“Two-Point-Eight-Trillion-Anything Is Scary”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 2006 Annual Dinner and Reception paid homage to Hollywood. The evening, themed “A Night at the Movies,” featured P.J. O’Rourke, one of the nation’s foremost political satirists, as Keynote Speaker. Also appearing that night were ABC News Correspondent John Stossel, who was presented the 2006 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award; National Review Editor Rich Lowry, who acted as master of ceremonies; and Bloomberg columnist Amity Shlaes, who delivered the Warren T. Brookes Testimony. In addition, CEI experts acted as the cast for a series of famous movie scene parody shorts. P.J. O’Rourke’s dinner remarks are excerpted in this issue of CEI Planet:

I’d like to say thank you to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Thanks for all the effective actions and the courageous stands that you’ve taken in the fight to protect freedom. Thanks to all of you who have supported CEI with your effort, time, and money. And I’d like to say a special thank you to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

It is the Clinton administrations—past and future—that provide the Competitive Enterprise Institute with a moral lodestone—because every compass needle needs a butt end. And whatever direction the Clintons are pointing—toward regulatory interference, health care reform, Kyoto treaty, or inappropriate personal relationships (such as Hillary and Rupert Murdoch)—we can go in the opposite direction with a clear conscience.

Many people think CEI was founded on the principles of classical liberalism. But Fred Smith started CEI in 1984, about the same time the Clintons were putting their political careers into high gear.  And I like to think that CEI is really founded on the Clinton Principles:

As Bill tells Hillary: “Mind your own business.”

As Hillary tells Bill: “Keep your hands to yourself.”

CEI has attempted to impose a sort of “etiquette of freedom” and “chivalry of common sense” upon government.  CEI debunked the genetically altered food scare.  There’s only one thing that’s scary about food—not having enough of it, as the hungry half of the world can tell you.

CEI convinced the Bush Administration not to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant.  We could all breath a bit easier after that.

CEI has fought the good fight. CEI fought the Safety Nazis at the Department of Transportation. If mandatory airbags increase safety in cars, how come those mandatory airbags, the Kennedys, are such dangerous drivers? CEI fought to stop the ban on pressure-treated wood—my children would thank CEI, but they’ve been knocked speechless by a rotten swing set.

But the thing for which I’d like to thank CEI most is its optimism.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been a lonely voice in the wilderness of worry, reminding us that our highly populous, highly capitalist, high-tech, and high-energy-use modern world is, in fact, a good world.

As a result of market freedoms, market innovations, and the classical liberalism that the market enforces, this is an optimistic moment in human history.

Yes, we have problems. Some people are using terror to achieve their goals, and we don’t seem to be able to stop them—after all this time, Ralph Nader is still on the loose.

There are powerful countries that remain single-party states, with their entire government apparatus controlled by a small political elite—but the Republicans are going to lose the House this fall.

And sea levels are rising, threatening to inundate New York and Los Angeles—although rising sea levels does have a downside.

But right now, the ordinary people of the world have greater liberty and more material benefits then they’ve ever had at any time since the beginning of civilization.

We know life is better from stories we’ve heard in our own homes. Existence has improved enormously within the lifetimes of our immediate family members. My Grandfather O’Rourke was born in 1877, and born into a pretty awful world. The average wage was a dollar a day—that’s if you worked; O’Rourkes were not known to do so.

The typical old-fashioned diet was almost as bad as being a modern vegan.

Pollution was unchecked and mostly unthought-of. Sewage was considered treated if dumped in a river. Personal hygiene was practiced, when at all, on the face, neck, and hands up to the wrists. One thing everybody forgets about old times is how the old-timers smelled.

Nowadays we can hardly count our blessings. One of which is that we don’t have to do any counting, computers do it for us. In our world, information is easily had, education is readily obtainable. Opportunity knocks, it jiggles the doorknob, it will try the window if we don’t have the alarm system on.

This is an optimistic moment in human history. But you could spend a long time listening to America’s politicians and not hear this mentioned.

And by politicians I don’t’ mean just people who were elected or appointed. I mean people who sit on the New York Times editorial board and people who sit in the hot tubs of Hollywood, blowing bubbles about the environment and the state of world affairs.

“Somebody’s SUV poked a hole in my ozone.”

“Suburban sprawl is paving the rain forest.”

“Bill Gates is buying the weather.  You won’t be able to get sunshine on weekends unless you have a Microsoft XP operating system.”

“Prescription medicines may harm children. We’d better do test on kids and see if we can get some to die.”

What’s with all this panic and alarm?  Why are America’s politicians whining? They whine because it works. When your were a kid, and your read the Chicken Little story, did you ever wonder if Chicken Little had an agenda?

