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P.J. O’Rourke on Trump, Populism, and “How the Hell Did This Happen?” [Reason Podcast]

Thursday, March 9, 2017 15:57
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“I consider myself primarily to be a libertarian,” says P.J. O’Rourke, the author of the new book How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016. “I am personally conservative [but] I always think of libertarianism as basically being an analytical tool, not an ideology per se…. When you look at something that happens, especially in politics, you look at something that happens, you say, ‘Does this increase the dignity of the individual? Does this increase the liberty of the individual? Does this increase the responsibility of the individual?’ If it meets those three criteria, then it’s probably an acceptable libertarian political policy, or lack thereof, because we like to subtract some things from politics too.”

In the latest Reason Podcast, O’Rourke tells Nick Gillespie what he learned about Donald Trump’s appeal from his time spent covering the 2016 election, why populism is a “tragedy” for libertarians, and why he wants his kids to study English and the liberal arts at college. “Be immersed in the history of civilization, you know, in literature, in the arts,” he says. “You’re going to be force-marched through these things. Some of it’s going to be boring. Some of it you won’t appreciate for another 40 years, but it’s that college liberal arts education, is the last chance you really get to [immerse yourself in art, music, and culture].”

Produced by Mark McDaniel.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: Hi. I’m Nick Gillespie, and this is The Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you’re there. Today I’m pleased to introduce one of the two greatest libertarians in this conversation, the bestselling author O’Rourke, whose latest book, How the Hell Did This Happen?, Chronicles the most insane year ever in American politics. P.J., thanks for talking to us.

P.J. O’Rourke: Oh, you’re very welcome.

Gillespie: I rush to add that I’m actually calling you from a place that you used to call home back in the day, Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University, your alma mater.

O’Rourke: Yes. All right.

Gillespie: What do you remember most about Miami University?

O’Rourke: It’s all the stuff that I can’t remember that really…

Gillespie: That makes you think of it fondly, right?

O’Rourke: Yes. Yeah. There are some very pleasant, blurry patches back there, but it is …

Gillespie: What did you major in at …?

O’Rourke: English. English. I was looking through the course syllabus when we didn’t … In those days, you didn’t have to decide till like the end of your sophomore year or something, what your major was. I’m looking through the course syllabus and I came across English, and I went, “I speak that. How hard can it be?”

Gillespie: Do you have kids? College-age kids? Post-college-age kids?

O’Rourke: I’ve got a college-age kid. Two that are younger.

Gillespie: Will you insist that they go to college and learn how to become an engineer or something useful, or do you actually find something meaningful in looking at the humanities or the social sciences or something like that?

O’Rourke: No. That’s what I insist on them … I mean, even my eldest daughter is somewhat business-minded. Now I’m trying to keep her out of business school. I said, “You know, honey, there’s time for that if you want to get your MBA later. It really doesn’t matter what your prior … What your undergraduate.” I said, “This is the chance to really immerse yourself. Well, be immersed in the history of civilization, you know, in literature, in the arts. You’re going to be force marched through these things. Some of it’s going to be boring. Some of it you won’t appreciate for another 40 years, but it’s that college liberal arts education, is the last chance you really get to …” I mean, you can teach yourself, but I’ve found with a lot of things that I’ve taught myself that I needed a better professor.

Gillespie: Yes. That explains why when I turn the lights on in half of my house, something pops and everything goes dark.

O’Rourke: Yes, and it explains my carpentry, which my wife has exiled to, you know, the garage shelf department, and I’m occasionally allowed to do something inside a closet.

Gillespie: Watch out. Those were David Carradine’s last words, I think, who was found dead in a Thai hotel room closet, I believe, a few years ago.

O’Rourke: I had forgotten about that. Oh, no. Not the same closet.

