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P. J. O'Rourke a welfare statist?

I am finally getting around to reading self-described conservative libertarian P. J. O'Rourke's All the Trouble in the World. It has been an enjoyable read so far, but I was very surprised to read the following passage at the end of chapter two, on overpopulation:

"The idea that too many people exist leads to unfortunate and even lethal plans for those people. One of Thomas Malthus's motives for writing An Essay on the Principle of Population was to argue against the Poor Law of his time, which gave aid to pauper families in accordance with the number of their children. This, thought Malthus, bred more paupers. Malthus was also writing in support of Britain's Corn Laws, which imposed large tariffs on imported grain. During the potato famine of the 1840s, these laws would contribute to the deaths of more than a million Irish. Malthus didn't mean any harm, of course. He was a clergyman. 'I would never wish to push general principles too far,' he said, 'though I think they always ought to be kept in view.' So we shouldn't actually shove paupers and Irishmen into the grave, but we shouldn't lose sight of the option either."

O'Rourke's critical tone indicates that he would support government aid to the poor, which is uncharacteristic for a libertarian.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC)
Well, he's a republican as much as a member of CATO.
Sep. 7th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Perhaps a "compassionate conservative" Republican? In theory, they could exist.
Sep. 7th, 2008 05:44 am (UTC)
Too many people?
I've read that book several times, and most everything PJ O'Rourke has written. My take has always been that he is critical of the notion of overpopulation.

To go a step farther, he is disdainful of anyone peddling the notion of overpopulation, because in fact they only worry about too many of some. As he says in one book : "way too much of you, just the right amount of me".

And I do think PJ O'Rourke would support some government aid to the poor, but not after a LONG argument about who is, in fact, poor.
Sep. 7th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Too many people?
I think you have it exactly right. O'Rourke's main argument against the overpopulation alarmists is that said alarmists are white-skinned people who are claiming that there are too many dark-skinned people in certain parts of the world. They totally ignore certain areas of the United States that are as densely populated as the areas they claim are overpopulated, and these areas are doing just fine. And it seems that he would condone government aid to those who really need it, but only after a careful consideration of genuine need.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 8th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Too many people?
I think that O'Rourke is allowed to not have positive suggestions because he is a professional satirist. Like critics who do not have to write good stories, satirists are allowed to tear things down without making constructive suggestions.

O'Rourke is indeed lazy, and a drunk as well. In fact, his master's thesis from when he was in the writing program at Hopkins looks like it was written when he was drunk. It's full of typos and a real mess; I'm surprised it was accepted by the faculty. Still, I found it funny. Then again, I found the low-brow humor of the National Lampoon funny when he was an editor there. And I am enjoying All the Trouble in the World. I guess that says something about my standards.
Sep. 12th, 2008 03:56 pm (UTC)
Welll... It is kinda one of those rock-and-hard-place things, right? I mean, if you help out the poor, they stay around needing more help and having more kids who need to be fed, and so on. However, if you don't feed/shelter/give medicaid to the poor, they die, and it's kinda because those of us who are better off didn't want to share. So, which is worse? What's your solution?
Sep. 12th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
Light a man a fire,
And keep him warm for the night.
Set a man on fire,
And keep him warm the rest of his life.

Oh, wait a minute. That's "Teach a man to light a fire and keep him warm the rest of his life."

Our responsibility is to teach the poor what they need to know to support themselves. If they choose to reject that education, the consequences are their own responsibility.

Of course that does not solve the problem totally. There are still questions such as what to do about poor, sick children whose parents cannot afford the medical care their children need. I do not trust governments to equitably redistribute wealth to take care of the poor; economists have estimated that only 30 cents out of every tax dollar intended for the poor actually gets there. I suppose I would count on private charitable organizations. United Way and Salvation Army get 85 cents of every dollar intended for the poor to where it is actually supposed to go.

Sep. 14th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC)
Even accounting for children, that's an extraordinarily rosy view. What about the elderly, the disabled, the mentally retarded, and those of us with chronic health conditions that make us incapable of keeping up with the average person in the workforce? Do we deserve a lower standard of living just because we weren't born with (or have since lost) the physical and mental resources other people have?

And how are the poor (in training to be useful citizens) to survive until they have learned all the skills they need? What about times of economic depression, when even the skilled and competent have trouble finding work?

I do agree that private charities are the best way to go... on the whole. But there's always the risk that those charities will go out of business, never be formed in the first place, or refuse to help a segment of those in need because of personal agendas (for instance, the Salvation Army has no interest in helping people like me unless they think they can convert me...)

Like you, I would like to see poverty being addressed more at the scale of prevention (mostly via education). But I don't know how much of the problem can truly be solved that way. I also don't know how the hell we plan to get to that point when we still have schools arguing over whether they have to teach children something as basic as science.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )