Books on Economics

Eat The Rich By P.J. O'Rourke (1998)

Why isn't everybody rich?

That's the question that drives libertarian humorist P.J. O'Rourke in his book, Eat the Rich. O'Rourke draws on his personal travels to answer, as he puts it, "Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?"

O'Rourke seems to be reaching out to an audience beyond his traditional Republican Party Reptile (libertarian-ish) readers. By using humor to compare economic systems, O'Rourke tries to soft-sell the free market, arguing that it is the best engine of abundance and human vitality.

Most of the book is O'Rourke at his wonderful best. His whirlwind tour of societies from Albanian anarchy to Swedish drabness to Tanzanian emptiness keeps the reader on a roller coaster thrill.

O'Rourke's descriptions transport the reader as any good travel writing does, but with the added advantage of having a drunken H.L. Mencken as a traveling companion.

In all cases the free market emerges as the winner for creating abundance, and in general a life worth living. After decades of totalitarian communism in Cuba erased such luxuries as cars and gasoline, Cubans were "so used to empty streets that anyone who looked both ways before crossing was probably a paranoid schizophrenic."

The Cuban peso is so worthless that even the Cuban government has "dollar stores" that only accept U.S. currency. Outside dollar stores, goods are hard to find. "The Cuban rationing system is simple," says O'Rourke. "They're out of everything."

To be fair, O'Rourke takes a look at the supposedly "good socialism" of Sweden. He finds that Sweden is living off a combination of past prosperity and borrowing, both of which will eventually run out.

"A government can give most people something for nothing by taxing the few people with money," he says. "This is how Sweden has gotten into trouble. There are never enough of these people with money. And the people with money are the people with accountants, tax lawyers and bank accounts in Luxembourg, so they end up not paying their taxes."

Sandwiched in between travelogues is an incongruous chapter on basic economics. He attempts to explain concepts such as comparative advantage and opportunity cost in humorous, plain English. Unfortunately, economic principles are boring no matter what you do to them, and O'Rourke does not cover any topic with enough depth to make the reader remember it by the next page. Light reading and studying simply don't mix, and I'm afraid O'Rourke's Cliff Notes version of economics won't help much anyone who's not already familiar with the concepts.

That chapter is mercifully short, and O'Rourke once again lurches into insightful and witty commentary.

O'Rourke does an especially good job of dispelling some talking-head myths about Russia. Russia's economic woes result not from going "too far" with free-market reforms, but from doing things like turn over large segments of the economy to mafia.

"What would be litigiousness in New York is a hail of bullets in Moscow," says O'Rourke. "Instead of a society infested with lawyers, they have a society infested with hit men. Which is worse, of course, is a matter of opinion."

At least Russians seem to understand democracy. Asked about his prediction for an election, a Russian gave an answer that sounds awfully appropriate here as well: "I didn't say he would win. I said he'd be the next president."

After touring Tanzania, Albania, Hong Kong, Shanghai and even the New York Stock Exchange, O'Rourke comes to the conclusion that the free market with its rule of law can make the world a better place to live.

"Poverty is hard, wretched and humiliating," O'Rourke says in his plea for economic sanity. "Poverty is schoolgirl prostitutes trying to feed their parents in Cuba. Poverty is John driving around in the Tanzanian night looking for the doctor while his daughter dies. It's grandmothers begging on the streets of Moscow. But what poverty is not is sad. Poverty is infuriating. These things don't have to happen. These conditions don't need to exist."

As world leaders across the globe worry about how to cope with economic troubles, they could do a lot worse than read this book.