Gillespie: Many of us have tried. Some of us have succeeded, obviously. Well, here, let me ask you, before we start talking about the large themes about “How the Hell Did This Happen?” And it’s fantastic to have you as our kind of Virgil, through what I really do hope is the worst year ever, because you know, we’ve got … There’s still a future ahead of us where things could always get worse. Do you consider yourself more of a libertarian, or a conservative? Where do you see the border line between those kind of concepts or ideologies overlapping? Where’s the no man’s land for you?

O’Rourke: Well, it really depends upon from what angle we’re looking at things. Politically, I consider myself primarily to be a libertarian. I am personally conservative. I’m conservative about religion. I’m conservative about moral values. I’m probably even somewhat conservative in … More conservative than many libertarians are in foreign policy. But when it comes to the rule of law and the construct of politics, and the way that the politics and the individual, I always think of libertarianism as basically being an analytical tool, not an ideology per se, but an analytical tool. When you look at something that happens, especially in politics, you look at something that happens, you say, “Does this increase the dignity of the individual? Does this increase the liberty of the individual? Does this increase the responsibility of the individual?” If it meets those three criteria, then it’s probably an acceptable libertarian political policy, or lack thereof, because we like to subtract some things from politics too.

Gillespie: Well, you wrote on these themes. You wrote an absolutely amazing piece for the Weekly Standard, which appears or is pulled out of the book How the Hell Did This Happen? Which is on sale at Amazon book stores everywhere. But an amazing piece for the Weekly Standard called “The Revolt Against the Elites and the Limits of Populism.”

O’Rourke: Thank you.

Gillespie: Did you know that even in well-behaved countries, relatively speaking, such as Australia and France and whatnot, populism is rising, and people are sick of being treated as cogs in some kind of Davos devotee or attendee’s bank or money-making machine. What is good about the new populism for you, and what scares you about it?

O’Rourke: Well, let’s talk about the good, because it’s first, because it’s more limited. It’s definitely true that I think there’s a worldwide animus going on against the elites. Part of this is because of the shift in the economy. The shift toward a much more high-tech economy is leaving a lot of people who have manual skills or simply the capacity for hard labor, is leaving them way behind. This is something that people … That needs to be addressed, needs to be recognized, because it’s not so much, actually, that the divide between the rich and poor has gotten greater. There’s actually been tremendous strides around the world at abolishing the worst level of poverty. We’ve had the numbers come … People were living on a buck or a buck fifty a day. The number of those people has come down very considerably. But they’re feeling a sort of ceiling, aspirational ceiling. The fact that a lot of it has to do with lack of rule of law in places, not only in utterly chaotic places like, say Somalia or Sudan, but in very corrupt places like Russia and China, is making people very angry. I think that’s where something … I mean, you know, rule of law is something that’s fundamental to a free society.

Gillespie: Define rule of law. Do you mean that the rules apply to everybody? Same rules for [crosstalk 00: 07: 28]?

O’Rourke: Exactly. Exactly, and you can actually … You can sort of extrapolate from this that it doesn’t have to be perfect law. That as long as the rules of the society apply to everybody, there is a kind of justice in the air. But when there is an exception because of wealth, or power, or holiness, or fame, you name it, if there is a mechanism by which somebody can step outside the justice department, then that law is lousy no matter how liberally written, no matter how carefully, you know … No matter how merciful it is, or how just it is. If people can avoid it, that law is bad.

For instance, when China first moved into a free market sort of situation, and before the level of corruption had risen so high, there was a period where you could look at China and say, “Well, at least they have rule of law. It’s not very good rule of law, as Tienanmen Square clearly pointed out. It’s not a place you’d choose to live or a system that you would design in your mind as being ideal, but the law does seem to apply to everybody from Jiang down,” but that went away pretty quickly.

Gillespie: What about in … You talk about countries like France, Hungary is one, Russia is certainly one. The United States, England. These are also places that are experiencing real paroxysms of populism, and I’m sorry to be alliterative there. Say in America, it’s not the super poor people. It seems to be the people who feel left behind. This is the people that Hillary ignored, Hillary Clinton ignored and Donald Trump spoke to directly, and said, “I’m going to help you.”

