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Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading List: Don't Vote--It Just Encourages the Bastards

O'Rourke, P. J. Don't Vote—It Just Encourages the Bastards. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8021-1960-5.
P. J. O'Rourke is one of the most astute observers of the contemporary scene who isn't, I believe, taken as seriously as he deserves to be simply because his writing is so riotously funny. In the present book, he describes the life-changing experience which caused him to become a conservative (hint: it's the same one which can cause otherwise sane adults to contemplate buying a minivan and discover a new and distasteful definition of the word “change”), and explores the foundations of conservatism in a world increasingly dominated by nanny states, an out-of-touch and increasingly inbred ruling class, and a growing fraction of the electorate dependent upon the state and motivated to elect politicians who will distribute public largesse to them, whatever the consequences for the nation as a whole.

This is, of course, all done with great wit (and quite a bit of profanity, which may be off-putting to the more strait-laced kind of conservative), but there are a number of deep insights you'll never come across in the legacy media. For example, “We live in a democracy, rule by the people. Fifty percent of people are below average intelligence. This explains everything about politics.” The author then moves on to survey the “burning issues of our time” including the financial mess, “climate change” (where he demolishes the policy prescriptions of the warm-mongers in three paragraphs occupying less than a page), health care, terrorism, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and foreign policy, where he brings the wisdom of Kipling to bear on U.S. adventures in the Hindu Kush.

He concludes, in a vein more libertarian than conservative, that politics and politicians are, by their very nature, so fundamentally flawed (Let's give a small number of people a monopoly on the use of force and the ability to coercively take the earnings of others—what could possibly go wrong?) that the only solution is to dramatically reduce the scope of government, getting it out of our lives, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, cars, and all of the other places its slimy tendrils have intruded, and, for those few remaining functions where government has a legitimate reason to exist, that it be on the smallest and most local scale possible. Government is, by its very nature, a monopoly (which explains a large part of why it produces such destructive outcomes), but an ensemble of separate governments (for example, states, municipalities, and school districts in the U.S.) will be constrained by competition from their peers, as evidenced by the demographic shift from high tax to low tax states in the U.S. and the disparate economic performance of highly regulated states and those with a business climate which favours entrepreneurship.

In all, I find O'Rourke more optimistic about the prospects of the U.S. than my own view. The financial situation is simply intractable, and decades of policy implemented by both major political parties have brought the U.S. near the tipping point where a majority of the electorate pays no income tax, and hence has no motivation to support policies which would reduce the rate of growth of government, not to speak of actually shrinking it. The government/academia/media axis has become a self-reinforcing closed loop which believes things very different than the general populace, of which it is increasingly openly contemptuous. It seems to me the most likely outcome is collapse, not reform, with the form of the post-collapse society difficult to envision from a pre-discontinuity perspective. I'll be writing more about possible scenarios and their outcomes in the new year.

This book presents a single argument; it is not a collection of columns. Consequently, it is best read front to back. I would not recommend reading it straight through, however, but rather a chapter a day or every few days. In too large doses, the hilarity of the text may drown out the deeper issues being discussed. In any case, this book will leave you not only entertained but enlightened.

A podcast interview with the author is available in which he concedes that he does, in fact, actually vote.

Posted at December 31, 2010 20:42