1 January 2019

Best of 2018: James O’Brien’s ‘How To Be Right’ gets it all wrong


This week CapX is republishing some of our favourite articles of the year. This piece first appeared on November 1.

James O’Brien, broadcaster, polemicist and “conscience of liberal Britain”, has written a book, How To Be Right… in a world gone wrong.

If you’re not familiar with O’Brien’s output, he’s carved out a viral niche which combines “savage takes” with “owning” people who call into his LBC radio show to voice their often misguided views on the great issues of the day. As the title of the book suggests, he puts quite a lot of stock in being right. “I hope I’m wrong, but it doesn’t happen that often,” is perhaps the canonical O’Brien quote (from a discussion with a Romanian man who had been in the UK since 1995 and was somehow not terrified of being deported after Brexit).

The book, in which O’Brien tackles Trump, Brexit and various other topics, is the silliest elements of his LBC show writ large. Quite literally, in the sense that a decent chunk is taken up by transcripts of O’Brien’s conversations with members of the public. These are generally people who have decided the country is going to hell in a handcart – be it because of The Gays, Muslims, Feminazis or Political Correctness Gone Mad.

O’Brien picks easy targets, from the often inarticulate people who phone in to his show to professional hate-figures such as Katie Hopkins, Richard Littlejohn and Kelvin Mackenzie. Seeing people tie themselves in knots over their own prejudices can be funny, but it doesn’t do that much to advance the debate on complex, often delicate issues. A chapter on what a bad bloke Donald Trump is, while gratifying to many, not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know. Nor, indeed, does it seem all that necessary, given that about four in five Brits already have an unfavourable view of the US president.

This brings us neatly to my chief objection to the book. It’s not so much that O’Brien is wrong – though there’s plenty of that – but that his points are nowhere near as original or thought-provoking as he might have you believe. And while he tries to cast himself as some kind of fearless seeker of the truth, he quite often seems to just be a leftish equivalent of the bloviating pundits he has such fun lampooning.

When he does venture away from the polemical into the thornier terrain of public policy, O’Brien is on far shakier ground (as this discussion on the Brexit divorce bill demonstrates). While he may be good at identifying things people are worried about – low wages, immigration, high house prices, a rickety health service – he doesn’t burden himself with offering any solutions.

A chapter on generational inequality, for instance, bizarrely suggests that there are “only three ways” to tackle structural inequality – income tax, property tax and inheritance tax. It’s hard to deconstruct an argument with such basic flaws, aside from making the point that raising revenue and spending it effectively are very different things indeed.

From the starting point that more tax equals less inequality, O’Brien pivots to arguing that people only object to their taxes being raised due to selfishness or “grooming by the right-wing media”. According to this inane worldview, scepticism about what government spends money on is recast as simple avarice. And is he even, as it were, right? People are perfectly capable of objecting to high taxation without a paper telling them to, and nor does wanting a bigger state mean you have a big heart.

Even more oddly, in a section about the iniquity of high house prices he does not once mention the way the planning system discourages building and keeps prices artificially high. Far easier to decry the moral failings of “selfish” rightwingers than to address tricky issues about the structure of the economy.

We are also treated to a paper-thin discussion of the gig economy, which essentially boils down to Uber exploiting their drivers and black cabbies being cruelly forced to give up their near monopoly on the taxi trade. The lesson, O’Brien tells us, is that the future of “neo-liberal entrepreneurship” will be “identifying markets where normal people are earning a decent living in the hope of introducing technology that will see some of that money end up with neo-liberal entrepreneurs and their backers”. Or, put another way, people will continue trying to find innovative, convenient new ways of providing goods and services and might, horror of horrors, make a profit doing so.

The Fisher Price economic analysis is accompanied by some bold, quite personal, conjecture, such as the claim that older people “cling to the illusion that the travails of their children and grandchildren are self-inflicted”. Maybe they do, but O’Brien does not deign to provide any evidence for his argument – and you would think a broadcaster who makes such play of deconstructing other people’s arguments would do a better job of supporting his own.

The nadir of this half-baked polemical style is a chapter on “Nanny States and Classical Liberals”, where those sceptical of state intervention in personal choices are airily dismissed as “borderline sociopaths and self-important weirdos”, and old-school liberals cast as Ayn Rand disciples who occupy the darkest corners of the internet.

It’s quite hard to pin down who O’Brien is really attacking, given he can’t decide on what terminology to use – on the one hand it’s all the fault of so-called “classical liberals” on Twitter, a few pages later it’s “ideological selfishness peculiar to a certain brand of Conservatism”, elsewhere it’s “libertarian arguments against government intervention”.

When he does try to discuss policy, as ever, things get into a muddle. The sugar tax, for instance, is presented as an unalloyed good that you would only oppose out of hostility to the state or fear that “shareholders’ profits” could take a hit (another example of O’Brien’s apparent aversion to companies making money). Never mind that the policy was a George Osborne budget gimmick, or that among the ideologues who questioned its effectiveness were analysts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose work O’Brien is happy to reference elsewhere in the book.

Slagging off “classical liberals” is a fine example of another key tenet of O’Brien’s Being Right philosophy — emphasising the moral failings of people he disagrees with, rather than engaging in the substance of the debate. Here, for example, is what O’Brien has to say about advocates of a small state: “As with every other divisive and dangerous school of thought, from racism to homophobia and back again, adherents to ‘classical liberalism’ also get to mask their own feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing by casting themselves as somehow inherently superior to other humans.”

This, from someone whose debut book is called How To Be Right, is quite something.

His dismissal of “classical liberals” is the epitome of O’Brien’s hypocritical approach to debate. On the one hand presenting himself as the great debunker of fallacies, on the other characterising those he disagrees with as morally and intellectually defective.

It turns out, then, that the best guarantee of being right is not to engage in proper argument, but to simply dismiss people you disagree with and caricature their views.  Far better, surely, to be curious, undogmatic and open to different points of view than to float about in a tribal bubble convinced of your own rectitude.

John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX.