May 05, 2004

Book Review: "Give Me A Break," by John Stossel

by Jeremy Blachman

Yes, I've actually been studying. But if I spend a chunk of the day reading about law, sometimes I like to read for a little while before bed about something else. So the last few days I've used John Stossel's "Give Me A Break" as my bedtime reading, and I've dreamt of government regulators getting assassinated and Congressmen falling down wells. I like John Stossel. His 20/20 pieces are usually interesting, colorful, and fun to watch. The book chronicles his transformation from a consumer advocate, doing pieces about how, say, asbestos is hurting kids, to a libertarian, skeptical of government regulation of most kinds. Basically, as he reported on more and more consumer dangers, he started to realize that the free market wasn't the problem, and private companies were more efficient than when government stepped in and tried to regulate, but ended up just making the problem worse, or pretending it was fixed when it wasn't. "Government is inefficient" is the point Stossel's trying to sell. The book is a breezy mix of anecdotes about stories he worked on and -- I'm looking for a less loaded word than this, but can't find it -- libertarian propaganda.

Done well, but clearly motivated by a certain point of view. If you've seen his ABC News Specials, a lot of the topics in the book will sound familiar, because he's reported on them, and to some extent the book summarizes a bunch of those reports. It's a fine book, and it's entertaining to read, but even if he's being completely fair and accurate, you get the sense while reading that he's playing fast and loose with the facts -- everything's definitive in here: breast implants are safe, dioxin is safe, organic foods are no healthier than regular food and in fact may be more dangerous because they have more bacteria, government handouts are bad, flood insurance is bad, high salaries for corporate CEOs are good, privatizing housing projects is good, banning smoking is bad, legalizing drugs is good... there's no nuance here, there's no ambiguity, no arguments on both sides of the issue... and maybe Stossel's decided there just aren't any good ones, and it's all so clear... but as entertaining as it is to basically say "libertarian ideas are right, and people who don't see it this way are just stupid and wrong and should be mocked," it doesn't feel completely satisfying.

I especially enjoyed his chapter, "The Trouble With Lawyers," which tort lawyers would likely find infuriating. Lawsuits, Stossel writes, are like nuclear missiles -- "We need them... [but we should] try not to use them, because they harm innocent people." They're expensive, people abuse them, lawyers make all the money, they deter innovation, they stop kids from playing Little League, drive up the cost of bicycle helmets, send companies who may have used asbestos but didn't harm anyone into bankruptcy, cost thousands of jobs, force McDonalds to serve cold coffee, destroy the innocent tobacco companies (because smokers, by dying early, don't actually cost us anything), close down businesses just because they're not wheelchair-accessible -- and the solution to all this? "Loser pays." That would fix it. Very entertaining to read, sometimes even a little thought-provoking, but there's the depth of the analysis. He has a point to make, he's trying very hard to make it, he makes it well -- but this is advocacy, not balance.

So, I'm not a libertarian, but I still enjoyed the book. And maybe I take away from it a little bit more skepticism about government regulation than I had, and a few colorful anecdotes. But it's fluff. It's a breezy libertarian primer, playing loose with facts and nuance to make a point. There's nothing *wrong* with that, I guess -- but somehow it's not completely satisfying.

May 5, 2004 09:37 AM | TrackBack

Do the views of libertarians on sex suggest they may also be libertines?

In the course of the population growth of the U.S. from its founding to date, should the need for regulation lessen or increase?

Do libertarians favor state-rights over federal rights or the unenumerated rights of "we the people" (Tenth Amendment) over both?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at May 5, 2004 04:10 PM

The veracity of the purported facts upon which Stossel bases his reportage has been widely disputed. It would be a mistake to assume that Stossel's reportage is much more than spin.

Posted by: raj at May 6, 2004 07:24 AM
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