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Sunday, August 22, 2010

On the Wealth of Nations by P.J. O'Rourke

Could have been so much more

As an economics teacher, Adam Smith's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations has long been on my "to read" list. I downloaded a free copy of it to my Kindle e-reader, but I haven't seriously considered opening it. I've read summaries of his ideas, perused his quotes and espoused his ideas in class, but I have not had the gumption to read 600 pages of 18th century prose.

When I discovered P.J. O'Rourke had written a commentary on the book I was thrilled. I do enjoy most of what O'Rourke writes and I figured his funny, insightful sarcastic take on things should do quite a bit to punch up a nearly 225 year-old economics text.

Let's start with the basics. Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a professor of both Moral Philosophy and Logic at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He wrote two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), usually abbreviated The Wealth of Nations, often considered to be one of the first books on modern economics. Smith argued that freedom, both political and economic, was the ultimate source of happiness because the "invisible hand" of the free market would regulate the market and provide the best living for the most amount of people as possible. It is an interesting coincidence that the American Revolution and The Wealth of Nations both debuted in 1776.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)
I picked up P.J. O'Rourke's commentary on Smith's two books (the title and the cover do not tell the reader, but O'Rourke actually makes commentary on both books - he makes the compelling argument that they are really inter-related) and was expecting big things out of a very small book (242 pages including index, bibliography, endnotes and several pages of selected quotations).

Unfortunately, I did not get very big things. O'Rourke's pizzaz and razmataz, his quick wit and his inclination to make a smart comment about everything - traits that can be very endearing and that I enjoyed very much in his book Peace Kills got in the way big time. For example when discussing Smith's arguments about the value of importing goods and how free trade is a good thing. This is a controversial topic even now, more than 200 years later and O'Rourke adds nothing to it - in fact he hurts the argument by noting: "...imports are Christmas morning; exports are January's MasterCard bill." (p. 24)

P.J. O'Rourke
If O'Rourke would have toned down the comments (Note: not eliminate, just tone down), this book would have been much more useful. As it was, I sometimes felt like I was reading Dave Barry's Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States. The attempt to leaven the dry nature of Smith's original work with jokes failed - I just had to work too hard to separate the facts from the jokes.

Did I learn enough about Smith and his thoughts to avoid that feeling of failure I get when I see The Wealth of Nations on my Kindle? Probably, so the book was not a complete failure. However, I feel like the book was a missed opportunity. The right man was picked to write this book, but he was allowed to play around a little too much.

I rate this book 3 stars.

Reviewed on August 22, 2010.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: On the Wealth of Nations by P.J. O'Rourke.

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