Last night in a hall off Melbourne’s Swanston Street, about 200 persons, including me, Tim Wilson and a guy I am pretty sure was Senator James Paterson, gathered. We had stepped over the sleeping bodies of the undeserving poor to hear PJ O’Rourke, US libertarian humourist, tell us what we already pretend to fear: ours is a freedom under threat. What our crowd lacked in size and diversity, we made up for in age, dishonest paranoia and the belief that the chief function of the state is to protect this capital from theft by the undeserving poor.
It’s cute that libertarians feel the need to make this case when the chief function of the modern state is to protect private property. This is something the material left has long known. Consider these words from Karl Marx:
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor.”
No. That’s a fib. Marx believed this, but did not say it exactly in this way. These are the words of a guy who has been freshly re-appointed a libertarian hero, 18th century economist Adam Smith.
You can play a fun game of Who Wore It Best with Marx and Smith, a guy about whom PJ O’Rourke has written a book. They both say, more or less, the same things about the way in which the state partners with its economy to keep the rich rich.
One of the reasons I, and others young and left in the ’90s, kinda liked PJ — then a correspondent at Rolling Stone — is that he was always pretty upfront about this distinction. He once outright said in his dispatches that the difference between the material left and the material right is whether they think it’s a good idea or a bad one to use taxes chiefly to protect private wealth.
PJ does. I don’t. Which is fine, but I wish he’d be honest about that distinction. Instead, he characterised the difference between the left and the right, or what he calls libertarianism, last night thus, “the left believes that everyone is essentially good. We libertarians don’t.” That’s untrue. What the material left believes is not in morality, but that Marx wore the declaration that the state is in service to wealth best.
Although he has tried to remake himself a theorist for the right, PJ seems to me to have lost the candour that brought us funny books like Republican Party Reptile. Honestly, I really don’t mind talking with or listening to a straight-up Chicago School thinker. They will give me a clear and often a very informed view of contemporary politics — such as this recent good piece on Trump by conservative Michael Brendan Dougherty — and how close the state is, in any moment, to doing the wealth safeguarding Adam Smith admired. They recognise the difference between material left and right, and in my view, make it much easier to remain a leftist.
Maybe PJ has finally realised that honesty is a gift to the left, and so when he spoke about the left last night, he spoke about it only in the terms of boring people he had met at dinner parties. The right for PJ, a guy who admirably refuses to spruik for the cultural right and reminds us that the “culture wars” are bullshit, is just something that describes the role of the state in capitalism. The left, on the other hand, is not an idea that describes the role of the state in capitalism, but a bunch of privileged whiners who have unrealistic ideas about compassion.
It is absolutely true, of course, that there are such people. Too many of them, in fact. I mean, I have as little patience with persons tied up in awareness ribbons and kale as PJ does. But you don’t get to say that the right is a material idea, while the left is just a group of idiots who enjoy world music festivals. That’s a dishonest intellectual account.
And it’s one that prevents O’Rourke from really understanding his guy, Adam Smith. Smith is not only the sine qua non of the investment class, but someone that has provided O’Rourke, reborn as intellectual instead of mere gonzo-conservative, with much of his recent revenue.
A man sitting behind me last night had a copy of PJ’s crib on Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and I overheard him tell his companion that he’d paid the author 10 bucks to sign it. If it really is true that PJ exchanges his signature for cash, I think this is sort of great. It’s a free-market transaction of the type he and his audience admires. This is an honest reflection of so-called libertarian thinking. What is not so honest is pretending that the state does anything much but protect the entitlements of the already entitled, such as Adam Smith described.
But there’s no better way to embolden a belief than to make claims of its harassment. Islamic State knows this and so does Andrew Bolt and so do all the famous feminists on Twitter and their chief adversary Milo Yiannopoulos — himself the alt-right vulgar grandson of a gentleman like PJ. “I am being silenced” is a marvellous way to amplify a message and there was a bit of this persecuted innocence going on last night.
It’s a shame that, PJ, who is otherwise genuinely a gentleman, has begun to do this crass thing. Of course, he doesn’t do it as clumsily as Yiannopoulos or that other young right prong Ben Shapiro, and he retains some of his smug New Hampshire charm. He talks about his urge to preserve his Porsche and his good life and doesn’t rail, as his alt-right descendants do, about The Lying Feminists and the Angry Blacks. He preserves something of the correspondent that I once mildly liked; O’Rourke was always the guy I thought that Hunter S. Thompson would be if born wealthy, less talented and employed by Cigar Aficionado magazine.
I could be one of those dinner party leftists and just say that PJ has lost his authority and charisma because he is right wing, and that all these guys are repulsive. But that’s not true, and it’s dishonest. You don’t judge an idea in the terms of the person who is uttering it. Which is something that PJ himself now does nonstop.
It occurs to me that PJ — who actually said last night in response to a question that welfare was a case of rewarding “bad people” and so said that to be poor is the worst kind of sin — was never much of an intellectual. He is not exactly Hayek, who could always conceal his distaste for the poor with clever thinking.
PJ’s chief skill has probably always been making spot-on jokes about leftists, but even this facility is gone. His references are old, and it genuinely shocked me to see how he hadn’t kept up with how ridiculous the left have actually become. I mean, I thought he would have been all over the recent and over-publicised tendency of US college students to demand trigger warnings in class and culturally sensitive foods in cafeterias. But in response to a question about “safe spaces” from a libertarian lady, he just said, “Oh. Safe Places. I think that’s just a thing a few young people to do to shock us older people.” Which is, however true an assessment of this minor trend, a lost opportunity to ignite his libertarian audience who wanted him to be a whole lot more nasty than he was.
But PJ has lost interest. Probably in everything but retaining his Porsche. He is not an intellectual threat to the left and so, no great boon to the Centre for Independent Studies, which hosted him.
In short, I was disappointed not to be deeply disappointed.