TAP Talks to P.J. O'Rourke

P.J. O'Rourke, the libertarian political satirist, is famous for his hilarious -- though usually wrongheaded -- skewering of all things government-related. But these days, as President Barack Obama rolls out nearly $800 billion in stimulus spending and meddles with the financial sector, O'Rourke isn't joking when he says he's mad as hell.

With his recently published collection of essays, Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending, Celebrating America the Way It's Supposed To Be, O'Rourke yells into the wind against almost every public-policy trend in Obama's America. He bemoans the downfall of the American car, reminisces about his youthful gear-head excesses, and takes aim at the political forces he blames for the now-moribund American automobile industry.

The Prospect argued with O'Rourke about government regulation and car culture and asked him how it feels to be an avowed right-winger in the Obama era. His short answer? Not so great.

In March you predicted a "failed Obama presidency" based on the administration's response to the financial crisis. In all seriousness, how much of that is genuine outrage, and how much of your speeches and writings on Obama are bluster? His approval rating is 63 percent.

Well, I'm actually having fun, of course, in saying, "Is it too early to talk about a failed Obama presidency," which at that point was a month old. It was obviously a joke. But, on the other hand, I am seriously worried about the administration's response to the financial crisis. Actually, I was worried with the previous administration's response to the financial crisis, so I'm not just picking on Obama. The idea that when something goes wrong with the economy, the government should suddenly get involved strikes me as a very dangerous idea. The secret to capitalism isn't success; the secret to capitalism is failure.

Another danger is when the government enters into the economy, which the Obama administration seems to have no qualms about doing. Government has a couple things that private companies can never have. It has eminent domain. It has legal monopoly on force. Legal monopoly on deadly force is at the core of what is different between government and any other institution in a free society. But that society isn't so free when the government starts to compete with you. They've got a bunch of guys with guns. If you weren't talking political policy, this would be called The Sopranos.

Obama is like a New Jersey gangster, really? Don't you see anything in his economic policies that you can work with as a libertarian conservative?

No, absolutely not. I think this guy comes from the wrong background, I think he is deeply misguided, I think his intentions may be good, but his motives are still bad. I think Rahm Emanuel had it in a nutshell: "Let no crisis go unwasted." This is basically an excuse to expand the powers and purviews of government, and that's something that I'm fundamentally against.

Considering the recent takeover of General Motors, at what point, if ever, do you see an imperative for government intervention in the private sector? I once heard you say that you were ready to nationalize the airline industry.

That was just an excuse to see all those executives sent to the Gulag. I really didn't expect any improvement in the airline industry. I just wanted the executives of the airlines sent to a prison camp for giving me one $15 package of peanuts. The airlines have been doing everything they can to destroy America's faith in free enterprise.

Is there any situation involving the economy, transportation, or even cars that warrants more significant government regulation?

Well, sure. Regulation's another matter entirely. It's a fundamental paradox of freedom: Freedom functions only within a structure of law. I mean, anyone who tells me they're anarchist, I tell them, "Go to Somalia." Any sort of Ron Paul, super-anti-government people. Timothy McVeigh, I wouldn't have executed him; I would have sent him to Mogadishu. The effect would have been the same.

You have to have a structure of law, and that includes a structure of regulatory law as well. You want to keep that regulatory law minimal and transparent, which is something I don't think the Democrats understand at all. What may be more important from a business and business-planning point of view is you want to keep it predictable. Probably the biggest sin the Democrats commit from a regulatory point of view is that they're always changing the regulations.

Your latest book, Driving Like Crazy, is about the traditional all-American love for the automobile. But there has been a significant shift in the zeitgeist over the past year or so. The combination of high gas prices and concern over global warming have really pushed people to reconsider their dependence on cars.

Yeah, but it's a funny sort of shift in the zeitgeist. I do think there's a shift in the attitude, but you can't change the facts. One of the reasons that we're so dependent on the automobile is that everything we do is so far away from everything else that we do. And how the hell else are we gonna get there?

And electric cars, we'll have them some day. There's nothing froufrou or sissy about hybrid technology, but at the moment, it's still way more expensive, and in many ways less practical, than the quite efficient gasoline engines that we have. But I'm not positive that the hybrid and electric stuff that we have actually nets out better. After all, that electricity has to come from some place. Batteries have to be disposed someplace. And it's not like batteries are made out of organic tomatoes.