O’Rourke: Yes. Yeah.

Gillespie: Is the populist partly a function of advanced economies, and people being penalized?

O’Rourke: No. Actually, I would say … Well, a couple of things going on. One things sets us apart from Europe. Europe is suffering from a tremendous refugee crisis that the governmental elites of Europe have completely failed to address. They’ve failed to address its cause. They’ve failed to address its facts. They’ve failed to address its aftereffects. They’ve failed to address its intentional and its unintentional effects. They just have just completely screwed things up, and I think that probably holds the key to the Brexit vote. NPR, which was NPR-ish, but nonetheless, they do a good job, and they did an afterward sort of exit poll where they went around to places that had voted heavily for Brexit, and response was pretty much across the board, it wasn’t racist, it wasn’t violent, it wasn’t xenophobic, but it was, “This isn’t the Britain that I grew up in. Things are changing. They’re changing.” It was obviously a fear of what was going on in Germany, what was going on in France. A fear of that taking hold in Britain that made people want to separate themselves.

Here I think it’s more directly an effect of expansion of government to the point where government just has its thumb in every conceivable pie. I mean, it’s just … We are so complexly regulated that it’s driving people crazy, and the people it is driving crazy are the core Trump voters. They tend to be small business people, skilled, often highly skilled blue collar. I mean, you know, their incomes wouldn’t indicate that they’re blue collar. Their education might not.

Gillespie: But these are like craftsmen, or …?

O’Rourke: Yeah. The plumbers and electricians, and maybe master electricians maybe. Master plumbers. They may own a … Some, I’m talking to people who were at Trump rallies, and I found like I could kid with them, you know? Trump was not my choice, but I was talking to a guy and he said, “Do you know, I own a gas station and a towing operation.” And he said, “It’s just me and my wife. I don’t have a human services department. I don’t have a legal department.” He said, “Every time some jerk in Washington passes some new idea, he never seems to think that it means another pile of paperwork on my desk.”

Gillespie: Right. Not to mention the … Does he have to give his wife paid maternity leave now?

O’Rourke: Probably. Yeah. He said, “You know, I’ve got old gas tanks at my gas station, and I can’t get the local, state, and federal permits to get them removed. I can’t get the local, state, and federal permits to install new ones.” He said, “This is just … I’m regulated from every conceivable direction.” He said, “I can afford …” He had a fair number of employees. He said, “I can afford the Obamacare.” He said, “But what I can’t afford is the paperwork that comes with it. That’s not what I do.” And he said, you know, he kept repeating, “It’s just me and my wife.” I really liked the guy and we got to talking about some other stuff and so on. Anyway, finally I said to him, “So electing a maniac fixes this how?” He laughed. He said, “I don’t know, but the hell with the bunch of them. I’m voting for Trump.”

Gillespie: You, and you scandalously, at least certainly at The Reason offices, you scandalously endorsed Hillary, or you said you wouldn’t vote for Trump because of …

O’Rourke: No, and I did vote for Hillary.

Gillespie: Yeah, and you did vote for Hillary. How did that feel?

O’Rourke: Okay. Well it was a matter of, if I may say so, reason. I looked at this. You know, in the commodity market there’s something called the VIX, the volatility index. You can actually buy predictions of how volatile the markets will be. They call it the fear index. You can actually buy and sell fear on the commodity index. I looked at the volatility of the two candidates, and I thought, “I know with probably about 98%, 99% assurance exactly what I’m getting with Hillary. I loathe and detest it, but we just survived eight years of it. I doubt it will last more than four more. It’s very rare for American political cycles to last longer than 12 years, as poor George H.W. Bush proved.” I said, “You know, we survived eight years of it. We can survive another four. I know what’s coming.” I looked over at Trump, and I said, “I have no idea. I just have no idea. He might turn out to be an absolutely ordinary president. I don’t like this populist noise.” I particularly hated his xenophobia. I mean, that was probably … If I had to put one finger on a thing about Trump, was the scapegoating noise feed, the stuff about refugees, the stuff about immigrants and so on.

