All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty

America's Heir to the H. L. Mencken Legacy

Quiz time: name the libertarian wit who declared just before the unveiling of the Clinton universal health plan in 1993: “It hasn’t even started yet, and already it’s not working.”

Give up? He’s America’s heir to the H. L. Mencken legacy of the art of spiking government pomposity and inherent interventionist ineptitude. In fact, P. J. O’Rourke is the Washington-based Cato Institute’s Mencken Research Fellow as well as a contributing editor to Rolling Stone (where some of these pages first appeared) and the author of such best-selling works as The Bachelor Home Companion, Parliament of Whores, and Give War a Chance—works tickling the funnybones of otherwise grouchy, government-socked Americans and their peers overseas.

O’Rourke’s skill in renouncing the armchair and on-line computer for global on-the-spot surveys of political pomposity is on display here as he sails forth into Somalia, the Amazon, Rio, ex-Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Bangladesh, Haiti, Vietnam, and the campus of Miami University in Ohio. Watch out, overweening National Geographic and supercilious Smithsonian Magazine, you’re no match for the sharper eye and pen of O’Rourke.

Take his venture into Bangladesh, a nation of some 120 million hardy souls living on the cusp of poverty and still much dependent on jute, the country’s largest hard-currency earner. The jute industry, “beneficiary” of subsidies from one of the least rich governments in the world, falls prey to versatile plastics across a highly competitive world. Mahbubur Rahman of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce handed his business card to O’Rourke boasting it was made of jute paper. O’Rourke found it discolored, wrinkled, and lumpy. Mr. Rahman also boasted of the jute rug on his office floor. O’Rourke found it unsightly and coming apart.

But better days apparently lie ahead as Bangladesh goes in for privatization. State-owned plants that the Bangladesh government has wisely put up for sale, notes O’Rourke, include:

Osmania Glass Sheet Factory
Dhaka Match Factory
Bangladesh Diesel Plant
Dhaka Vegetable Oil Industries
Kohinoor Battery Manufacturing Co.
Bangladesh Insulator and Sanitary Ware Factory

These factories are hardly of Japanese quality, and O’Rourke says he’d like to shake the hand—well, meet, anyway—the brave investor who buys the rickety works of the Bangladesh Insulator and Sanitary Ware Factory.

Our intrepid traveler finds Vietnam, scene of battle from French forces in the 1940s-1950s to U.S. forces in the 1960s-1970s climaxed by massive American air strikes on Hanoi in 1973, now a scene of battle between Coca Cola and Pepsi-Cola. But it wasn’t until 1990 when the Communists finally threw in the towel vis-à-vis socialism. O’Rourke: “They took price controls off everything, put privacy back into private property, and told everybody to go make a living. Faced with a choice between leading and following, the Vietnamese government got out of the way.”

O’Rourke’s visit to Miami University, his politically correct alma mater, is covered in his chapter, “Multiculturalism: Going from Bad to Diverse.” He found the school now blessed with a Department of Diversity Affairs offering 21 courses and a degree in Black Studies, yet the percentage of African Americans among undergraduates is but 2.6 percent.

As luck would have it O’Rourke arrived on the campus during “Hunger and Homelessness Week.” He watched a group of Miami students celebrate the event by squatting around the campus in pouring rain and trying to hand out fliers so as to “make Miami students aware of the growing homeless situation in America.” Said one wet coed: “It’s weird how people just walk by and ignore us. You really get a look at the world through a completely different perspective.” The perspective of an idle person engaged in moronic activity, says O’Rourke.

Another cultural beef of protesters at a student rally attended by our peripatetic author lies in the use of “Redskins” by Miami varsity sport teams, clearly a highhanded putdown of Native Americans. One coed dressed like the lady on the Land 0′ Lakes butter package condemned such injustices against Native Americans as “deportation, exploitation, enslavement, disenfranchisement, genocide–and, pausing for emphasis, added what she seemed to feel was the crowning outrage, ‘assimilation’.”

Sexual harassment turns out to be another hot issue. O’Rourke finds lack of logical consistency in a campus calendar called “The Women of Miami.” It carried photos of a dozen bathing suit-clad coeds trying to look, to the best of their puppyish abilities, sexy. Controversy raged among students, some of whom said the photos demeaned women and others who were pretty sure the First Amendment protected medium-sized bikinis. What especially caught O’Rourke’s attention was the “Public Service Message” surrounded by semi-spicy photos at the end of the calendar. It read:


Guys: When a woman says NO, she means NO! It takes a “Real Man” to respect the wishes of those around him. Be Safe, Be Smart, and Be Understood!

P. J. O’Rourke ends his book on the note that he doesn’t have any answers. But maybe he does, as he mentions things like property rights and the rule of law. Aside from cancer and the like, he observes most of our troubles are not from another planet but are human (i.e., man-made) troubles. Hence his suggestions: Be nice. Use common sense. Exercise self-responsibility.

Not bad. []

Dr. Peterson is Distinguished Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy Emeritus at Campbell University, North Carolina.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.