January 22, 2004,
In the summer of 1996 the Libertarian party took its national convention to Washington, D.C., and I went, figuring that the ironic tableau ought to provide good material for a story. Two things stood out over the course of the event: First that the Libertarians had the kind of vigorous and intelligent debates that never occur anymore at the major-party meetings; and second, that maybe a full half of the delegates were nuts. There were folks who insisted there was no such thing as judicial "authority," some who believed citizens are obligated to evade income taxes, and others who probably saw no use in paying them anyhow, since American currency actually had no value. Listening to the Libertarians made one thing clear: If government succeeds at nothing else, it does make some grown men bark at the moon.
I felt a touch of this madness coming on as I read through Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media..., by John Stossel of ABC News fame. For those who don't know Stossel, he is a congenital skeptic and provocateur whose appearances on 20/20, and in his own periodic TV specials, have been perhaps most notable for how sharply they contrast with the ordinary TV news fare.
Stossel is basically a Libertarian (he prefers "classical liberal"). He is also, as the book's title suggests, the "scourge" of liberal media. From his network perch, Stossel exposes viewers to a universe of depredations undertaken in "the public interest." It's an underground economy of lawyers, activists and other professional busybodies who enrich themselves (and one another) while harming the very people they purport to help. Journalists are the indispensable abettors. The only people who don't get to participate ordinary taxpayers pick up the tab.
Stossel isn't going to make many new friends in the profession with this book, which exposes society's know-it-alls to ridicule at every turn. It depicts his fellow journalists in places as lazy, committed to ignorance, and especially susceptible to nonsense peddled as "science." He writes:
We [journalists] like to think we're superior to the people who, centuries ago, burned "witches" for no better reason than a neighbor's belief that his crop failure or impotence was caused by that woman's action. But reporters are still prone to the same mental errors that caused these killings: seeing patterns where there are none, finding causes where there is only coincidence, ignoring our sources' political agendas, and turning scanty evidence into panic.
Stossel suggests that political bias within the profession means that liberal groups have a reliable pipeline to the top news outlets and journalists, who are prone to accepting the information they are provided uncritically. The Washington Post, among others, reports that 150,000 women die every year from the eating disorder anorexia a number that, as Stossel points out, is absurd on its face. ("Triple the number killed in cars?") Dan Rather, citing a report, suggests that one in four American children under age 12 is "in danger of starving." (The actual source material, based on a highly misleading survey, said nothing of the sort. But either way, Stossel notes, isn't our real problem obesity?) The New York Times winds up having to correct a piece that says, erroneously, that the North Pole is melting but not before the story is picked up by other major media who also interview the same "global warming expert" quoted in the Times story.
The fourth estate is not the real focus of this book, however. Give Me a Break is a capitalist's manifesto, a paean to the power of self-interest to regulate human affairs. Stossel makes no apologies for his faith in free markets as the surest source of wealth, justice, innovation, and efficiency. He's a crusader who comes across as a populist F. A. Hayek or Milton Friedman. "Calcutta is poor because of your stupid policies," he tells a top official of the local Socialist party, which has run that Indian city for years. Elsewhere, he corners Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who's demanding that the city government pony up for a new stadium. "Let's have a debate," Stossel says. "You're a freeloader. You're taking money from poor taxpayers to make you, a rich guy, richer." That must have been cathartic. It's no surprise that one school teacher from Kansas writes Stossel, after his interview with the Calcutta official aired, to complain that he was "rude" to his subject. Stossel's response: "I was rude. This man wrecked people's lives.... Someone ought to be rude to him."
Readers may cringe when Stossel, arguing with the zeal of the converted, suggests that Michael Milken, the junk-bond king who did jail-time for violating securities laws, contributed more to humanity than Mother Teresa. But here's his logic: By revolutionizing corporate finance, Milken ensured that smart business ideas would have a chance to flourish; this ultimately created jobs and hope for millions of people worldwide. Mother Teresa's charities live on, aiding the suffering, but "Milken's selfish pursuit of profit helped a lot of people, too."
Only trial lawyers can test Stossel's faith in the marketplace. But, then, he argues that the tort system hardly resembles a free market, which ideally would provide awards commensurate with the worthiness of claims. Today's courtroom, Stossel says, is an arena for clever extortionists, who feed off the reluctance of defendants to see matters through to trial. Lawsuits don't need to be valid; they just need to carry enough risk for defendants to force out-of-court settlements. Stossel visits one area of San Francisco where residents live in abject fear of a particularly litigious neighbor. He is soon sued by the woman in question for slander. "We are the only advanced country in which I can sue you, wreck your life, be wrong, and then just walk away," Stossel writes. "It's the reason Americans file some 90 million lawsuits a year. Lawsuits are too lucrative and risk-free to resist."
Still, the thematic thread that holds this book together is government arrogance and its unholy consequences. Stossel wonders whether government has ever "solved" any problem it has been assigned, or even provided better solutions than those which would arise naturally if people were permitted to make their own decisions. Are the nation's public schools, controlled by bureaucratic fiefdoms and shielded from competition, meeting anyone's idea of success? The drug war has given rise to a violent black-market trade in narcotics, packed our prisons with nonviolent offenders, and cost billions of dollars upon billions of dollars without showing the slightest sign of cracking the "problem." Could drug legalization possibly make matters worse than they are now?
Give Me a Break draws from the spectrum of Stossel's reporting over the years, and the book smartly combines sharp analysis with well-chosen anecdotes. The cumulative effect is an unremitting pageant of outrages. Stossel shows how the Park Service managed to spend $330,000 on an outhouse with a gabled slate roof, cobblestone masonry, and a porch. (He found a restored 15-room house nearby that was selling for less.) City officials in Atlantic City, N.J., try to condemn one widow's home so that Donald Trump can build a limousine parking lot for one of his casinos. And the egregious state tobacco settlements, a festival of logrolling for attorneys general and their allies in the plaintiff's bar, may provoke the formation of a pitchfork brigade. Along the way, Stossel asks, How could we have let things get this way?
That's really the nub of the issue here. Because if individuals wanted to control their own lives, it stands to reason that they would vote for politicians who would try to erode government's influence. They mostly don't. Stossel suggests that the costs of bureaucratic creep are too much of an abstraction for ordinary taxpayers to notice they don't see the prices climbing or the businesses closing as a result of new laws and regulations. I would argue that perhaps these phenomena are really the opportunity cost of not having to pay attention to government machinations; that as long as people feel they're still free to enjoy their lives, they'll tolerate the costs. It's the cultural equivalent of smoking. If we're lucky, we'll never "die" from it. Either way, Stossel's book is an impassioned plea to Americans to catch the disease while it can still be cured.
Ethan Wallison is White House correspondent for Roll Call.