"Put two hands together to applaud [P.J.] O'Rourke for bringing Adam Smith to the 21st-century audience"

December 18th, 2006


December 17, 2006 — ON THE WEALTH OF NATIONS
BY P.J. O'Rourke

This holiday season Atlantic Monthly Press brings us the latest in their series of “Books That Changed the World,” 21st century glosses on heavier books that many adult readers may not have gotten all the way through in high school or college. The current offering: P.J. O'Rourke's take on Adam Smith's “The Wealth of Nations.”

O'Rourke is the right man for this assignment. He is sympathetic to Smith's arguments and has the intellectual heft to absorb and condense the lengthy masterpiece, notwithstanding O'Rourke's image as a quipster.

At least as important, O'Rourke grasps the essential light brush strokes and detached worldview that Smith brought to “The Wealth of Nations.” Dickens could not have done better than Smith's phrase “the frequent and odious visits of the tax-gatherer” to describe the forerunner of tax withholding.

Indeed, O'Rourke has much of the same touch and the same worldview. This point is little understood by many moderns who aspire to be apostles of Smith. To read the humorless think-tankers who espouse free markets or certain conservatives who believes all businessmen to be secular saints (many of the latter wound up working for Enron) is to marvel at how free-market views ever got a hearing.

O'Rourke gets the joke every bit as well as Smith about how businessmen may not all be the nicest kids on the block but still wind up producing society's material progress.

It is not just the essential brilliance and insight, but the tone and undogmatic outlook of the writing that makes Smith long but still readable 230 years after publication. Meanwhile, the pretentious prose of many Smith contemporaries is forgotten and a book like Marx's “Capital” (subject of a future volume in the series) seems more like the definition of fruitcake: arriving unbidden, synonymous with “insane,” having a leaden consistency and doomed to sit on a dark shelf for years until thrown out.

“Economic progress depends on a trinity of individual prerogatives: pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and freedom of trade,” writes O'Rourke pithily. The scale of each of these ideas, and the degree to which they departed from received orthodoxy in 1776, helps explain why Smith's “The Wealth of Nations” changed the world.

O'Rourke provides a context for this classic with his overview of Smith's “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which addressed such fundamental questions as how people who are self-centered in daily life can have higher and kinder aspirations for those around them. O'Rourke also offers a brief biography of Smith, while emphasizing that writing about the man rather than his ideas is neither an 18th century nor a Smithian project.

Popular sentiment may try to tell us that Smith's ideas had their day and are now obsolete. In fact, his ideas have still not penetrated the political classes. Contemporary crusades against wealth, against Wal-Mart and against trade deficits tell us that private property, division of labor and free trade are still human novelties.

Put two hands together to applaud O'Rourke for bringing Adam Smith to the 21st-century audience.

James Higgins is a principal in an investment-management firm and is the co-director of “The Monday Meeting.”

Excerpts courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press:

“Some jobs require protection, to ensure they are performed locally in their own communities. My job is to make quips, jests, and waggish comments. Somewhere in Mumbai there is a younger, funnier person who is willing to work for less. My job could be outsourced to him. But he could make any joke he wanted. Who would my wife scold? Who would my in-laws be offended by? Who would my friends shun?”

“Later economists, such as, in the early nineteenth century, J. B. Say, felt that Smith undervalued the economic contributions of services. And he did. The eighteenth century had servants, not a service economy. It was hard for a man of that era to believe that the semi-inebriated footman and the blowzy scullery maid would evolve into, well, the stoned pizza delivery boy and the girl behind the checkout counter with an earring in her tongue.”

“Unfortunately, Adam Smith didn't have graphs. Hundreds of pages of The Wealth of Nations that readers skim might have been condensed into several pages that readers skip entirely. Another thing Smith didn't have, besides graphs, was jargon. Economics was too new to have developed its thieves' cant. When Adam Smith was being incomprehensible he didn't have the luxury of brief, snappy technical terms as a shorthand for incoherence. He had to go on talking through his hat until the subject was (and the reader would be) exhausted.”

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