Yesterday I was invited to attend a fundraiser for the CATO Institute with special guest PJ O’Rourke who is on a book tour for his new book, which is a pretty ingenious idea. He basically slogged his way through the entirety of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (a book I’ve tried to read numerous times with no success) and then wrote a kind of digest/rumination.
Because I’m an idiot, I misread the invitation and came late, which meant I missed the free lunch (further proving Milton Friedman’s famous dictum on the matter), but was able to catch O’Rourke’s talk. It was pretty standard libertarian fare. But two things struck me. One, I may be totally biased here, but I think it’s far more mainstream in conservative circles to compare Democrats to evil, odious figures than it is on the center-left.
At one point O’Rourke said, Smith’s lesson was that either you have unfettered free trade of goods and services or you start meddling in trades and you have, and I quote, “North Korea and Nancy Pelosi.” Big laugh. I’m trying to come up with an equivalent statement that would have been said at, say, a Center for American Progress fundraiser. “Either you regulate markets to enforce some moral order or you get Tom Delay and slave ships”? That’s not quite right, but even so, I can’t imagine it getting uttered at a CAP function.
Also, there’s something just maddeningly condescending about the rhetoric of libertarianism and-free market orthodoxy. Time and time again O’Rourke made the point that politicians, specifically, Democrats, “don’t understand” Smith in particular and markets in general. There was never any consideration that perhaps people understand Smith and markets, they just have different value judgments about relative trade-offs of equity and efficiency, or — gasp! — a more sophisticated understandings of the complexity of markets, market failure and political economy than some conservative humorist who sat down and read a really long book.