If I ruled the world: PJ O’Rourke

Prospect Magazine

If I ruled the world: PJ O’Rourke


Adam Smith would be my guide, I’d be a tolerable judge if I wasn’t drunk, and my family’s dog would travel by jet

I’d leave people alone. Humans are a self-organising species. Paleontologists say we began making tools two-and-a-half million years ago. I doubt we did so in response to a Stimulus Act from the president of United Homo Erectus.

Making anything requires some form of self-organisation, as even the acrimonious mess of making breakfast at my house on school mornings shows. Breakfast at my house also shows that just because we’re self-organising doesn’t mean we’re good at it. Autonomously generated systems of caste, class and governance are as unpleasant as my kitchen on Mondays at 7am, and more violent, repressive and exploitative. But putting me in charge of the world won’t fix things any more than putting me in charge of scrambling the eggs.

Like anyone who daydreams, drinks or spends too much time in political chat rooms, I have an idea of economic and political perfection. I also have an idea of what happens when perfection is forcibly imposed on people—guillotine, Gestapo, gulag and Great Leap Forward. I’m a nicer guy than Robespierre. But my character hasn’t been tested by absolute authority. Only once have I exercised might and main over another being. That was when I trained my highly obedient and strictly-disciplined bird dog. And even then the kids got to name her. Get the hell off the couch, Fluffy.

Having all the power on earth would present me with too many temptations. Since I’m a nicer guy than Robespierre, these would be temptations to do good. There’s a strong streak of do-gooder in Americans. Actually, if you think about it, Americans do have all the power on earth. Look where it’s gotten us in Iraq, Afghanistan and our public schools.

Decisions about these matters were made by all of America’s do-gooders put together. On my own, I’m sure I could do worse. The wisdom of the many is greater than the wisdom of the few. This is the principle of democracy. Democracy stinks but it works. Every other political system just stinks. The principle of every other political system is the theme of this essay: “I’m the boss.”

Superior wisdom of the many is also the principle of the free market. Even in a double-dip recession with a European Union debt crisis looming, the free market works better than my investment strategy (short gold and buy subprime mortgage debt).

If I ruled the world, I’d be guided by the great theorist of the free market, Adam Smith. In 1755 Smith wrote a paper in which he criticised interference with natural rights and private interests by politicians and what today would be called New York Times columnists. “Man is generally considered by statesmen and projectors as the materials of a sort of political mechanics,” he said. “Projectors disturb nature in the course of her operations in human affairs, and… all governments which thwart this natural course… are unnatural, and, to support themselves, are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.” His prescription: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Peace is a problem. There’s a side to mankind’s self-organising that organises the purchases of AK-47s in large quantities. And easy taxes are unlikely, given current ideas about citizen entitlements. We’d need a simpler and more self-reliant polity. The Comanches of the Texas plains had easy taxes. But I fall off horses and I’m scared of buffaloes. Tolerable administration of justice I could do, provided that, when I took the bench, I wasn’t hung-over, hadn’t had a fight with my wife, and my underwear didn’t itch.

Still, I’ll accept the burden of office. I’d rather rule the world than let anyone else do it. Adam Smith is dead. We tried Alan Greenspan. Ron Paul would be too doctrinaire in his libertarianism. You wouldn’t just get to do what you want, you’d have to do what you want. Two tubs of ice cream and a pack of Marlboros for lunch.

No doubt I’d give in to some temptations. Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-Il and the Kardashian sisters would be arrested. But mostly I’d mind my own business—the business of enjoying the job’s perks. There’d be jets, helicopters, chauffeured cars, the World Ruler Mansion in the Bois de Boulogne, World Ruler Winter Palaces in Maui and Gstaad, World Ruler Retreats in Scotland for grouse season, South Dakota for pheasant season and so on, and a separate jet for Fluffy, who smells.

One thing I can promise. If I ruled the world it would be a better place—for me.

  1. September 21, 2011

    Edward Harkins

    O Rourke opines of the great Adam Smith;

    “Smith wrote a paper in which he criticised interference with natural rights and private interests by politicians and what today would be called New York Times columnists.”

    It does seem that an increasing number of under-informed, somewhat reactionary, commentators are making self-servingly selective use of Adam Smith’s writings. Adam Smith, however, also wrote famously of what today would be companies or corporations, including the banks, (i.e. ‘those who live by profit) that:

    “As their thoughts… are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society.”


    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

    P J O’Rourke certainly needs the guidance of someone of the stature of Adam Smith (who, I believe never criticised the journalists of a free press, whether or not they ‘today would be called New York Times columnists’.

  2. September 22, 2011


    thats all well and good, but dont diss the fluff!

  3. September 22, 2011

    Robert Rowklands

    This is the first time since it was introduced that the “If I ruled the world” page has actually been worth reading.

  4. September 25, 2011


    Like many who do not understand Smith, you chop off those quotes too early. To continue the main one:
    People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary. (emphasis mine)
    The other one, in full and undoctored, also makes a nonsense of your argument.
    O’Rourke knows an awful lot more about Smith, and freedom, than you display here. The only one here making selective use of Smith quotes here is you.

  5. September 30, 2011

    Edward Harkins

    Ah Andrew you proteth too much with too much distraction. Your ‘continuations’ on quotes make no difference to the points I make (for example, I said or inferred nothing about instigating legal efforts to prevent any assemblies. Indeed I think it’s a pity that successive British and USA governments have not paid more regard to Smith in this regard when it came to attacks and constraints on organised labour).

    I suggest, with respect, it’s you who needs to do the re-reading. It is always interesting to note, however, the purist zealotary with which some want to hold Smith as ‘one of their own’.

  6. October 1, 2011


    P.J. O’Rourke. Proof of the adage that there’s nothing worse than a “reformed” anything.

    Some of us are old enough to remember O’Rourke as a long-haired, spitball-throwing ne’er-do-well.

  7. October 2, 2011


    This is so facile. Of course absolute authority is bad. No authority is also bad, as it results in chaos and anarchy. The debate is about where we should situate government powers over the range in between, and O’Rourke contributes nothing to this.

  8. October 11, 2011


    Perhaps if PJ were to sober up for a few days he might be able to understand Adam Smith and his advocacy for properly regulated markets as well as his explanation of the meaning of wealth.

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PJ O\'Rourke

PJ O'Rourke
PJ O' Rourke is a writer. His review first appeared in the Weekly Standard. 

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