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|Posted January 7, 2007|
|P.J. O'Rourke read all 900 pages of 'The|
|Wealth of Nations' so you don't need to.|
|ON "THE WEALTH OF NATIONS"|
|By P.J. O'Rouke|
|242 pp. Atlantic Monhtly Press. $21.95|
|By ALLAN SLOAN|
|A woodcut from the 19th century depicts Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution.|
BEFORE we had radio, telephones, television, the Internet and iPods, we had books. Long books. Complicated books. Books that got read, their length and complexity notwithstanding, because before talk shows and chat rooms, what else was there to do?
Back then, people like Adam Smith wrote long, long, long volumes like The Wealth of Nations, which revolutionized economic thought and theory when it was published in 1776. Smiths treatise, as transformational in its own way as the American Revolution, established the intellectual foundation of capitalism, free markets and individual choice, which are taken as givens in American life the same way that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are.
Today, however, almost no one other than the obsessed (or the assigned) is likely to read Smiths book, which runs more than 900 pages; the authors convoluted prose makes it seem even longer than that.
So the free market in books has produced Smith-lite: P. J. ORourke channeling Adam Smith in a work titled On The Wealth of Nations. Think of it as a hardcover blog, in which ORourke cites Smiths essential points, and riffs while preaching Smithian doctrine.
For instance, when ORourke discusses one of Smiths passions, free trade, he notes that at my house I see a Made in China label on everything but the kids and the dogs. And Im not sure about the kids. They have brown eyes and small noses. This opus is part of a series its publisher calls Books That Changed the World, a description to which we should append, as ORourke says, the further title Works Which Lets Admit Youll Never Read the Whole Of. Due soon are two other oft-cited but rarely-read-in-full classics: The Koran and Darwins Origin of Species. Its a very clever, very market-driven thought: getting to know the classics without having to read them.
The 1937 Modern Library edition of Smiths work, which ORourke cites as his text and I borrowed from my local public library, runs 903 pages, not counting introductions and indexes. Those pages are in small type. Make that very small type.
ORourkes book, by contrast, runs to fewer than 200 pages before appendixes and notes, and has a typeface and layout suitable for modern eyes. And unlike Smith, ORourke is a wonderful stylist. Even if you disagree with his conservative political and economic views, as I sometimes do, youve got to admire his facility with words.
|This book is like a hardcover blog: O'Rourke riffs as he explains Smith.|
Consider the following passage, in which ORourke parodies Smiths style while explaining why readers arent storming bookstores to buy The Wealth of Nations: Pretty soon Smith gets enmeshed in clarifications, intellectually caught out, Dagwood-like, carrying his shoes up the stairs of exegesis at 3 a.m., expounding his head off, while that vexed and querulous spouse, the reader, stands with arms crossed and slipper tapping on the second-floor landing of comprehension. Add one more phrase, and that sentence would snap in two of its own weight. Which is, of course, the point.
Before we proceed, a confession. Ive been a business writer since 1969, I specialize in unearthing journalistic nuggets buried in lengthy financial documents that even lawyers find dull and Ive never been able to get more than 50 pages into Adam Smith. For several years, I took The Wealth of Nations with me on summer vacation, vowing that this time Id finish it. Alas, I never came close.
But over the years, Ive read introductions to the book and commentaries about it, listened to discussions of its principles and have even cited some of its points in my own articles. As with the Bible or Moby-Dick, you dont have to be familiar with the entire work in order to grasp its essence.
Smiths thesis, which still resonates today, is that setting people free to pursue their own self-interest produces a collective result far superior to what you get if you try to impose political or religious diktats. Free people allowed to make free choices in free markets will satisfy their needs (and societys) far better than any government can. Finally, Smith believed passionately in free trade, both within countries and between them. He felt that allowing people and countries to specialize and to trade freely would produce enormous wealth, because freeing people and nations to do what they do best will produce vastly more wealth than if everyone strives for self-sufficiency.
Now, lets reduce this theory to microeconomic reality. I can go to my local hardware store, and for $1.79 (plus sales tax), I can purchase a pound of eight-penny nails manufactured in China, thousands of miles from my home. It would take me forever and a day to manufacture my own nails. Instead, I get paid to write articles, which is my specialty, and I can buy a pound of nails for the economic equivalent of a small amount of my time. The store owner, who specializes in helping people like me whod rather get cheerfulness and good service than go to Home Depot, can use her profit to buy a copy of The New York Times, which helps give the paper the money to pay me for writing about ORourke writing about Smith writing about what makes nations wealthy. See? Isnt that simple?
This all works out fine for ORourke and me and whoever is running the nail-making machine in China; he or she is presumably better off doing that than being a peasant farmer or an unemployed urbanite. However, my ability to purchase cheap China-made nails is unlikely to have worked out well for the people who once made nails in the United States. This is Adam Smiths famous hand of the market at work: it pats specialists like ORourke and me on the head, while it gives unemployed blue-collar workers in the Midwest the middle finger. Maybe as a society, the United States saves money by exporting manufacturing jobs and importing so many manufactured goods but I still have trouble believing that its good for us in the long run.
Unlike many free-market devotees, ORourke and Smith dont confuse self-interest with greed: A recurring lesson in The Wealth of Nations is that we shouldnt get greedy, ORourke writes. Good for them, because while it may seem a subtle point, self-interest and greed are antithetical to each other.
Consider Enron, where cooking the corporate books inflated the stock price, making some book-cookers hugely wealthy. For a while. Ultimately, the scheme came undone, the greedy book-cookers suffered jail sentences, capitalism got a well-deserved black eye. Greed wasnt good and it sure wasnt smart.
I could do without some of ORourkes gratuitous insults of various people, almost all of whom seem to be liberals. Despite this peccadillo some people might say because of it this book is well worth reading. Youll pick up a few good lines, youll see a primo stylist at work. And youll see why Adam Smith is so often quoted but so rarely read.
Allan Sloan is Wall Street editor of Newsweek.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, January 7, 2007.
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