O’Rourke gives a different kind of commencement speech

posted at 10:27 am on May 4, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

As commencements go, the Augsburg ceremony we attended yesterday didn’t insult our intelligence too badly. Oh, sure, we heard the plea to save the world by buying fair-trade coffee, but that came from the valedictorian — er, sorry, the representative — who earned her right to bloviate at the graduation through her hard work and volunteerism. The featured speaker, Dr. Jack Weatherford, gave a truly interesting and inspiring address, much more apolitical than anyone had a right to expect, and the Augsburg choir delivered a wonderful set of spirituals.

Still, I would have paid money to hear P.J. O’Rourke deliver the commencement address he envisions in today’s LA Times. Instead of the usual demands to change the world through activism, O’Rourke tells students that they will do far more good by engaging in commerce and channeling their efforts towards productivity rather than demonstrations:

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society. Does chaining yourself to a redwood tree do society $100,000 worth of good?

Idealists are also bullies. The idealist says, “I care more about the redwood trees than you do. I care so much I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. It broke up my marriage. And because I care more than you do, I’m a better person. And because I’m the better person, I have the right to boss you around.”

Get a pair of bolt cutters and liberate that tree.

Who does more for the redwoods and society anyway — the guy chained to a tree or the guy who founds the “Green Travel Redwood Tree-Hug Tour Company” and makes a million by turning redwoods into a tourist destination, a valuable resource that people will pay just to go look at?

So make your contribution by getting rich. Don’t be an idealist.

O’Rourke also gives a rather tidy Biblical repudiation of populism. He points out the text of the Tenth Commandment, which instructs people not to covet their neighbor’s assets, and says that it is rather singular within the Decalogue:

Here are God’s basic rules about how we should live, a brief list of sacred obligations and solemn moral precepts. And, right at the end of it we read, “Don’t envy your buddy because he has an ox or a donkey.” Why did that make the top 10? Why would God, with just 10 things to tell Moses, include jealousy about livestock?

Well, think about how important this commandment is to a community, to a nation, to a democracy. If you want a mule, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t whine about what the people across the street have. Get rich and get your own.

And of course, the most amusing part of O’Rourke’s “speech” is that the very people in which the community has invested the best education are the same people most in need of this reminder. Too many of them, including the starry-eyed fair-trade-coffee advocate, believe that they know the morally righteous individuals that markets should favor, and want to distort markets as much as possible to deliver what they see as the just result. Fair-trade coffee at least gives a market-based solution, which is why it’s more amusing than objectionable, but many will demand top-down government control of markets, run by enlightened college graduates such as themselves, to remove any individual choice in markets.

O’Rourke offers an analogy sure to resonate with college students everywhere. Just because he eats all the slices of a Domino’s pizza, it doesn’t force others in the room to eat the box. It just means that more pizzas will be bought, which leads to more commerce, more jobs, and better economies. O’Rourke might not get invited to the next party, but hungrier people do not have to eat the box.

America has proven O’Rourke correct, and not just America, either. Nations that protect property rights and individual liberty do not have massive famines and genocidal starvation. Nations which attempt the kind of ends-focused top-down government control of property and markets wind up with terrible poverty, epidemic starvation, and misery on a massive scale. Unfortunately, most college graduates these days don’t learn about those truths until well after they have separated themselves from Academia.

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I love PJ.

Bob's Kid on May 4, 2008 at 10:37 AM

PJ knows from which he speaks.

Jaibones on May 4, 2008 at 10:38 AM

“Get a job” is a perfect commencement message.

forest on May 4, 2008 at 10:44 AM

Amen and Amen

JonRoss on May 4, 2008 at 10:46 AM

Vintage PJ.

flipflop on May 4, 2008 at 10:49 AM

P.J. is the man, and he knocks it out of the park in this piece. If you’re now in your thirties or forties, ask yourself: how long after Live Aid, and all the Ethiopian famine hand-wringing in the early 80s, was it before you learned the cause of the famine was communism, not some kind of natural disaster, or a consequence of heartless Reaganites not caring enough about Ethiopia? And yet, to this very day, a frightening portion of the electorate is still willing to flirt with top-down command economy “solutions” like socialized medicine. If P.J. spoke at more graduation ceremonies, we wouldn’t be worrying about whether Hillary or Obama would get the Democrat Party nomination – we’d be worrying about how McCain was supposed to beat Joe Lieberman in the general.

