A Conversation With John Stossel
Reporter, educator, author, and libertarian
John Stossel has been a reporter for 50 years. In his first job in Portland, Oregon, he helped invent TV consumer reporting. Then he moved to WCBS in New York City, then to 2020 and Good Morning America on ABC. In October 2009, Stossel left ABC News to join the Fox Business channel. He hosted a weekly news show on Fox Business called Stossel from December 2009 to December 2016. He has received 19 Emmy Awards and 5 awards from the National Press Club.
Stossel has written three books: Give Me a Break, Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity, and No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails – But Individuals Succeed. After seven years at Fox, Stossel left to start Stossel TV, which you can find at JohnStossel.com, where he makes videos to teach young people about free markets. He makes about one video per week, averaging about 2 million views each. Roughly 10 million students per year discuss liberty and free markets as part of the “Stossel In the Classroom” program.
Listen to the full InvestorHour podcast with John Stossel and host Dan Ferris by clicking right here.
Dan Ferris: The first time I saw you on TV and you were reporting on some libertarian-themed idea, I thought, “Well, this is a fluke, I’ll never see him again.” But then you became the libertarian guy on TV. How did you last so long, reporting libertarian themes?
John Stossel: Well, they didn’t like it. I was good at doing TV news stories, and I could make things interesting and explain complicated things in entertaining ways, and I got pretty good ratings, so they kept me. They hired me as a consumer reporter, and I was bashing businesses, and they of course liked that. And when I finally woke up and saw the government does more damage than business ever does, and focused on pointing out the excesses of government, they did not like that.
But they wanted to keep me, and I just fought to do those stories. And eventually, they didn’t like them anymore [laughs], I wouldn’t do it anymore, and that’s when I left for Fox. But I was there 28 years, and I was a libertarian maybe for 15 of them, and, you know, half the stories I wanted to do, they let me do.
Dan Ferris: You said 15 of those 28 years you were a libertarian. After 13 years, what happened? What made John Stossel become a libertarian?
John Stossel: I watched the liberal solutions fail. I came out of college at the time that the War on Poverty was beginning, and my professors had taught me, “Look, it’s despicable, in this rich country, that some people are so poor, and we can fix this with the right programs.” I totally believed…
But then, as a young reporter in Portland, Oregon, I watched those programs not work, that they would give people money or training, and the training was lousy, and the people who got money now were classifying themselves as victims, and they were mad because they weren’t getting more money, or the next guy was getting more money. And of course, there were the disincentives because you got less money if you were married than if you were a single mom, so when the welfare worker would come by, married moms would just get the man out of the house.
And the government solutions always had these unintended side effects, and they were worse, so, the liberal media I’d been drinking no longer made sense. I started reading conservative media, but they seemed to want to go to war with everybody and police the bedroom – I didn’t like that either. And then, I discovered Reason magazine, a libertarian magazine, and that was a shock that, “Oh, my god, here are these people who understand this sensible philosophy much better than I do, and I want to learn more about that.” And I became a born-again free-market zealot.
Dan Ferris: Do you think libertarians are making any ground? Do you think we’re influencing anybody, politically?
John Stossel: Well, anybody is an easy question. [Laughs] I make videos – a video a week – and I’m averaging almost two million views, so, some people are into it. But I agree, we are not making much ground, and I’ve stopped being shocked, but I was shocked. Because once I saw the light, I naively assumed that, “God, all I have to do is explain what I learned, and people will say, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes so much more sense.’” But they don’t. Some people’s brains will just not take this in. My wife and I fight over this stuff. I’ve been trying to convince her for 35 frickin’ years, and there’s still a new argument whenever she reads the New York Times.
Dan Ferris: I was looking through your book, No, They Can’t, and every couple of pages, you’ve got a new section that starts with a little box, “What intuition tempts us to believe versus what reality taught you.” For example, seat belt laws save lives, that’s what intuition tempts us to believe. What reality taught me is that seat belt laws also cost some lives, and nobody ever talks about that.
It’s part of the problem here, that people just go with their first gut reaction. And when it comes to who to vote for, it’s like, “Who looks good on TV and sounds good?” not, “Who makes sense?” But there really is no solution for that, is there? Although you’re educating… I think you’ve done that rather well. But also, in other words, John Stossel is not running for office.
John Stossel: Right. I would suck at running for office because I have no patience, and I can’t smile at strangers and ask them for money. But you know I left my Fox TV show because I wanted to reach young people, and my son said, “Dad, people aren’t going to believe or trust what you say about markets when you’re on Fox. And you don’t need a network anymore. You’ve got a million Twitter followers, and with social media now, you can reach people.” And young people do watch short videos, so, with my videos we’re at least making people aware that there’s another way to think about these things, that the answer isn’t always another government program.
And then the videos go to schoolteachers – there’s a nonprofit that offers them free, Stossel in the Classroom – and probably 10 million high school students, some middle school students, watch them in class. So, even if they forget them or we’re not convincing them, they at least know there’s an alternative to state control.
