Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"On the Wealth of Nations", P.J. O'Rourke

May 29th, 2009 · No Comments · Economics, History, Policy

on-the-wealth_300Synopsis: Libertarian polemicist digests Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ and ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and then regurgitates them along with satirical commentary.

My Take: I love the concept of this book – the first in a series on “Books That Changed the World” read and paraphrased by prominent authors “so you don’t have to.” Just the kind of lightweight self-improvement that appeals to me. An enjoyable way to get a slightly more in depth look at Smith’s work than you do from assigned readings of condensed extracts.

Given that Wealth runs to over 900 pages, it’s a tome that is uniquely suited to this format – one of those books that O’Rourke notes are more ‘read in’ than ‘read through’ . In fact, this book is s double value as O’Rourke also goes through Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, a book so long and turgid that nobody other than Nick Gruen ever reads it.

However, while the concept is great, this is not O’Rourke’s strongest work. It doesn’t have the zest of Republican Party Reptile or the zing of Parliament of Whores. Ultimately, however, O’Rourke is not the star of this book – his wit and barbs fade in comparison to Smith’s brilliant thinking. As a result, while this isn’t as amusing as your average O’Rourke book, it’s still an engaging read.

The Smith that O’Rourke draws out is far from the caricature of lazziefaire economics that many make him out to be. At the most basic level, Smith’s basic insight was two-fold:

  1. productivity is increased through self-interest, the division of labour (specialisation) and trade. Where government intervention is needed to safeguard this, it ought to act.
  2. However, the economy is so complex that government intervention is extremely difficult without unintended (and often counter productive) consequences.

Smith wasn’t saying that government should pack up and go home, he was saying it should know its (very basic) limits. It’s a prescription for common sense humility in governance not the end of governance itself.

Echoing this theme of intellectual modesty, O’Rourke highlights a paragraph from Smith that would warm the heart of  a certain comrade friend of mine who once professed his ideology to be ‘pragmatism’:

From a certain spirit of system… we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow-creatures, rather than from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy.”

Further, according to Smith, theorisers become:

Intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system.. (until).. that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity…(is corrupted by a spirit of a system that).. inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism

When you consider that this was written long before the emergence of communism, or even democractic capitalism as an ideological system, Smith’s prescience is impressive.

However, this is really the ultimate shortcoming this book. While Smith’s insights are consistently impressive, they aren’t matched by O’Rourke’s writing.  Given the quality of some of O’Rourke’s previous work, I was left wanting more.

Highlights:

On why ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is so long:

“When Adam Smith was being incomprehensible, he didn’t have the luxury of brief, snappy technical terms as a shorthand for incoherence.”

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