Doctor Zero on May 4, 2008 at 11:01 AM

At least I have a signed, 1st edition copy of “Parliment of Whores.”


The Therapist on May 4, 2008 at 11:04 AM

Best thing I’ve read on the internet in a while. Excellent.

I’ll have to remember his comments to his daughter about fairness for when my son gets older and lays that on me. :)

Again, excellent.

Dash on May 4, 2008 at 11:11 AM

I love this guy.

UnEasyRider on May 4, 2008 at 11:12 AM

O’Roarke is on it. I will internalize some of his arguments and use them.

Richard Disney on May 4, 2008 at 11:13 AM

That is a great point about the 10th commandment- it shows that when society turns away from these rules of behavior, terrible things happen.

jjshaka on May 4, 2008 at 11:31 AM

As someone who is about to have to sit through a predictably left-wing political commencement speech here soon, I can only wish I’d hear a speech like this. Good one

brak on May 4, 2008 at 11:36 AM

Well, think about how important this commandment is to a community, to a nation, to a democracy. If you want a mule, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t whine about what the people across the street have. Get rich and get your own.

But how can this be, when envy, perpetual victimhood and identity group warfare are the engines that drive leftist politics?

petefrt on May 4, 2008 at 11:47 AM

P.J. made this very same point about the 10th commandment near the end of his fantastic book Eat The Rich (which should be required reading in high schools and colleges throughout this land). I often quote it when I get into arguments with income redistributionists. In the book, he gives it an even more powerful turn:

The Tenth Commandment sends a message to socialists, to egalitarians, to people obsessed with fairness, to American presidential candidates in the year 2000 — to everyone who believes that wealth should be redistributed. And the message is clear and concise: Go to hell.

KGB on May 4, 2008 at 12:03 PM

Coveting your neighbor’s ass depends on what your neighbor looks like.

And if they like pepperoni.

profitsbeard on May 4, 2008 at 12:08 PM

More of the wit and wisdom of P.J.:

“Never fight an inanimate object.”

“Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose with the exception of guppies, who like to eat theirs.”

“When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

N. O'Brain on May 4, 2008 at 12:25 PM

i like PJ a lot, but I think he’s wrong on this one. the last thing college kids need to be encouraged to do is to become high paid lawyers, that’s what all of them are going to be already (well, high paid brokers – campuses swarm with goldman sachs recruiters). i would much prefor to hear an exhortation to join the marines! back in the day, lots of the best and brightest considered it a duty and an honor to fight for their country, now they just hurl obscenities and throw rocks at military recruiters. and they don’t become environmental activists when they graduate, they become wall street types and law students. trust me, they’ve got the money-grubbing all taken care of, they really do need the idealism (if you consider fighting for america idealism, anyway).

AdrianG on May 4, 2008 at 12:42 PM

um, prefer, oops.

please see here for a longer rant!

AdrianG on May 4, 2008 at 12:44 PM

The story is nice, but the picture of pizza is why I decided to read. Now I’m going out to get some pizza. :-)

cannonball on May 4, 2008 at 1:09 PM

I like it when people tell 20-somethings to GROW UP and be productive.

SouthernGent on May 4, 2008 at 1:31 PM

That P.J. O’Rourke could print this in the LAT denotes that this is still a great country.

That I live in the same time with P.J. O’Rourke makes it a wonderful, and entertaining, life. His wit and wisdom are incredible. He has the talent to state the obvious, and to ridicule the absurd, in a unique and witty way.

