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

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is not typically viewed as airport reading these days. The treatise weighs in at 1200 or so pages. So perhaps it is appropriate that I bought and read P.J. O’Rourke’s take on the famous tome instead. A book about a book – and often a humorous one – seem more like airport fare.

On a recent trip I found myself perilously without reading material as I had finished the lone book I brought with me. Browsing through an airport bookstore I stumbled up On The Wealth of Nations by P. J. O’Rourke and read most of it during my travels. The book is part of a series by Atlantic on “Books That Changed the World.” Sort of like Cliff Notes for adults or something. Seemed like an interesting concept for an interesting writer on an interesting subject. I succumbed to the power of marketing.

Was it worth it? Well, as is so often the case, yes and no. Was it an entertaining read? Yes. O’Rourke has a witty way with words and the prose was smooth enough that it was an easy read. It kept me from focusing on all the wasted time spent sitting in an airport or airplane. The real question is: did I learn anything? And this is where things break down. I am not sure O’Rourke really captures anything quintessential or insightful about Adam Smith’s famous work or helps the reader understand it better. It is an interesting journey but you end up with little to hold onto in the end.

James Panero over at Armavirumque captured a telling critique in the Baltimore Sun (that seems to have disappeared behind a subscription archive):

O’Rourke’s book is a peculiar kind of satire. By turns smart-alecky and oracular, it gives readers something to do instead of thinking. O’Rourke professes to share Smith’s skepticism about all-encompassing systems, but he applies the economic theories of The Wealth of Nations indiscriminately, indifferent to the changing realities of a post-industrial age of information. Laughs aside, O’Rourke’s “Cliff’s Notes” to Adam Smith are an abridgment to nowhere.

Allan Sloan had a more positive review in the Wall Street Journal that I wanted to note for two reasons. One, is that Sloan, like almost all reviewers, notes the enjoyable aspect of the book:

The 1937 Modern Library edition of Smith’s work, which O’Rourke 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.

O’Rourke’s 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, O’Rourke is a wonderful stylist. Even if you disagree with his conservative political and economic views, as I sometimes do, you’ve got to admire his facility with words.

Two, I wanted to point out that Sloan gets to the heart of the matter and encapsulates the basic libertarian position in one short paragraph:

Smith’s 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 society’s) 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.

So to conclude, O’Rourke made for entertaining travel reading, but didn’t leave me with any real insights into Adam Smith or the Wealth of Nations.

BTW, it should be interesting to see where the series goes from here. The Qur’an: A Biography by Bruce Lawrence has recently been released and Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography is set to be released in March. I might have to check out the next two volumes to see how the concept plays out with different authors and subjects.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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