Piercing through Myths, Lies, and Stupidity

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Lies, and Downright Stupidity

by John Stossel (Hyperion 2006); 304 pages; $24.95.

John Stossel,
anchor of the ABC News program 20/20, is a rarity among the
ranks of American media personalities. He’s a skeptic when
it comes to everything except freedom. He even calls himself a libertarian.
Over the years, he has made a very good career in TV journalism,
poking holes in the self-inflated posturing of union leaders, environmental
zealots, businessmen who demand government favors, and, most of
all, politicians.

favorite move is to confront such people with hard questions and
then record their answers (usually evasions, unresponsive hostility,
or pure blather) for the public to evaluate. I recall an interview
Stossel had with Donald Trump several years ago. When Stossel asked
a pointed question about Trump’s effort to have his political
friends use the power of eminent domain to take the property of
a woman who didn’t want to sell to him, “The Donald”
stormed off the set in a huff. Bravo, Stossel!

Lies, and Downright Stupidity is a book based mainly on Stossel’s
iconoclastic reporting. Some of the material is of a consumer watchdog
nature (“Is there really any reason to buy bottled water?”),
some has to do with problems of everyday life (“Are men really
better drivers than women?”) and some confront commonly held
beliefs (”Are you more likely to be stopped if you’re
driving a red car?”), but the core of the book is about the
false beliefs people hold regarding politics. Everywhere he looks
– government schooling, regulations, environmental scare-mongering,
subsidies, and so forth – Stossel sees that ordinary people
have been fed a diet of baloney to cover up the fact that some people
use politics to take life, liberty, and property from other people.

romp through the myths, lies, and stupidity that big government
and its retinue of admirers and sycophants rely on covers many juicy

Public schooling

start with “public education.” The chapter “Stupid
Schools” is drawn from the material in Stossel’s January
2006 television special that brilliantly illuminated the waste and
ineffectiveness of government-run schools. Throughout the book,
Stossel uses boxes containing one statement that’s a myth followed
by another statement that’s true. His first such box in the
schooling chapter reads,

Myth: Educating children is too important to be left to the uncertainty
of market competition.
Truth: Educating children is too important to be left to a government

In the course
of this chapter, we are introduced to a young man named Dorian.
He is 17, a senior in a public high school in South Carolina, and
can barely read even the simplest material. Here is Stossel’s
conversation with Dorian:

Stossel: You know there is a whole world that can open up to you,
if you are able to read.
Dorian: Yeah, I know that. I know if I could read better, I wouldn’t
be such a problem.
Stossel: Did they try to teach you to read?
Dorian: From time to time.
Stossel: Well, what did they do?
Dorian: They just tell you to read by yourself. Go home and read,
which, uh, I wouldn’t.
Stossel: But they kept moving you ahead in class?
Dorian: Yes, sir.

Now, if the
official pronouncements about the deep concern of the education
establishment for the success of every student were to be believed,
the South Carolina public-school system would be doing everything
possible to help this young man learn to read. Instead, the lack
of concern is astounding. At a meeting to discuss Dorian’s
academic progress, the principal said, “I’ve seen great
progress in him. I don’t have any concerns.” It’s
easy to see why this attitude prevails – the money keeps rolling
in whether the results are good or lousy. (A point Stossel might
have made here is that government schools often can squeeze more
money out of taxpayers through failure than success.)

Dorian, by
the way, was subsequently enrolled in a reading program at a Sylvan
Learning Center. As a result, his reading level improved by two
grade levels after only 72 hours of instruction.

What really
infuriates the public-education establishment about Stossel is not
so much that he casts doubt on the efficacy of their schools –
it’s always possible to haul out “education experts”
who will attest that the schools are doing the best they can and
just need more funding – but that he depicts them as money
grubbers of the worst sort. In his writing, teachers and union officials
sound as though their overriding concern is raiding the wallets
of the taxpayers. For example, when Stossel observes that South
Carolina public schools spend an average of $10,000 per student
and asks a school official how much more would be enough, he gets
this answer: “Twenty thou, twenty-five, thirty. The more, the
better.” Makes you wonder – can these people spell “parasite”?

Among the
other education myths Stossel punctures are that teaching certificates
are necessary to ensure competence, that excellent teachers are
rewarded, that teachers are underpaid, and that home schooling is
just for religious zealots who don’t care whether their children
don’t learn to socialize. The chapter is devastating to the
government schooling monopoly.

