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Friday, February 22, 2013

Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government by P.J. O'Rourke

Originally published in 1991.
I read the 1992 Vintage Books paperback edition.

Dated but still has teeth.

P.J. O'Rourke goes after the ridiculousness that is the federal government with his trademark irreverent style in this 1991 book. Some of the commentary is dated (lots of talk about the forgettable 1988 presidential election with Republican George H.W. Bush going against Democrat Michael Dukakis. Also, the first one I voted in) but some of it is incredibly relevant. For example, the story of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) looking into the mystery of suddenly accelerating Audis 1n 1986 was reminiscent of the same problem with Toyotas that filled the news channels in 2009 and 2010.

Perhaps O'Rourke's most famous line comes from this book: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." (pg. xvii in the preface) This sentiment is pretty typical of the book as a whole and one that I generally agree with. O'Rourke talks with former advisors to presidents, shadows a congressman, talks with lobbyists, bureaucrats, policeman, people who live in atrocious government "projects" built for the poor to live in, and more.

P.J. O'Rourke
O'Rourke notes on page 36: "It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money." And, O'Rourke proceeds to show the reader how and makes a solid case for a smaller, leaner government. He also explains how it got to be such a mess.

There are times when he fails to make his case. For me, the chapter on agriculture ("Agricultural Policy: How to Tell Your Ass From This Particular Hole in the Ground") was a nice lesson on overlapping government programs that seem absurd. For example, he bemoans the fact that there are so many government interventions that the marketplace is not really a factor in agricultural policy. That is true enough, but he negates his own argument on page 148 when he notes that "Cheap plentiful food is the precondition for human advancement. When there isn't enough food, everybody has to spend all of his time getting fed and nobody has a minute to invent law, architecture or big clubs to hit cave bears on the head with...we wouldn't grow food, we'd be food." O'Rourke seems to miss (or ignore) that the convoluted system of price supports, payments to keep fields idle and grants have the practical result of keeping plenty of extra food being produced and more than enough producers on hand. That way, if there is a massive drought (like the drought of 2012) there is plenty of food to make up for it. Because it is deals with food, the system is rigged to encourage over-production. Could it be more efficient? Sure. Could it be done smarter? Sure. But, O'Rourke fails to make his case that it should not be done at all.

O'Rourke's look into anti-poverty programs demonstrate that they were not working and that poverty is not easily solved and "You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money." (pg. 128, emphasis his) If nothing else, this chapters reveals that O'Rourke is not simply a know-it-all. He knows that he does not know how to "fix" poverty and that government is certainly no doing a good job of it, either.

This is an entertaining read, even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions. I started this book one day when I misplaced the book I had been reading. In just a couple of pages I knew had to finish this one first. Entertaining, often profane, never boring.

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.

Reviewed on February 22, 2013.

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