The Emperor's Old Clothes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 12:00am

The Emperor's Old Clothes

by Jake van der Kamp

Chameleon $129

'Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.'

When Jonathan Swift wrote those words in 1704, his satirical classic Gulliver's Travels was still two decades away. But he was probably already coming to believe that, despite their actions to the contrary, people were capable of better if they'd just think about what they were doing.

Swift's target was England and Ireland of the early 18th century and the Enlightenment, with its rationalism that valued reason over experience. He didn't originally put his name to his work because he feared persecution.

However, that was 300 years ago, and Jake van der Kamp can freely sign his writings, even if The Emperor's Old Clothes ridicules pretty much everything and everyone, excepting of course the reader, who is sensible enough to know that things aren't quite working as they should.

Once upon a time there was a country called Loranor, a democratic republic. It used to be a monarchy, so when the Loranorians elected a president who was also the grandnephew of the last hereditary ruler, the cartoonists were quick to caricature him in a crown, and he came to be known as The Emperor.

This country of van der Kamp's is much like any other and the Emperor, like most leaders, wants to do right by his people. He embarks on a number of bold initiatives, donning what he considers the appropriate symbolic attire. Yet he is perplexed when everything he sets his government to do results in disaster. The people are left worse off than if he'd done nothing at all. His cupboard fills with discarded clothes.

That the author is an economist who writes a popular financial column for the South China Morning Post gives the reader a heads-up to expect a book leavened with economic theory - it is, although so deftly has the economics been sifted into the mix that it gives this tale a delicious tang.

Swift was into economics, too. It's recognised that, three centuries ago, he anticipated and satirised cost-benefit analysis where it ignored the underlying moral and legal framework of human rights.

Shock and condemnation greeted the publication in 1729 of A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden on their Parents or Country. Swift recommended a market in Irish babies, who could be sold for food, thus solving the problem of poverty and starvation in Ireland. Well- nursed one-year-olds were apparently good eating, 'whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled'. It was as good a suggestion as any, considering the English government, faced with catastrophe in Ireland, chose to do nothing.

Van der Kamp's target is government that tries to do too much, and society is almost always worse off than if things had been left be.

Loranor no longer wins gold medals and obesity is a major problem because children have nowhere left to play that's not fenced, surfaced and watched over by adults. Industry is inefficient because tariffs and subsidies have eroded competitiveness. The Loranorians themselves find happiness elusive, and have less and less money to spend, because they're discouraged from making what they will of their own lives, instead coddled by government programmes.

In The Emperor's Old Clothes, van der Kamp seems to be harking back to the days when Hong Kong was held up as a model of laissez-faire (where the government restrains itself from interfering in the workings of the free market).

He delivers exquisite chapters on Loranor's follies, serving amusing reminders that if there really is demand for an amusement park or a housing project or an industry, the private sector will make it happen, and pay for it.