I mean, did we learn nothing from that horrible period between World War I and World War II? I’m a pro-immigrant guy. I mean, I will listen to anti-immigrant talk from a full-blooded American Indian and nobody else. They’ve got a beef.

Gillespie: Well, let’s talk specifically about Donald Trump a little bit. You’ve likened him to Juan Peron, the authoritarian socialist who helped transform Argentina from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, really, to a second-tier shit hole, and it’s never really climbed out of that.

O’Rourke: Actually, I likened him to Evita.

Gillespie: Well, I was going to say, if Trump is Juan Peron, does that mean Melania is Evita, and is she going to start singing?

O’Rourke: No, no. It’s Trump who is Evita. I said actually we had a pair of them. I said, you know, we’re definitely going through a period in global politics where there’s kind of an accent on the strong person.

Gillespie: Imagine if he starts wearing a military uniform with braids on the [crosstalk 00: 16: 12].

O’Rourke: One wouldn’t put it past him.

Gillespie: What frightens you …

O’Rourke: I mean, he could do it.

Gillespie: What frightens you the most …

O’Rourke: No, I thought he was more of a … It is my sincere hope that we’re having history repetitus, which comes first as tragedy, and then is repeated as comedy. I’m hoping that this will be …

Gillespie: Or an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical improv.

O’Rourke: Right. Exactly.

Gillespie: Which I think is the third [crosstalk 00: 16: 39].

O’Rourke: I’m hoping we’re in the Andrew Lloyd Weber version of the period between World War I and World War II.

Gillespie: What frightens you most about Trump? I mean, because you’ve said also that we’re not in a teachable moment, because we’re too scared of everything. We’re scared of foreigners. We’re scared of the pace of technological change, the rise of addicted people. You’ve talked about how a lot of the people have been left behind. I think at one point you talk about how the Kenmore appliance repair man is … He can’t fix your refrigerator because he’s down and out on Oxycontin or heroin. What frightens you most …

O’Rourke: Yeah, but first Sears disappeared.

Gillespie: Yeah, that’s true. Well, you know, this is … You take the bad with the good, right? As somebody who dressed exclusively in Toughskins as a child, I’m always happy to see at least that part of Sears go away. I mean, you’ve talked about the xenophobia in Trump, and obviously like the idea that he could start a nuclear war or a war war, but what else? I mean, is there a broader sensibility [crosstalk 00: 17: 42]?

O’Rourke: Oh, well this is just not a small government guy. By personality, by whatever passes for ideology with him. I mean, this is like a big brushstroke person, and I don’t have any use for that. You know, I want the government to shrink in the wash. I want it both cleaner and smaller, please.

Gillespie: And whiter? Is that where you’re going? Have you joined the …?

O’Rourke: Yes, exactly. Well, no, it is not where I’m going at all. As a matter of fact, no. As a matter of fact, if anything, I want the nation to be more colorful. I mean, I just see … At the core of libertarianism, as an attitude and as a way of thinking about politics, is the idea that people are assets. This is all about people, and people are assets and should be treated as assets, not as … The liberal idea is that people are burdens. You know, more sick people means more government expense. More poor people means more government expense. More any kind of people means more government expense. Whereas I think, you know, it means more growth, more vitality.

Gillespie: I guess Trump, then, from this position, because obviously Democrats and liberals more broadly, as well as progressives, are really … They’re going after him with everything they’ve got, that he’s a stooge of Russia, [crosstalk 00: 19: 17], and all that, but what you’re saying is …

O’Rourke: They sure are. But the point of the fact, he’s one of them.

Gillespie: Yeah. Explore that a little bit, or explain that a little bit.

O’Rourke: Well, yeah. I mean, he’s one of them, but he’s coming at it from a sort of like a populist, “throw down the ladder.” You know, “I got mine. Eff you.” You know? There’s a segment of America that feels threatened by change, change of all kinds, and he’s saying, “Well, I’m going to make things like they used to be.” But the tools that he’s going to use, huge infrastructure spending, you know, sort of big digs everywhere. It won’t be just confined to Boston. You’ll get them in Terre Haute, Indiana. The huge rise in military budget. I mean, we already spend more than the other top … What is it, 10 countries combined? We may have a foreign policy that doesn’t make any sense, but you don’t want to mess with our military. He’s a big government guy. He’s a big government guy for small-minded people, and the liberals are so mad at him because they regard themselves as large-minded people, but of course, they’re equally big government. They just … Which part of the government do you want to increase? Do you want to build an aircraft carrier, or more transgender bathrooms? I don’t know.

That was something else somebody said to me on the campaign trail at a Trump rally. He said, talking about failure of the elites, he said, “Damn it.” He said, “I’m in the logging business. I am so regulated.” Again, like many people I talked to, he talked about regulation. At the end of it, he said, “You know, and I turn on the TV at night, and what’s the lead news story? It’s about transgender bathrooms. We don’t have any bathrooms in the woods.”

Gillespie: What do you do with that? I mean, I guess … You wrote, and let me quote from something you wrote. You said, “A person of libertarian inclinations can understand and sympathize with the revolt against the elites.” Obviously that’s what you did on the campaign trail. You were talking to the people, talking back, but then you said, “So far, the revolt is not promoting an increase in individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility. It’s doing the opposite.” You also talk about populism as a libertarian tragedy, and I think from what you’ve been talking about, it makes sense. But then how do you answer? How did you answer the guy who was pissed about the transgender bathrooms, to get to stuff that is actually going to change his situation as well as transgender people’s situation?

O’Rourke: Well, fortunately I wasn’t there campaigning for Rand Paul, or I would have had to address that. I mean, I was just there as a reporter, so the way I responded to him was by writing what he said down. That was like a weird sort of, like, personal breakthrough moment I had with the garage guy, that I felt like I could talk to him man to man, you know? He was just one of those people with obvious, evident good sense of humor, and I make him sound really grumpy, but he wasn’t. He didn’t have that affect actually in person. Yeah, I mean, one of the things that it takes unfortunately, and given the nature of our political system and our political tradition, you need somebody who is, like, really good at getting this stuff across the way Ronald Reagan was. I mean, it would be nice, I would prefer things to be so that what I could tell you was, “We have to do more libertarian education. We have to do more libertarian outreach. We’ve got to get younger people who have libertarian inclinations more engaged in this.” In fact, it requires the kind of leadership that was not provided by Gary Johnson.

Gillespie: Talking about him, what do you mean? He was not inspiring?

O’Rourke: He just ran a terrible campaign.

Gillespie: Yeah.

O’Rourke: There were so many moments, it seemed to me, over this campaign cycle that lasted for two years, when libertarian stuff could catch fire, and it didn’t. I had some hope for Rand Paul, but Rand is unfortunately burdened by intellect in a way. I mean, you ask Rand a question, and you get the whole answer. While that’s great for an interview, it’s not great on the stump.

Gillespie: Who did you …?

O’Rourke: You don’t get the joke that you got from Reagan. You don’t get the thing boiled down.

Gillespie: Who did you see …? I mean, because you were covering everybody on the campaign, and surprisingly I think you had the nicest … I think you were the nicest to Ben Carson, who is kind of a comedy minefield. You said people like Ted Cruz, you know, that he’s the type of guy who is giving a kind of Billy Sunday sermon inside the tent while his friends are around the back kissing Christian camp girls. Was there anybody on the [hussings 00: 24: 44], whether on the fringes of Hillary’s campaign or in the Republican party or anywhere who you thought, could you even stitch a character together from all of these different people that would do what you want to do?