Is Chicken Little going around telling all the other chickens that the sky is falling out of the goodness of his heart? Or is there something Chicken Little wants? And once Chicken Little has the other chickens convinced that the sky is falling, will there be a Federal Department of Falling Sky? And will Chicken Little be appointed Secretary of Things That Hit You On the Head? A cabinet post is an excellent springboard to higher office.

I’m suspicious of anybody who does a lot of loud, public fretting. Hoodwinking your fellow citizens by means of dreads and frights has been going on since Paleolithic times. Politicians on the subject of global warming are no different than tribal wizards on the subject of lunar eclipses.

And by loudly denouncing all bad things—war, poverty, famine, and cigarette advertising aimed at teens—the Chicken Littles are also playing the moral bully. They’re saying:

“Oh, I know you care about the hazards of radioactivity. But you only care as much as you have to.  I care all the time. I care so much I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It wrecked my marriage. I care so much more than you do, I’m a better person than you are. And since I’m a better person than you are, I’m in charge!”

That is politics in a nutshell. Because how else are the politicians going to stay politically powerful? Or get politically powerful? Or, for that matter, get a job?

Who’d hire a politician? I know, people hire politicians all the time. But name me a politician you’d hire for his or her abilities rather than connections. Name me a politician you’d hire even to mow your lawn.

George Bush would make Dick Cheney do it, and Dick’d have a heart attack in your front yard. Donald Rumsfeld would invade your lawn, and have 100,000 soldiers trying to cut it with one pair of nail clippers. Howard Dean would be screaming at the grass to shorten up. Hillary Clinton would marry the Toro dealer. You wouldn’t hire politicians. And you certainly wouldn’t buy them. Look where it got Jack Abramoff.

This is the key difference between politics and free enterprise. If politics were a product, it would have no customers. And yet, somehow, we end up spending a quarter of our gross domestic product on political goods and services that wouldn’t get a single bid if they were for sale on E-bay.

Personally, I prefer business to politics, so I live in business-friendly New Hampshire. But my wife and I spend part of each year in Washington, D.C. And we do this on purpose. We don’t want the kids growing up thinking the world is sane.

We were here for spring break. The kids wanted to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. I took them to see the dinosaurs in Congress.

And I wanted the kids to experience bird flu panic first-hand. We don’t worry much about bird flu in New Hampshire—I‘ve got a bird dog, I’ve got a gun—but down here in Washington the kids can watch all the media and politicians get frantic about bird flu. Bird flu could mutate into human flu at any minute. If that happens, bird flu will kill…What’s NPR’s estimate?

Everybody—poor and minorities hardest hit. And our government does not have a vaccine against this disease, because there is no such disease—a typical uncaring Bush Administration response.

Chicken Little says, “We’ve got big problems, we need a big government to solve them.” I say, “We’ve got big problems, and government is the biggest.”

I’m scared of big government just because it’s big. The government is going to spend $2.8 trillion next year.  Two-point-eight-trillion anything is scary. How about coming home to find out that your cat had 2.8 trillion warm, fuzzy kittens?

But for politicians, the worse the mess, the better. And Hurricane Katrina was a blessing—a consecrated opportunity to make advocates of small government look small, to enlarge political largess with a public dole of private goods, and to expand the scope of politics to include everything.

By now you may have forgotten poor, old Hurricane Rita that hit next. Hurricane Rita, with its sensible actions by local officials, its orderly evacuations, its lack of looting and minimal loss of life, was not a blessing. My heart went out to Chicken Little as Rita failed to destroy Galveston, flood Houston, or wipe Crawford, Texas, off the map.

How can the politicians make sure America never experiences another Rita? They need to go straight to the top. Disasters are exacerbated by moving the responsibility for things up, up and away—as far from the things themselves as possible.

Where classical liberals see molehills of individual responsibility, politics can make mountains of government accountability. Look what the Soviet Union’s Himalaya of a government was able to do with atomic power at Chernobyl.

The lowly concept of private property has to be ignored. What if the New Orleans levees had been owned by the people whose property they protected? Or what if just New Orleans taxpayers, instead of all of us taxpayers, had had to pay for those levees? There would have been no problem evacuating people from New Orleans. They would have been gone already.

And making flood insurance a federal program was a stroke of genius. That way homeowners didn’t apply for it. Because you get federal government services whether you want federal government services or not—Internal Revenue Service, for instance.

If I were Chicken Little what I’d try to do was build my support base in places that are most prone to natural disasters, especially places where the populace is completely incapable of taking care of itself. The location of Hollywood on a major earthquake fault is this kind of planning at its best. Another possibility would be to move Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Al Franken, Michael Moore, and Hillary Clinton into house trailers in Kansas during tornado season.