From reading about his European tour, I recall fondly his arguing with the Sweedish president, or PM, about having roughly 389 holidays a year :)

AdrianG, I loved reading your “rant”. Excellent. To add to your assessment, what strikes me as incrdibly hypocritical is the lot of the very rich, Soros, Buffett, Gates, Gore, the Kennedys, the entire billionaires’ row in San Fran, the Gettys foremost, , Huffington, Streisand & Hollywood, the Kerry/Heinzs, the Clintons, the Etc., preaching to us about ‘class’ and ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’. Go give your friggin’ money to anyone you please, and live the simple life, morons. Same for your pontification on ‘global warming’ and energy consumption.

What strikes me the most, having lived half my life in communism, and the other half here, and knowing the difference, and not feeling guilty for my hard-earned success, here, is this – the West has the highest middle class of all the countries in the world.

In commun*sm, and in soc*alism, people are less equal than anywhere else. The elites rule, and eat oranges all year long. The masses are lucky if they get bread, cabbage and potatoes. Ask anyone who’s lived in the communist bloc how the elite exploited all others.

The elites know this, but prefer to fool the masses, so they have lemmings to vote for them, and so they themselves can continue to live the life of kings and emperors. Equality is a Utopian myth, and they know it.

What makes me stinking mad is the American ‘intelligentsia’s’ attempt to model themselves after the European multi-culti, one-world, envious anti-American, PC, bull-s**t, all in the name of ‘fairness’ and ‘progressiveness’, while they are no more/less hypocritical. I observe/engage them here and there on a weekly basis.

Entelechy on May 4, 2008 at 2:17 PM

Another outstanding tome.

drjohn on May 4, 2008 at 2:23 PM

O’Rourke also gives a rather tidy Biblical repudiation of populism. He points out the text of the Tenth Commandment…

Never thought about it in a macro-anti-populist way like that, but it makes sense.

Also, I think Jesus’ Parable of the Talents can likewise be seen as a repudiation of socialism in favor of entrepreneurship and reward.

CP on May 4, 2008 at 3:10 PM

Reminds me of one of my O’Rourke favorites. Still apropos in this election.

James OK on May 4, 2008 at 4:58 PM

10th commandment

Also the basis for the income tax; coveting anything of thy neighbor’s.

oldleprechaun on May 4, 2008 at 5:41 PM

I second that.

TheSitRep on May 4, 2008 at 7:50 PM

I don’t even remember my commencement speaker. When my wife graduated in ’99, Senator Bill Frist spoke. It basically went like this for an hour:

Me. Me me me me me me me. Did I mention I’m a brain surgeon? I did? Well, I am. Me, me, me…me…me. ME! What about you and your future? ME! Congratulations, you get to hear ME! Me, me, me, me, me, me, me and some more of me. How ’bout a side of me? Would you like some more Bill Frist with that Bill Frist? Hey you college grads, did I tell you about me, the Senator Brain Surgeon? I did? Well, you still have 30 more minutes of ME to sit through!

I never heard a more vain, obnoxious, arrogant person in my life. I live in Middle Tennessee, which is pretty durn Red–but man, people were getting pissed and eyes were rolling. It was an incredible feat of me-ness.

Can’t stand the man after what he put me through on that excruciating day.

robblefarian on May 4, 2008 at 8:13 PM

I miss PJ’s History Channel show.

srhoades on May 4, 2008 at 8:15 PM

another great piece by PJ about america and mccain recently: “What you can learn about America on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt”

homesickamerican on May 4, 2008 at 11:16 PM

The left feels that it is much more important to feel good about yourself, than to actually do good.

Hence the emphasis on meaningless demonstrations, rather than the nitty gritty of creating organizations that would actually do the work that the demonstrations advocate.

MarkTheGreat on May 5, 2008 at 7:06 AM

Don’t worry, PJ. I’m rich enough to buy my own pizza. (drool)

Bigfoot on May 5, 2008 at 9:50 AM

O’Rourke in 2008 !!

Maxx on May 5, 2008 at 11:15 AM