O’Rourke: No. I think Rand probably came closest, and he’s just going to have to be seasoned in oak longer.

Gillespie: And not talk as much.

O’Rourke: Yeah, I mean, well, in a funny sort of way not talk as much, or talk more directly, you know? Actually, I was impressed by a number of the Republicans that I saw were pretty impressive in small town hall meeting situations. That includes Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio actually. Jeb Bush was very plausibly presidential, you know? A little probably of the more moderate wing of the Republican party, less libertarian wing of the Republican party than me. Some of the most likable … I really dumped on Mike Huckabee, which I feel bad about because I like Huckabee, but he just ran an awful sort of social conservative campaign, one that was not what was on people’s mind. I was impressed with Marco Rubio. He kind of went off the rails there, I think, because of inexperience and nervousness, but I actually saw him at Saint Anselm’s College up here with a fairly large group, and not only did he give a good talk, but he then did a long Q and A session with some very grumpy voters and he was very patient with his explanations, and he seemed to show some grasp of libertarian ideas.

Gillespie: Yeah. I’ve seen him give speeches that had the hair on the back of my neck rising up. He can sell it when he has to, that’s for sure.

O’Rourke: Yeah, except that I don’t think your phrase is exactly right. He can sell it, but he can’t always summon it.

Gillespie: Yeah.

O’Rourke: You know, he can’t always summon that pitch. It’s not reliable for him.

Gillespie: He needs to be doping before every game, right, so that he …

O’Rourke: Something, yes. Exactly. Yeah.

Gillespie: In some of your writings, you talk about the pace of technological change seems different over the past, say, 30 or 40 years, and that in the digital era, in the internet era, that change is more disruptive. You’ve underscored that technological innovation is always disruptive, but that there was something linear to the Industrial Revolution. You see a train, then you see a car. What’s going on that’s different now? Explain how kind of past technological revolutions or innovations, which really have a profound impact on the culture, on the society, on the politics, how they were different, and then why it’s different now, and how we might grapple with that more fruitfully than we have?

O’Rourke: The two examples, the two prior technological examples that I would use, first there was an agricultural revolution at the end of the … In the late Middle Ages, which arguably led to the Renaissance. Adam Smith makes that argument in The Wealth of Nations. Then of course the Industrial Revolution. We know how disruptive dark, satanic mills and all of that, that the Industrial Revolution was, but the thing we have to understand about those revolutions was first that they were slow, especially the Agricultural Revolution. It was very gradual. So gradual that it wasn’t until a couple of hundred years later that people really could realize that it had happened.

The Industrial Revolution was much faster, but it worked on very basic principles of mechanics that your average plowman could look at this machine and see how it worked. It was linear, as you said. I mean, once you had seen a railroad, how surprised could you be by an automobile, you know, which is a locomotive off its track. The Industrial Revolution was comprehensible to people. It happened fairly quickly, but not nearly as quickly as the IT revolution, or the electronic revolution, or the internet revolution, whatever you want to call it. And the side effects of this very quick technological change had been exceedingly unpredictable. I mean, who at the onset of the internet would predict that it would make the anchor store at the local mall go away? I mean, it’s just … It has these totally surprising effects on people’s lives and their jobs, and it spreads fear, even to people who have nothing to fear. I mean, nursing care can not be replaced by Facebook.

Gillespie: Right, but travel agents, they’re like … Who mourns for the travel agent, right?

O’Rourke: Yeah. Exactly, except the out-of-work travel agent, you know?

Gillespie: Right.

O’Rourke: Everybody is feeling that this is upending their business, and even when their business … I was in and out being treated for a while at Dartmouth, at Mary Hitchcock up there, and they had just gotten a brand new computer system at umpteen million dollars that was really working well for them, and the federal government came in and mandated that they change their computer system. They had to spend another umpteen million dollars. Of course, everybody from the candy striper girl right to the heart surgeon had to learn how to use this new system. They were pissed. Nobody’s job was in danger, but they were irked, and they were irked from the highest administration level right down to the lowliest person taking out the cut off arms and legs.

