Economy & Budget

O’Rourke Explains the Basics of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’

Every once in a while, a book publisher gets a clever idea that actually works. "P.J. O’Rourke on The Wealth of Nations" — might be one such anomaly — a stark contrast to other allegedly clever book ideas such as O.J. Simpson on "How I Did It, If I Did It, (Which I Didn’t, Because That Would Be Illegal and I Need to Avoid Prison So I Can Continue Looking For The Real Killers, Who Are Probably In This Strip Club. Fifty Singles, Please)."

Having the sarcastic humorist P.J. O’Rourke explain Adam Smith’s dry, thick and antiquated 1776 masterpiece, "An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," may at first glance make about as much sense as having Howie Mandel explain Isaac Newton’s "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica."

Self-Determination

But O’Rourke has a special affinity for Smith. Like a lot of aging bong-heads, O’Rourke likes to believe that Smith’s laissez faire economic philosophy provides a fancy ideological underpinning for his personal predilection toward unsanctioned self-medication. Also, O’Rourke has a well-grounded belief in the economic portion of Smith’s economic philosophy, and his wit and irreverence provide a nice foil for the heavy subject matter.

"P.J. O’Rourke on The Wealth of Nations" is the fourth book in Atlantic Monthly Press’s “Books That Changed The World” series of synoptic commentaries, following "On The Origin of Species," "The Qur’an," and "Das Kapital." According to the inside leaf, the series now intends to cover some of the less influential titles, such as the Bible. The series aims to make great works currently floundering in the public domain into well-marketed works of copyrighted relevance again.

O’Rourke begins with a brief overview of Smith’s work and then plunges into succinctly addressing one of the great questions raised by "The Wealth of Nations": “Why is ‘The Wealth of Nations’ so damn long?” The short answer is that there wasn’t much on television at the time. Thick books were like getting extra cable channels.

The basic argument in "The Wealth of Nations" is that if one cares about the common good of society, one should, paradoxically, let people worry mostly about themselves, within some obvious limits, since each person has a better understanding of his own needs than some more distant person, however benevolent. If citizens are allowed to establish non-coerced economic relationships with one another, an arrangement will be arrived at that benefits both sides of every trade — otherwise one side would not voluntarily agree to the trade.

Such a need to please others to have them trade with you encourages innovation and specialization and motivates an attention to detail that you just don’t get in institutions that do not have to compete for customers that are free to choose other options — such as public schools. For readers of HUMAN EVENTS, Smith’s observations may not be news, but O’Rourke does a good job sprinkling Smith’s basic premises with interesting details, modern examples and one liners. Overall, it’s a very entertaining work.

Introduction to the Free Market

The book is worth reading simply to be able to dwell, for a moment, on what an extraordinary book "The Wealth of Nations" is. With a few rare mistakes and omissions (well detailed by O’Rourke), the basic foundation of modern free-market economics are laid out by one extraordinary schoolteacher more than two centuries ago, based simply on his depth of thought, reasoning and keen observations. It’s a stimulating review for those already afflicted with an interest in economics, but O’Rourke’s amusing synopsis might also make a perfect introduction to the tenets of free-market capitalism to the uninitiated — say, a high school student or a Democrat.

Smith’s message was heavily laced with a belief in the inherent goodness of freedom and choice. This is natural material for O’Rourke, who generally does well with it, and not just when wisecracking. One exception is a comment on the definition of liberty (given twice in the book) that does not seem to follow from either Smith or history: “Any definition of liberty that is not based on a right to property and a right to the same rights as all other people have is meaningless.” While the first part is unarguably true, since without power over something in particular one has no power over anything at all, the second part is pure nonsense.

Liberty, like most things, is not an absolute, but is a matter of degree. You have as much liberty as you have, regardless of how much of it some other person has. A free merchant may not have as much liberty as, say, an Earl. But he has some liberty nonetheless. Liberty is simply the right to choose. What I think O’Rourke was trying to get at was something more akin to “the rule of law” — or the guarantee that once one is given a liberty, one’s freely made choice in the matter must be respected by everyone else. It’s a small bone to pick, I know. But O’Rourke’s comment seems, to me, an annoyingly modern confusion of egalitarianism and liberty — and the modern concept of egalitarianism is often liberty’s greatest enemy. Also, part of Smith’s book is dedicated to detailing the degree-wise advance of liberty among the non-noble classes — a perfect refutation of the “no liberty without the same rights as everyone else” idea.

That petty criticism aside, O’Rourke’s book is well-written and enjoyable. Among the best parts are the many choice quotes from Smith that O’Rourke has gleaned from the enormous original tome. These run the gamut from the well known, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from a regard to their own interest,” to the less famous but still relevant, “The accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king. . . .”

The book’s main value might be as a literary appetizer — just savory enough to create a desire to consume more, yet not so heavy as to fill that desire itself. After reading it, you may be inspired to read Smith without the sugar coating. Then again, it’s an awfully long book.


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