What happens is that your private sphere of things you get to choose gets narrowed down little bit, by little bit. Sometimes in ways that are good for you, and sometimes in way that are fairer and nicer, and you know there’s often a good explanation for these things. The hell of it is in the cumulative effect. You’re living in your parents’ basement. As comfortable as it may be down there, you’re going to run into issues.
[Imitates parent, which he is quite good at] What’s that smell down there?
TheDC: Who’s that woman?
P.J. Who’s that woman!
TheDC: Who’re those women?
P.J.: Exactly! WHO ARE THOSE WOMEN? [laughs]
TheDC: So, I’m guessing you dislike the president’s health care plan for similar reasons?
P.J.: I got a bunch of different reasons for disliking the president’s health care plan.
First and foremost, is the cynical way that the whole argument was framed in terms of insurance. Health care’s not about insurance! Health care’s about getting treatment. Let’s say your house is burning down: Do you call Allstate? No, you call the fire department, then you call Allstate.
Second place, is it’s a cynical ploy to pick an enemy nobody likes.
TheDC: Which are insurance companies.
P.J.: Of course. Nobody likes insurance companies, especially health insurance companies. So you have an enemy to rally around, you have the argument misframed, and you then pass a piece of legislation so complex that it’s absolutely incomprehensible. Nobody understands what’s in that piece of legislation. And nobody read it! The president didn’t read it, no congressmen read it, no senator read it. They’re might have been some poor staffer who read it, but I doubt it.
TheDC: He died before he could tell anybody what he found.
P.J. He keeled right over and his brain exploded!
TheDC: When Michael Herr was covering Vietnam for Esquire, at one point he wrote—and I’m paraphrasing—“We stopped debating whether the war was moral and have moved on to whether it is effective.” Do you feel that we also skipped that part with Obamacare? That we didn’t explore the moral argument of whether the government even has a right to do this?
P.J.: Absolutely. We even skipped the moral argument of whether individual people have a responsibility to provide for their own health care. We’re not allowed to have that discussion.
TheDC: When do you think we reached a point where it became taboo to discuss individual responsibility? Because we seem to have skipped that argument with homeowners, too. We’ve said that it’s not fair that peoples’ homes are worth less than they owe, so maybe they shouldn’t have to pay all that back.
P.J.: This is the explosion of positive rights, as opposed to negative rights; “gimme” rights versus “get outta here” rights. The Bill of Rights are all “get outta here rights.”
TheDC: Stay out of my gun cabinet, out of my bedroom.
P.J. Get off my lawn.
Explosion of positive rights started in 1932 with the election of Roosevelt. There had been noise made in this direction starting with the progressives, and even Republicans, and it was all exacerbated by the vast centralization and expansion of government power during World War II, which may have been necessary.
But even so, by the time you got done, the Greatest Generation, upon whom I blame everything, by the time they got done with the Great Depression and World War II, they emerged in 1945, as did British voters, with this sense of entitlement. This sense that government really should take care of this stuff, like it does in the military.
They emerged thinking that the government really should make sure that everybody has food, everybody has a place to sleep, everybody gets medical care.
You know, people talk about how greedy the baby boomers are, but fuck, man! We were 12! We didn’t do the Great Society stuff.
TheDC: And nobody taught you any better. You poor babies!
P.J.: [Laughs] The inherent purpose of American government is let people seek their own goals and to encourage them to be responsible on the various adventures they have on their way to those goals, good, bad, and otherwise.
We didn’t set this country up with the goal of a fair distribution of income; with a guarantee against any of the tragedies in life, or any of that crap.
The Obama approach, and the Democratic approach, is to treat our nation as if it has a specific goal, or a specific task, and that is not true. We have 300 million-plus individual goals. And what those goals are is nobody’s business, except the person who has the goal.
TheDC: Switching gears a bit. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Rolling Stone as of late? What happened to the magazine that you and Hunter S. Thompson wrote for?
P.J.: Oh, it never really existed. Rolling Stone was always basically a fanboy publication. But in fairness, it had some very good editors over the years, including at times Jann Wenner, when he was paying attention. Jann has very good editorial instincts. But he also hired some very good editors over the years. Notably—and I’m fond of him because he first hired me—Terry McDonell, who nows runs Sports Illustrated.
Rolling Stone always liked to have a sort of something going for it. At first it was artistic credibility. Not only did they hire Hunter Thompson, but they also hired Bill Greider, who I don’t agree with, but who was an awfully serious writer for a publication like Rolling Stone.
And I remember when I first started to do stuff about economics in the 90s, and I say to Jann, “Jann, I’d really like to do some traveling around because I’ve got this idea for a book about why some countries are rich and some countries are poor,” and Jann kinda rolls his eyes and says, “So you mean now I’ve got two economists on staff at a rock and roll magazine?” [Laughs]
So anyway, Rolling Stone always liked to punch above its weight, and punch above the weight of its subject matter. And of course that comes right out of the 60s. I remember someone telling me about Jann going around the office in the 60s at the beginning of the magazine and him going, “The music means more than the music does.” In point of fact, he was wrong.
TheDC: But it sounds good.
P.J.: That it does.
But I was never interested in the magazine itself. When it stopped publishing people who I thought were interesting writers, when it stopped publishing Thompson and even Greider, who was the least interesting to argue with, I quit paying attention to it.
TheDC: Did you see the Barack Obama cover from 2008? It was the first time the magazine had endorsed a candidate on the cover.