Monster government

In another
chapter, Stossel takes on the myths, lies, and stupidity that prop
up Monster Government. “Growing up,” he writes,

I believed that government was a good thing, like Mommy and Daddy.
It helped and protected us. It took me a while to understand that
government could become too much of a good thing; patronizing, overprotective,
and destructive of our liberty.

After years
of looking at government with cold rationality, observing actual
results rather than stated intentions, Stossel has concluded that
it’s mostly a gigantic rip-off. Republicans and Democrats take
an equal pounding.

One of his
favorite targets is agricultural subsidies. Farmers and the politicians
who pander for their support have built up a stout wall of myths
to protect the programs that compel the taxpayer to subsidize the
growing (or not growing) of crops. Stossel interviews two brothers
who own a 12,000-acre farm in California and receive government
price-support payments. They claim that their costs have risen faster
than prices and they wouldn’t make any profit without the subsidies.
Stossel replies, “To that, I say, ‘So what?’ Not
making a profit doesn’t entitle them to our money.” The
farmers can only retort that the government has decided to help
them, “so we’re winning and you’re losing.”
I suppose that’s the adult version of “nyah, nyah.”

love to parade around as great benefactors of the people, but Stossel
wants his readers to understand that most politicians are just “busybodies
who want to force their preferences on us.” Exhibit A is the
mayor of Friendship Heights, Maryland, who pushed for an ordinance
to ban smoking in any public place, even outdoors. When Stossel
confronts the health-zealot mayor, he lamely replies, “Well,
we’re elected to promote the general welfare and this is part
of the general welfare.” The pleasant-sounding term “the
general welfare” is used as cover for lots of petty tyranny
like that.

The legal profession

The legal
profession also comes in for some well-deserved scorn and derision.
After excoriating tort lawyers for lawsuits that line their pockets,
brought in jurisdictions where they have judges who have been elected
with their support, Stossel gets to one of my own pet peeves, namely
prohibitions against the unauthorized practice of law. Those are
laws that restrict the field of legal work and advice to members
of the lawyers’ guild – that is, licensed attorneys. Stossel
introduces us to a man who was arrested and jailed in Louisiana
(by a squad of seven policemen!) for the crime of helping some residents
of a nursing home fill out legal forms for wills and bankruptcy.
You can get two years in prison for that in Louisiana.

When Stossel
confronts the district attorney who is prosecuting the case, the
DA justifies his action by saying that an unlicensed person might
not give good legal advice. Stossel replies that not all lawyers
give good advice either. Furthermore, none of the residents had
complained about the man’s work for them and they could not
afford the fees that a “real” lawyer would charge. Stossel
sums it up:

The prosecutor told us that Jerome was a threat to the public because
he was giving advice in a “technical field.” But helping
people fill out forms for wills, bankruptcy, or mutually consensual
divorces is not so “technical” that only the holy mandarins
of the legal bar should be allowed to do it.

Once again,
Stossel has demolished the myths and lies that keep the average
person from seeing that the law has been perverted into a device
for killing competition so that an influential group can unjustly

liberals, and libertarians

At the end
of the book, Stossel explains why he isn’t a “conservative”
or a “liberal” in the contemporary sense:

As I write this, Republicans are attacking oil companies for price
“gouging,” they’re trying to amend the Constitution
to ban gays from marrying, and they just created a new Medicare
entitlement. If that’s conservatism today, then it holds little
appeal for me.”

On the other

liberalism has come to mean spending more on everything – speech
police, failed poverty programs that reward dependency, a bigger
nanny state telling us we cannot eat fatty foods, workplace rules
that stifle opportunity, and absurd environmental regulations.

He owns up
to holding the libertarian philosophy, but admits that he doesn’t
really like the word. “I want the word ‘liberal’
back!” he writes. “Today’s liberals stole it and
perverted it.” Amen to that.

My only real
complaint about the book is that quite a few chapters don’t
convey the anti-statist message that the author wants to get across.
The myths, lies, and downright stupidity Stossel attacks often have
nothing to do with beliefs regarding government and politics. Okay
– cell phones don’t cause gas pumps to explode and full
moons don’t cause people to behave crazily – but if the
target is our omnipotent state, it would have made sense to have
kept the work focused on that. Goodness knows that there’s
enough material to fill up dozens of books on the harms of big government.

Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity is an easy, fun read
that could get a lot of people who don’t usually think about
government and politics to drop their support for the philosophy
and policies that are gradually wrecking the United States.

11, 2006

C. Leef [send him mail]
is the director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in
Raleigh, North Carolina, and book review editor of The

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