Dan Ferris: So, John, you mentioned giving people another way to think about things. Give me another way to think about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Surely, John – I’m going to play devil’s advocate – you understand that lots of people could die, if we don’t shut everything down, right?
John Stossel: Yes, of course. And this is a tough one for libertarians, because there is a role for government, and an epidemic and keeping an epidemic under control so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed is almost certainly a job that government should try to do. And as always, they make mistakes, and in this case, they focused on the lives they might save by reducing the contagion by ordering people indoors. It’s the seen versus the unseen… They can count the COVID deaths, but how many people die because the economy goes down and people are depressed? My first TV special for ABC, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, pointed out that there’s good research that the biggest extender or shortener of lives is wealth.
And poor people drive older cars with older tires, and they can’t afford the same good health care. In Bangladesh, floods kill thousands of people… In America, except for Katrina, floods don’t kill anybody, because we have cars with which to drive away, and radios to hear about the floods, and dikes to divert the water. Wealthier is healthier. So when they shut the economy down, they kill people, too. Now, can we measure that? Are they killing more than they’re saving? I don’t know, but I wish the hysterical media would talk about it.
Dan Ferris: You know, on the one hand, we seem obsessed with kind of babyproofing the entire world in response to the pandemic. And then on the other hand, we have wound up with violence in the streets and protests in 350 cities by one report. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just making up a correlation, but I feel like in a society where you clamp down this hard to try to make things safe, you upset the balance and you’re really making things a lot more dangerous.
John Stossel: You brought up seat belts earlier. Now, that’s an example of making things less safe, somewhat less safe, by trying to make them more safe. In that once you require seat belts – first of all, seat belts would’ve happened anyway – they were already coming before they were made mandatory. But when people wear seat belts, we drive faster. There’s something called the Peltzman Effect, after the University of Chicago economist who proposed it… He said the best safety device, instead of a seat belt, would be to have a spike aimed at the driver, mounted on the steering wheel, because that would make you drive much more carefully. We are more reckless with seat belts.
On the other hand, seat belts clearly do save lives, because cars are really dangerous, and the seat belts do make a difference there. So that’s one Nanny State intrusion that almost certainly has saved lives. But as they continue to add more, they probably do cost lives. Because they make us poorer, and wealthier is healthier, and also because they make us just less self-aware. We trust that, “Oh, everything must be safe, because there must be regulation for this,” so, we don’t check. But are these riots happening because the economy is worse, because the government over-shut it down? I think these riots are mostly about race, plus progressive bad media propaganda.
Dan Ferris: Do you think we genuinely have a police racism problem where the police are targeting certain races?
John Stossel: Most cops don’t, but a few cops do. And cops have a lot of power. I really noticed it doing a 2020 story on fake cops. There was an outbreak, in parts of the country, of people ordering mail-order uniforms and fake badges, and pretending to be cops and robbing people, raping women. And to illustrate it, because it’s television, I, of course, sent for the mail-order cop uniform, and walked around a town. And it was amazing how it affected me… I felt extra macho. The way people looked at me and deferred to me made me feel very powerful.
And if I were a little bit of a sadistic asshole, I could see how I would really abuse that power. So you got hundreds of thousands of cops… If only half or 1% of them is a sadistic jerk, that’s a lot of powerful sadistic people, or racist people, who will be doing a lot of nasty things. And since the police unions stop almost anybody from being fired, that’s dangerous. And so if you live in a Black community, you get hassled a lot. While it’s true that the cops don’t shoot Blacks more than whites, percentage-wise, they are statistically more likely to handcuff you, throw you up against a wall, and search you if you are Black. And just about every Black young person feels they have been unfairly stopped by the police at some point in their lives, and we white people rarely experience that.
Also, when you have more law, you have more crime. And you’ve got to have some law… It’s the job of the state and the police to keep us safe, but the drug laws and – there’s a website that lists the insane federal laws, the bar association tried to count them, and they couldn’t even count them. And so all of us who are busy doing things, building something, we probably are breaking some laws, and if the cops wanted to get us, they could. But the problem is that nobody goes to work at the EPA, unless you’re an environmental zealot who wants to pass more rules. No group of schoolkids goes to the state house to meet their legislators and asks, “What laws have you repealed?” They all ask, “What laws have you passed?”
So, Thomas Jefferson said it’s the nature of things for government to grow and liberty to yield, and that happens. And that gives us more laws and more lawbreaking, higher jail costs, more problems.
Dan Ferris: Well, if you’re trying to fill me with hope for the future, John, I’m afraid you’re not doing a good job of it right now.
John Stossel: Yeah, sorry about that. On the other hand, life… it gets better. In spite of all these bad things going on, the animal spirits of the economy have grown as fast as the suffocating growth of government, and that plus innovation means most people’s lives get better. And, heck, billions of people have been lifted out of the mud and misery of terrible poverty over the past 30 years because of capitalism. So, let’s not forget that good news.
Dan Ferris: But John, isn’t capitalism evil? Doesn’t it exploit people? Isn’t that the problem today, is that all these businesspeople get bailed out, and poor people are still poor?