P.J.: I don’t think I paid any attention whatsoever.
TheDC: Did you read Wenner’s interview with Obama that came out a few weeks ago?
TheDC: You’re totally not interested in talking about this, are you?
P.J.: Totally not interested.
I was sort of interested when McChrystal got fired, because of the malice of the writer; the obvious and odious malice.
TheDC: Michael Hastings.
P.J.: In the old days, people would have all known his name. But I couldn’t have told you that to save my life.
TheDC: None of us have names anymore. We’re all writing on the Internet.
P.J.: Well, it was a pretty undistinguished piece of writing.
But the thing I didn’t like about it, having spent a lot of time with military guys over the years, is military is pretty strenuous life, and you have limited parameters when you’re on active duty, and so military people bitch a lot. You hang around with military people, you can always pick up bitching. They bitch all the time.
And all he did was pick up the kind of bitching that military people do. And by standards of some of the bitching I’ve heard from military people, this was nothing.
TheDC: What did you think of the charge that McChrystal’s bitching was defiant of civil authority?
P.J.: I just thought it was military bitching. But it was an indictment of his intelligence in the sense that he let this little jerk hang around and that he apparently talked pretty freely in front of him, and his staff talked really freely in front of him.
So, it was an indictment of his wisdom, leaving all other things aside.
TheDC: A very particular kind of wisdom.
P.J.: Yes, the kind of wisdom incidentally that in a place like Afghanistan is pretty good to have. That’s a society where people do a lot of bitching too, and where message is very important.
TheDC: You recently wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard about Afghanistan. A catch-up piece for anybody who woke up in 2010 and did not know we’ve been at war for almost a decade.
P.J.: It was my catch-up piece, because I’d never been there. It’s also the kind of piece where a journalist goes somewhere and comes back a wonderful expert. I wanted to be the kind of journalist who came back and knew, if anything, less when I got back than when I first left.
TheDC: Did the trip change your feelings about the war? I know it’s an engagement that you’ve always been pretty enthusiastic about.
P.J.: No, it didn’t change my feelings. I have a firm but unenthusiastic support for stuff like wars. There are bad guys out there and I wish there was something else we could do besides kill them. And if I get any bright ideas, I’ll call the Pentagon.
TheDC: You should save the bright ideas for the second edition of “Don’t Vote.”
P.J.: Exactly. I mean, sometimes I have been pretty dubious about America’s military actions. I was in Baghdad just after we captured the city, when it was clear we couldn’t get the electricity working, we couldn’t get the water working, we hadn’t brought any food relief or medical aid.
Suddenly you’ve got this completely dysfunctional city of millions of people and we were in charge and we couldn’t provide them with any of the basic things that people ask of a civil system. It’s all well and good to talk about personal responsibility, but it’s not like any one person can go out and fix the municipal water system in a desert.
TheDC: Or make ice.
P.J.: Or invent penicillin. We definitely violated the Colin Powell “You break it, you own it,” rule.
TheDC: There’s a great section in the book where you talk about your move to the right. Which gave me the impression that there are two distinct P.J. O’Rourke’s: The guy who wrote “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink,” and the Dad.
P.J.: [Laughs]. I was a Republican by the time I wrote that. The wing-wang story was not a product of my leftism.
TheDC: Republicans love getting their wing-wang squeezed.
P.J.: Yes. And we have the proof.
TheDC: Do you think if you were coming of age today, you’d be a leftist? Liberal politics seem kind of boring today. In the 60s, you had the possibility of revolution.
P.J.: There was the possibility of getting laid!
TheDC: Oh, c’mon!
P.J.: I’m serious!
TheDC: You don’t think that’s sort of reducitonist?
P.J.: Looking back on it, I think it was sex appeal in the broadest sense of the term. I and my friends were lefties because that was the hip, cool thing to do. I started getting into this in the early 60s when I was in high school. It was the hip time from Camus, right through until it all sort of blew up in our face in the 70s. You can probably go back even further in time. From the 1929 stock market crash to Pol Pot, it was the hip thing to be, to be on the left. It was cooler and it was sexier. Let’s not forget which side Rick from Casablanca ran his guns during the Spanish Civil War.
Then people were out there saying, wait a minute, not so fast. Especially people who were familiar with Stalin’s show trials. Then again, we were the New Left. We didn’t identify with the Soviet Union. That was passé.
It had all the mojo going for it, and I was just a kid, swept up in the tides of fashion, as kids are. Today, I don’t know where the tide of fashion would sweep me. For one thing, they’re not as unitary as they used to be. Kids all kind of moved in lockstep back in those days—everybody did. Now, society is more diffuse and differentiated. Who knows what would have an influence over a light-minded kid like me in modern times.
TheDC: Do you think it’s fair to say that there’s absolutely nothing sexy about the Tea Party movement?
P.J.: Yeah, I think that’s fair. [Laughs].
TheDC: There’s nothing sexy about fiscal conservatism.
P.J.: It’s a middle-aged, responsible populist movement. As a middle-aged person who tries to be responsible, I’m all for it. But I wouldn’t call it sexy.
TheDC: Maybe with beer goggles on. Then again, you wouldn’t call liberalism sexy right now either.
P.J.: I wouldn’t think so. It’s really earnest now.
TheDC: It’s a square movement.
P.J.: Yeah, there’s a strong element of in loco parentis in the Obama administration.
TheDC: We’re all parentless.
P.J.: Everyone’s parents are in nursing homes.