What PJ O'Rourke Taught Me About Housing and Hypocrisy
Lessons from Blatherboro, New Hampshire
Conservative essayist P.J. O’Rourke died this week at age 74. I think his 1991 book Parliament of Whores remains one of the most useful mass-market books for understanding American politics, and I’ve always had a particular fondness for the book’s final chapter, “At Home in the Parliament of Whores.”
While most of the book is about federal government and politics, the last chapter is about “Blatherboro,” a fictionalized name for the New Hampshire town where O’Rourke lived at the time. Specifically, it’s about the golf-course-and-condominium project he and his neighbors killed through municipal regulation, because they could.
“I hold private-property rights to be sacred in theory,” O’Rourke wrote, “but in practice I had thrown in with the anti-golf-course faction.”
O’Rourke explained that this was a matter of financial self-interest. The townhomes that were to be built with the golf course would have cost about $100,000 apiece,1 and a family of four living in one might have paid $3,500 per year in municipal taxes, while consuming about $7,500 in services from the Blatherboro government. This new development was going to cost O’Rourke and his neighbors money. So, they voted to create a pretextual sewer hookup regulation that would grant the town’s voters the authority to approve — or block — any new development of this size.
“A family of four must own at least a quarter of a million dollars worth of property to carry its own weight in the Blatherboro town budget,” he noted — an arithmetic fact overriding his view that “People have a theoretical right to do what they want with their property, and people have a theoretical right to move into my town.”
“You can’t serve theory for dinner,” he added.
There are a few lessons here for contemporary politics. One is that people are huge hypocrites.