John Stossel: It’s a problem when businesspeople get bailed out. Real capitalism is you don’t get bailed out – you’re free to fail. So that’s crony capitalism and that’s not good, but I just am dismayed listening to my educated liberal friends argue that capitalism is the problem… It’s not.
Dan Ferris: I think one of the problems that libertarians have is that – and I saw this mentioned in your book No, They Can’t – in the news, they always wanted you to cover something that was happening right then, with a lot of urgency to it. But you said you wanted to cover things that played out over a longer period of time. And in a somewhat similar vein, it seems like folks who are arguing for more government all the time, all the arguments seem to be very tangible and immediate and urgent.
John Stossel: They do, and I’m glad you picked up on that from No, They Can’t, that when something happens, there’s innate human tendency to say, “There ought to be a law to fix that.” And it’s hard to fight, and it’s harder to see the unintended consequences which may come out over 20 years. And so, the media focus on the immediate solution stuff. And the media is a big part of the problem… And it’s not all the reporters’ fault. One of the big developments over my 50 years of reporting, when I graduated there was the Vietnam War, and the media covered that quite well. And then you look at the big stories of the year, and it’s amazing how many of them are “nothing burgers.”
I mean, the media is hysterical about the Ebola epidemic, and even COVID may turn out to be little. But the stuff that really changed our lives, the invention of the cell phone, the computer chip, Facebook, Google, there was no coverage… Because there was no single place it was happening. When the mayor holds a news conference, you can go and you can cover it. But when entrepreneurs all over the world are inventing something, we don’t have the resources to cover it, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know where to go to cover the stuff that happens slowly.
Changing attitudes about gays, the women’s movement… We can cover the march, but you can’t cover all the subtle differences in people’s opinions that happen slowly over time. But that’s really the big stuff.
Dan Ferris: Tell me some more about the Stossel in the Classroom program.
John Stossel: It started because I would get letters at ABC from teachers, “Oh, I wish I had taped that. That’s such a good explanation of this economic principle, and I would’ve loved to have shown it to my students. Can I buy it?” and ABC was selling them for $95. And so me being a libertarian, I formed a nonprofit that started offering them to teachers for less. And then we discovered that teachers don’t buy anything on their own, and so we raised more money and started offering them for free.
And we tried to go through the big teachers’ conferences and the teachers’ unions just killed us, they wouldn’t even allow us to have a booth in many places. But through mail-order and word-of-mouth, word spread among teachers, and over 15 years, we gradually built up to a list of about 120,000 teachers who liked the videos and would use them in class. Then we added teaching kits for them, and the state standards kept increasing, we added instructions on how they would meet your state standards. And now, we have these 100,000-plus teachers who, every year, play some of the videos in class and have discussions. Now, I don’t know what the students learn, maybe they sleep through it, but at least some of them figure out that, “Gee, there’s another side to this.”
Dan Ferris: I have to say, all I need to do is show up at one of the neighborhood gatherings and make one little comment about how the government shouldn’t be involved in something, and people look at me like I have three heads. The thing that shocks me is, it’s not even that I’m disagreed with. Disagreement is great, let’s disagree all day long. But it’s when they’re just shut down and kind of pushed out…
John Stossel: Right, like “How can you argue that Trump’s slashing of regulations is a good thing?” “Well, because we have too many regulations.” “Yeah, he slashed the environmental regulations, you know, like, clean air?” There’s real anger behind it. And by the way, he didn’t slash any environmental regulations, he just removed some of them, additional ones the Obama environmental regulators planned to add, and – you know, the EPA was a good thing… The air and water were filthy. But now it should stand for “Enough Protection Already.” But they always want to add more.
Dan Ferris: Right, and as soon as you start that good thing, you know it’s going to grow into something ugly one day… It always does.
John Stossel: Government always grows – look at Japan and Germany and their prosperity in the ‘60s – why? Why suddenly in those two countries? I say because we bombed them to smithereens and they had to start over. It’s the only way government shrinks and allows for the leeway for free people to create prosperity. Hong Kong went from third-world to first-world in just 40 years. Because the British rulers basically enforced rule of law, they punished people who stole or killed, and then they sat around and drank tea. They left free people alone. And that’s the best creator of wealth and safety, but it’s not intuitive. Intuitive is, “Let’s pass another law,” so all these older countries become stagnant. It’s the way Europe is being passed by younger, newer countries.
Dan Ferris: Philosophically, the idea of enough government is extremely difficult because people look at that first layer that prevents infringements against persons and property, and they say, “Well, this worked gangbusters. Let’s have more.” And we know what more does, don’t we?
John Stossel: And one way to fight it is to get people to think in terms of what percentage of the economy should government control or manage, and people would say 10% to 15%. Or what should the tax level be, people say 10% and 15%. You tell them, “Well, it’s 40% now,” so, can’t we just keep it at 40%? Nah, that’s a bad idea, because as the economy grows, the percentage would go up. But if there were some cap, some way to measure that and sell that, that would be a good thing.
Dan Ferris: Yeah, let’s not hold our breath for that. John, if you could leave our readers with just one thought today, what would it be?
John Stossel: Make a donation at Center for Independent Thought.