Saturday, September 10, 2005

Book Review: GIVE ME A BREAK

Off hand, I can name only one mainstream TV news reporter without gagging — John Stossel. Stossel’s spent the past decade or so reporting “against the grain,” and TV specials like “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” and “John Stossel Goes to Washington” are classics (as well as Nielsen ratings blockbusters). His book Give Me a Break is both a good primer on markets vs. government and an entertaining account of his battles with Big Media powers to reach audiences with the truth about free markets.

Stossel started out as a “consumer reporter,” bashing corporate crooks and even smalltime rip-off artists. “For years,” he writes, “I bought the stereotypes that serve as conventional wisdom in the news business: Corporations are evil; all risk is intolerable; consumers need more government to protect us.” But eventually, Stossel had what he calls an epiphany: “...voluntary is better than forced. Free is better than coerced. It’s why, whenever possible, we are better off if the private sector is bigger and government smaller. Government can never hope to attend to people’s needs and wants as well as the market, simply because it’s not as fast or efficient. The government makes big adjustments every two or four or six years; the market, driven by countless trades like your ice-cream purchase can adjust thousands of times a second.”

Because of this personal revelation, Stossel’s been attacked by the Bogus Left. Sidney Wolfe of the Ralph Nader-founded group Public Citizen said he’s “a menace...doing a massive amount of damage.” But Stossel is not the “friend of industry” that interest groups have accused him of being.

“Why am I a ‘friend of industry’ because I like free markets?” he asks. “Many in industry despise free markets, and try to use cronyism and government connections to rig the system to avoid free market competition. I’m a friend of entrepreneurship, but is there something wrong with that? Entrepreneurship brings us many of the best things we have.”

Despite his attacks on big government, Stossel admits, “I’m no anarchist.” But he shuns most other labels as well. He writes:

“...the mainstream media are tilted so far to the left that they call me conservative.

“I guess they call me that because I believe the free market is a good thing — but what’s conservative about the market? It’s unplanned, unpredictable, scary, noisy. ‘Libertarian’ is a better term for my beliefs. But it’s a lousy word. People think it means ‘libertine,’ and the Libertarian Party has had flaky people like Howard Stern run for office. Maybe ‘classical liberal’ is a better term for what I am. Liberals were originally the ones who advocated freedom and tolerance.

“Not lately.”

Give Me a Break is fun to read. And refreshingly, Stossel doesn’t come off as a faultless crusader. He admits his mistakes and foibles. And he’s one of the best messengers we free-marketeers have got.

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At 5:02 PM, Blogger freeman said...

And he’s one of the best messengers we free-marketeers have got.

I disagree. Libertarians, especially those who are interested in promoting various brands of left-libertarianism, need to be careful with folks like John Stossel.

Initially, his 20/20 report on organic foods a few years ago was inaccurate. Only after receiving pressure from outside groups did Stossel cave in and admit to errors in his report and thus apologized.

It's a good thing that he apologized, but what troubles me is the fact that many of his primary sources of info for his reports has very close ties to agribusiness and petrochemical corporations - some of the largest and most atrocious examples of state capitalism at work as opposed to the "free market".

Stossel may be genuine in his support of free markets, but if that's the case then he isn't very bright in terms of who to trust when gathering information for his reports.

Additionally, Kevin Carson wrote one of his "vulgar libertarianism watch" posts on Stossel specifically. Here is a link.

With all that said though, I have appreciated a number of the reports he has done over the years on ABC, such as the ones calling for the legalization of drugs and victimless crimes.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Wally Conger said...

When it comes to mainstream, establishment media, freeman, I'll take whatever free-market advocates I can find (and Stossel's the only one out there). At LEAST he's bringing "the message," unpure as it might sometimes be, to The Masses. (By the way, his report on organic foods, as far as I know, was only faulted on one testing item; the remainder was never disputed successfully.) I may be a Purist generally, but like Rothbard, I still recognize movements in the anti-statist direction, no matter how incremental they might be.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for the link, freeman.


I know Stossel tips his hat to the issue of government-corporate collusion. But the great majority of the time, by some coincidence, his defense of "free market principles" works out to a defense of the big corporations. Unfortunately, the exposure he's giving free market libertarianism in the mainstream media just reinforces the popular stereotype of "pot-smoking Republicans."

It's better to have no free market advocate at all than one who brings the free market into repute by confirming the public's darkest fears of what libertarianism amounts to in practice.


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