Gillespie: libertarians are often accused of being kind of Vulcan, or descended from Vulcans, not having many emotions and whatnot. How do you … There’s some truth to that, but how do you put the human back into that disruption? Because you’re I think explaining extremely well where the kind of populism anger comes from, but it’s not even necessarily government policy. I mean, it is in the case of saying, “Okay, put in a new computer system,” but Amazon was started, and Uber even more, in the face of government restrictions. How do we get back to the human?

O’Rourke: It’s tough.

Gillespie: We also don’t want to deny the fact that Amazon is kind of a fucking great service.

O’Rourke: Absolutely. You know, I mean, we all use it. We’re voting with our fingers. We’re voting with our credit cards or whatever, you know? We’re all in favor of it, obviously, even though it cost us a job at one end, but got us a cheap couch at the other. You know what I mean? It’s like, you know, a “push me, pull you” sort of situation. I think this is one of the reasons that this was a very tough election for libertarians, because it’s hard for libertarians who are in favor of progress, who are in favor of innovation, and who are in favor of free enterprise, when disruption is caused by these fundamentally good things, net good things, macro good things I should say, but when they’re causing disruption at a micro level, maybe we sometimes have to rethink a little bit our position of utter non-interference in people’s lives.

This certainly would be a time for libertarians to get in there and work hard on getting rid of the kind of regulations that put undue limits on any kind of free enterprise, small businesses, the growth of small businesses. Small businesses shouldn’t be penalized for growing. They shouldn’t be zoned out of existence. They shouldn’t be regulated out of existence by regulations that really don’t matter, have any effect. It’s time to do that. It’s time to do a certain amount of explaining, and it may be, maybe there are rational government interventions not to prevent any of these things from happening, but to ease the circumstances under which they happened. I’m not enough of a …

Gillespie: That could be something ranging from a kind of better, or a different type of social safety net than libertarians historically are comfortable with, or universal basic income, or we know that government really doesn’t re-train people.

O’Rourke: Yeah, it could be something in that direction.

Gillespie: Yeah, to help people kind of [crosstalk 00: 34: 25].

O’Rourke: I don’t pretend to be enough of a policy wonk to say which of these things would be best or not best. I leave that to the scholars at the Cato Institute and places like that, but I have a feeling that comfort can be given and aid and assistance can be … So many kids are coming out of the educational system ill-prepared for this modern economy. You know, right there with school vouchers, you’ve got a good issue.

Gillespie: Yeah. Are you optimistic? I mean, I think in the long run, I guess Keynes said famously, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” I think most libertarians I know …

O’Rourke: Yes. Cheery guy.

Gillespie: Most libertarians I know, it’s like in the long run, it’s the singularity. It just gets better and better, but over the next … For your kids’ adulthood, are you optimistic, and is this a … It’s not that there’s going to be one kind of rescission of a government regulation that allows everything to be good, and an addition of a new program that might make things better, but what has to happen? Is it mostly a change in attitude to understand that, cliché as it is, that change is the only constant, and that your kids are going to have to learn three or four different professions over the course of their life, and that’s …?

O’Rourke: I think they’re pretty hip to that, actually. I don’t think that they’re particularly frightened by it. I think they’re intrigued. They of course have a capacity that I at my age don’t, to embrace change enthusiastically. I mean, you know, it’s like, when you’re a 13 year old boy, like any change is good change. “Hey, the house is on fire.” Everything is exciting. I am actually very optimistic, but of course I’ve had the good fortune, and this had to do with making a decent income and also with the person I married. I’ve had the good fortune to ensure that my kids had a good education, or are getting a good education. They are going to be prepared, both specifically with certain skills, but more important, intellectually generally, to cope with the change.

