John Stossel, Myth-Buster

John Stossel, who co-hosts ABC’s popular “20/20” on Friday nights at 10, is arguably the most influential libertarian in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, he’s also the MSM’s only libertarian journalist — the only one who understands, appreciates and openly pushes the virtues and benefits of free-market economics.

Stossel has a new book out, “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel — Why Everything You Know is Wrong.” Like his 2004 bestseller, “Give Me a Break,” it is a bright, breezy and politically incorrect treatment of issues he’s addressed on “20/20.” I talked to him by telephone from Houston last Tuesday.

The truths you assert — that DDT saves lives, that price gouging saves lives, that foreign aid doesn’t help poor people and even that red cars attract police attention — often sound like the ravings of a madman to many people. Why is that?

Gee, thanks! Price gouging being good and foreign aid not helping poor people sounds like madness because economic ignorance is so widespread and the economically clueless in the media keep perpetuating myths.

What is it that you know or you have learned — or think you know — that enables you to see through these myths?

I have more time to talk to the smarter people. Economics is not intuitive, I was late to discover. It just takes a little understanding of economics to see how price gouging is helpful at bringing new supplies in. It’s not on the radar screen of the mainstream media that DDT saves lives. We’ve been so trained by our high school and college educations and Rachel Carson to think that DDT is evil. Maybe I read more widely and I watched the footage of Americans having picnics while surrounded by the white smoke when we sprayed vast quantities of DDT. Some people even ran toward the trucks, they were so thrilled to have mosquitoes killed. We did end our malaria problem, but only by spraying vast quantities of DDT did we cause problems. Even then, the only problem was the thinning of the eggshells of the bald eagle. Using tiny amounts would save millions of lives. It’s so disgusting that we don’t do it. We instead waste taxpayer money on bed nets that get holes in them.

What is the most damaging myth that comes to your mind that needs to be thoroughly and repeatedly debunked until all Americans learn it?

Well, the DDT one is right up there. We’re killing millions of people with this idiocy about DDT. Another big one is the myth that education is too important to be left to the vagaries of market competition.

What’s a myth President Bush should be disabused of?

That Big Government will solve our problems. That it’s the government’s job to have a national education policy and a national health care policy.

Is there a theme that runs through these myths — sort of an overarching lesson that can be applied to the news and the scientific claims or warnings or hysteria or whatever that the future will bring?

The alarms are endless. Almost all are wrong. And yet the failure of the previous alarms to kill us does not make us less fearful when the press moves on to the next alarm.

Where do these myths, lies and stupidities come from?

Parents and the mainstream media. And instinct.

The mainstream media you say are better at spreading fear than explaining and making things clear.

Well, they are very good about making things clear that are heroic — about covering daily news and wars and politics and crime and the weather — but lousy when it comes to science and economics. There’s also a lack of humility about it. There’s a pride in newsrooms about being bad in math — “Oh, I can’t do my expense report.” But I at least am embarrassed that I know little about literature, theater, little about music. I wouldn’t presume to report on these things. But these economically clueless reporters are constantly saying you’ve got to raise the minimum wage and you have to cap prices.

In your book you have some good words to say about polygamy.

Right. I don’t think it’s good to enslave children in it. But when it’s consenting adults, I say let them. I also make the argument about a person being able to buy a kidney. It’s my body. If I don’t need two kidneys, why can’t I sell one? Why can’t I offer money for one if I am dying? Seventeen people die every day waiting for kidneys. It’s disgusting to have paternalistic politicians saying it must be forbidden because commerce is involved rather than altruism.

For the record, when someone asks you what your politics are, what your point of view is, what do you say to them?

I’d say I’m a libertarian. And I prefer the word “liberal” except that the liberals stole the word and have perverted it to mean “big government running your life.” So I’m stuck with “classical liberal” and no one knows what that means, so I call myself a libertarian.

That puts you at odds with both liberals and conservatives. Which side hates you or dislikes you more – liberals or conservatives? You are in favor of legalizing drugs, you’re not against abortion — things like that would annoy conservatives. But you’re also in favor of free-market solutions to just about everything, from schools to buses.

I think homosexuality is all right. And yet the conservatives will pay me a $40,000 speaking fee — which goes to charity, by the way – and invite me to their events and have me on their shows. But the liberals will have nothing to do with me.

You didn’t just turn into a libertarian because you thought government should be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny consumer products should be.

I watched government fail in the regulation I cheered on as a consumer reporter. And I kept reading, trying to find somebody who would explain to me what was going on. The New York Times and the Globe and the Post were all saying the same things, which didn’t make sense to me. And the National Review and American Spectator were all bashing Democrats and saying we should have soldiers more places. Then I finally found Reason magazine — and that opened my eyes.

What would be the greatest myth about John Stossel?

Ha…. Boy, Bill, I can’t pick one. I don’t know what they are… That he’s a conservative? I don’t know what other myths there are.