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TV Review: John Stossel explains why USA is No. 1

Saturday, September 18, 1999

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John Stossel of ABC is a clever propagandist.

For years, as he has risen to relative stardom doing segments for "20/20" and his own hour specials, he has bucked network-television's world view, which is virtually all-liberal-all-the-time.

But Stossel is not a staunch conservative Republican like Brit Hume. He's much more exotic. He's a full-fledged libertarian -- an unapologetic champion of maximum personal, political and economic freedom who even has his own page in Laissez Faire Books' monthly catalog.

Stossel engages in his usual ideological dissension in "Is America #1?," an hour-long special in which he travels to Hong Kong and India to find the explanation for America's unsurpassed prosperity and inventiveness.

Why, Stossel asks economist Milton Friedman early on, is Hong Kong one of the wealthiest parts of the world and India so poverty-stricken?

It is not what fourth-graders are often taught: over-population. Hong Kong's population density is 20 times India's. Nor does the reason have anything to do with natural resources. Hong Kong doesn't even have its own water supply.

Hong Kong's secret, replies Friedman -- the most famous of several professional free-marketeers Stossel turns to for the answers he wants his audience to hear -- is that it had 50 years of "the one key ingredient: freedom."

By freedom, Friedman doesn't mean "democracy." India, as Stossel points out, is a democratic country, yet its standard of living is 1/100th of Hong Kong's. Anyway, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, but its government limited itself to building roads, keeping the peace, operating courts and keeping its hands off the economy.

And, as Stossel shows in his talks with Indian businessmen who have been thwarted by Orwellian degrees of bureaucracy and regulatory torture, India's economy and its standard of living are still being held down in the dust by the heavy foot of a socialist government.

Stossel also visits Silicon Valley to show how it owes its existence to America's "open society" and our acceptance of new ideas and (most of the time) immigrants. And he travels to Youngstown to show how well its economy and employment numbers have improved since steel's collapse.

At the top of the show Stossel pretends to set out to challenge "the conceit that America's No. 1." But as he interviews citizens on the street who say America is racist, money-grubbing and mean to its poor and unhealthy, it's clear that their left-liberal complaints are merely straw men to be knocked down.

He uses quotes or interviews with such 180-degree political opposites as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and populist radio talk-show host Jim Hightower in the same way.

When Hightower challenges Stossel to get out in the real world of the poor to see how destitute they really are, Stossel goes to a line at a food pantry. People there tell him that, like the great majority of "poor" people in America, they have cars, color TVs and microwaves.

How Stossel got to where he is today at ABC by doing such illiberal things -- like attacking environmental hysteria, celebrating the societal benefits of greed and pushing the moral and practical virtues of liberty -- is a mystery. How he continues to get away with it is a miracle.

But as his fast-moving, thought- and argument-provoking hour nicely demonstrates, a little ideological diversity on TV is a good thing -- an American thing. Especially in prime time.

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