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Stossel’s Choirboys 

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John Stossel, ABC’s self-appointed scourge of “junk science” and the “liberal media,” wielded a fine-point Sharpie last Wednesday night, scrawling his name on the inside leaf of his new book titled — no surprise — Give Me a Break. Reason magazine, with an assist from the L.A. Press Club, booked Citrine, a restaurant that could double as an executive dining room at Fox Studios, to give a little stroke to the 20/20 co-host who, back in the mid-’90s, used its pages to announce his conversion from consumer advocate to Templar of capitalism. Stossel, sipping a vodka tonic, seemed a lot more hedonistic than his admirers. While they kept up a steady bleat about the wonders of free markets in places like Chile (“It has a completely privatized social security,” businessman Paul Harberger swooned, “and you get 4 percent return on your investments. You can’t beat that”), Stossel maintained his televised distance. This was a roomful of people out to feed their individual dreams of riches and all that wealth confers, and it was obvious that Stossel knew he was among converts who had the bad habit of forcing him to listen while they recited the catechism. An awkward moment for a celebrity who just wanted to drink and schmooze a bit. Besides, he didn’t need reminding. Years ago, when he quit exposing consumer rip-offs, he told a Federalist Society audience, “I got sick of it. I also now make so much money, I just lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas.”

Not that Reason or Stossel were loath to reprise an Econ 1A lesson plan. A hosted bar, pouring a Kirralaa Shiraz and a Terra di Tufi pinot grigio, abruptly ended at 7 p.m. The welfare state — Stossel’s bête noire, a.k.a. “freebies” — was replaced with the self-avowed libertarian’s beloved free market. Henceforth, his well-wishers would have to pay $9 a glass for wine, an adroit baptism in what the latter-day followers of Adam Smith like to call “economic shock therapy” — the cure so disastrously applied to, among others, the former Soviet Union. Still, with so many people quoting Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, it seemed only fair that the prevailing ideology ought to give shape to the facts, and not the other way around. One was left to wonder, however, at the lavish, scrumptious scallop and tuna tartare canapes that kept coming out of Citrine’s kitchen, gratis. Shouldn’t a tab have been run for these, too?

At around 8, it was time for Stossel to formally acknowledge his hosts and the adoring crowd. Employing his boyish looks and Midwestern twang to conjure his trademark tone of Everyman common sense upended, Stossel defended himself against his detractors. “Where I live [New York City, presumably], they use the word conservative the way they use the words child molester. George Will and John Stossel: right wing, conservatives. But I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal. I think drugs and prostitution ought to be legal. You ought to have the right to burn flags, if that’s what makes you happy. I’m a hardcore libertarian.”

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“The book’s No. 1 on Amazon,” someone from the floor blurted out.

“It was No. 1, but has fallen down below Al Franken, sadly,” Stossel replied. The crowd booed.

“Capitalism,” Stossel continued, “equals free minds, free markets, limited government to create the prosperity we have in America, and in Hong Kong.” With his practiced note of strained credulity, he summarized what libertarians were up against. “People hate their employers and they pay them. People love their government and it takes their money. I toast to freedom!”

A young man, wading into the audience, pointed out that markets aren’t always prudent or wise. “During the electrical crisis,” he said, “L.A. was the only place that wasn’t affected because we had public power. Meanwhile, Enron stole billions of dollars.”

Stossel, the seasoned TV personality, knew how to parry the anxious young man’s attempt to prick the air of invincibility: stay on point. “There are no big national scams except for Enron,” Stossel said. “Because markets figure it out. Not the government. Enron is an example of how well the market worked for people. Enron’s stock came tumbling down. When the government fails, we give them more money. So, yes, there are Enrons, but the exception proves the rule.”

And then he moved on, without giving anyone a chance to challenge the Dumpster-load of falsities in that shambles of a paragraph. But then, Stossel knew that while it’s no fun to have the choir preach to you, preaching to the choir has its distinct advantages. You can always be sure that dissent will be laid promptly to rest. And so it was — without a peep. Stossel’s performance lasted all of five minutes. The crowd settled back into the individual pursuit of happiness. Oddly, as they drifted for the door, no one seemed especially cheerful. All that talk about the laws of supply and demand proved the old saw. Economics is the dismal science.

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