The change, the rate of change will slow down. I mean, I already notice certain things with my kids, like they are fatigued with social media. They still use the hell out of it, but they are beginning to be annoyed with it. That to me is predictive. My eldest does a lot of online shopping, but she’s very conservative with her money and very sort of strict about using her own money for her clothes purchases, and she and her friends have found all these apps where they basically pass clothes around, which I don’t think ardors well for the endless growth of the youth fashion industry.

Gillespie: This is part of the problem, right, with … I mean, I guess there’s one model we can look to, is Europe, which we might be 20 years behind or so in terms of social attitudes and the populist uprising and nativism, but then there’s Japan, which has fewer people now than it had at the turn of the century, and is shrinking because it’s an old …

O’Rourke: I don’t think either of those are appropriate models for us. I mean, Europe is so ingrained with its fractionalism, and so over … I mean, in its proximity to all sorts of ugly customers. You can practically walk to war from anywhere in Europe. Japan is such an isolated society, such an insular society. I mean, we’re, for all the talk to the contrary, we’re immigrant friendly, and we’re an immigrant nation, and while we do have plenty of factions, they do all speak more or less the same language, more or less comprehensible to each other, and are not divided up the way that Europeans are, nor we have this sort of royalist attitude that all good things rain down upon us from the government, which still obtains in these ex-royal countries, even in France, where you’d think they would know better.

I think things are going to be fine, but there’s going to be some trouble getting to the fine part, and libertarians, we may be fighting some old battles.

Gillespie: Such as?

O’Rourke: We may be engaged … There’s an element of libertarianism that’s still engaged in a war with FDR.

Gillespie: By that you mean that we are … Hopefully we’re not going to be packing the Supreme Court, but with entitlement spending, things like that?

O’Rourke: Yeah. Yeah. Well I mean, these things have to be addressed. They absolutely have to be addressed, and libertarians are in a very good position to address them, but when it comes to like certain sort of changes in the nature of the relationship of the individual to the state, many of us are … And I include myself, you know? We’re still fighting the fights that Milton Freedman, the fights that Hayak and so on fought. I’m not saying that those fights don’t still need to be fought, but I’m saying there are also other battles that we better get ourselves involved in.

Gillespie: What is the first among those other battles?

O’Rourke: The first at this moment is economic transition. How do we enable this economy to benefit most from the economic changes that are going to happen anyway?

Gillespie: Right. That’s where you’re talking about things like really getting past a lot of accreted regulations that it always … In a way, I guess Trump is speaking your language when he says, “For every regulation we pass, we’re getting rid of two.” That’s a [crosstalk 00: 41: 03].

O’Rourke: Yeah. Not a bad idea. Not a bad idea. You know, the man is not without some insights, and I don’t know if we’d go so far as to call them ideas, but I mean, he perceives some things. Obviously he connects with people and stuff, and it’s not like he’s wrong about everything, you know?

Gillespie: But he can be, if he applies himself. He can be wrong about everything.

O’Rourke: He would seem to have a talent for it, yeah.

Gillespie: Let me ask you, and maybe we’ll end on this, is any part of you … And your last big book was about the baby boom generation, your generation. Is there any part of you that misses the exiting of Bill and Hillary Clinton from the stage of national and world politics?

O’Rourke: Not one iota. Not one iota. It is, “Goodbye, and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out,” you know? “What’s your hurry? Here’s your hat.”

Gillespie: Yes. Yeah. Well, I hope that we can still remember that when the nuclear Armageddon begins.

O’Rourke: Or when Chelsea gets elected.

Gillespie: Yeah. That will be a time to, I think, rise to armed insurrection, at that point, rather than just …

O’Rourke: Yeah. That’s when we talk to our friends in Idaho.

Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. We have been talking with O’Rourke. He’s the author most recently of How the Hell Did This Happen?, which chronicles the last year in American politics up through Donald Trump’s surprising victory. P.J., thanks so much for talking to us.

O’Rourke: It’s very good to talk to you.

Gillespie: I’m Nick Gillespie. This has been The Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and thanks for listening.


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