ON THE WEALTH OF NATIONS P.J. O’Rourke (Atlantic monthly press)
When Wed 2/21, 12:30 PM
Where Borders, 150 N. State
The Modern Library edition of Adam Smith’s 1776 magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, runs some 1,200 pages and weighs almost two and a half pounds. Smith’s original manuscript was 900 pages long and came in two volumes (which is how Penguin publishes it these days). Even Dover’s heavily abridged cheapo collection of “Representative Selections” runs well over 300 pages. No matter how you buy the book, generally considered one of the most influential in the Western canon, it’s some seriously heavy lifting–more appropriate for a leather armchair than the train.
By comparison, P.J. O’Rourke’s On The Wealth of Nations, the first volume in the new Atlantic Monthly Press series “Books That Changed the World,” runs a brisk 256 pages and weighs a feathery 12 ounces. The organizing principle is simple: O’Rourke reads Adam Smith so you don’t have to, summarizing the salient points, surveying his influence, and considering pertinent biographical data in such a way as to make the whole enterprise more entertaining than an economics homework assignment.
O’Rourke is a good choice to guide readers through Smith’s thickets of wildly discursive and recondite prose. He’s honed his fluid, humorous style in years of magazine writing (for Rolling Stone until 2001, and more recently for the Atlantic). He’s also a gleefully unrepentant capitalist, and though that may be ideologically off-putting to some readers, he speaks Smith’s language.
He doesn’t waste any time in pointing out that Smith published The Wealth of Nations “with neat coincidence, in the very year that history’s greatest capitalist nation declared its independence.” And he’s all too delighted to point to Smith’s bona fides as a free-trade maverick, swimming against the regulatory tide of his times. The Wealth of Nations is, to O’Rourke, a “nine-hundred-page indictment of the mercantile system,” the cumbersome fog of tax and trade tariffs that served as “the dominant economic theory of his day.” Which is, of course, music to the ears of a conservative looking to find intellectual backing for his own free-trade arguments.
But to his credit O’Rourke doesn’t simply state his own views and comb through Smith’s text to find the bits that agree with them. He wants to appreciate what it is that Smith was really doing in his windy “fire and brimstone sermon.” Smith, he argues, was no dummy when it came to free enterprise; he knew that “the gravitational load of power and privilege [will always] fall upon our livelihood,” and that even the things he thought fundamental to progress–“peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice”–weren’t likely to keep those forces at bay. O’Rourke defends Smith’s long-winded and famously tangential writing as a symptom of his passion for the good results that free markets could bring. Smith, he argues, was interested in these things not just for their potential to increase executive profits or ensure a healthy return to investors but also for their potential to better humanity.
O’Rourke interprets Smith’s take on economic history–in which he lays out how capitalism, in the person of middle-class merchants in the Middle Ages banding together in trade guilds that ended up exerting unheard-of leverage over the aristocracy, defeated feudalism–as saying that the bulk of Western humanity freed itself from serfdom not by force of arms but by economic clout. “A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness,” Smith wrote, was brought about by businessmen “who had not the least intention to serve the public.” O’Rourke’s normally wry prose gets uncharacteristically preachy on this admittedly fascinating point–he extends Smith’s thinking with hyperbole instead of reason, like a Young Republican who just discovered the awesomeness of Ronald Reagan.
Smith wasn’t only a dynamic believer in human rights, argues O’Rourke, he was also an effective evangelist for the positive societal benefits of selfishness, like a sane Ayn Rand. Who better to look out for ourselves than us? Helping yourself helps the world, or as O’Rourke has it: “A broke, naked, hungry, and self-loathing me is of no use to anyone in the neighborhood.” It’s at points like this where O’Rourke is most useful–he can boil down the essence of Smith’s theses without succumbing to the author’s professorial bloviating, frequent forays into obscurity, and occasional blatant contradiction, highlighting them instead with snarky asides. (At least one part of The Wealth of Nations, he remarks, is so impenetrable as to be “like reading Modern Maturity in Urdu.”)
But though he rarely passes up the chance to toss off a bon mot, O’Rourke succeeds in treating the book with the seriousness it demands. Ultimately he’s more impressed with Smith than he is with himself. An enjoyable appendix, the “Adam Smith Philosophical Dictionary,” even gives him the opportunity to include choice Smith lines he couldn’t fit in elsewhere, organized under pithy headings like “Famine, Avoidance of” or “Televangelists.”
As intellectual compromises go, you could do a lot worse than this book-length book report, especially given that the real choice for most people is between reading it or never considering Adam Smith’s bilious tome at all. It whetted my appetite for the next books in the series: one on the Koran, by Islamic scholar Bruce Lawrence, is already in stores, and another on Darwin’s legendarily dry Origin of the Species is due in March. Now if only somebody would do Gravity’s Rainbow.