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Book review: <i>On The Wealth Of Nations</i> by P. J. O'Rourke

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the cover of the book

If this was the average quality of writing found in textbooks, I would have ACED high school, surrounded by greater student interest in economics, to name one subject.


A close-up shot of P.J. looking avuncular in reading glasses, leaning over a big old book. Dry text, but an uncommonly subtle use of colours (grey/gold, burgundy) manages to make my paperback, wrinkled as P.J's head, look quite classy.

The plot

On The Wealth of Nations is part of a series, I am led to understand, wherein authors spend a book discussing another book which they consider immensely important. Humorist, travel writer and right-wing apologist P.J. O'Rourke picks formative Scottish economist Adam Smith's capitalist treatise "An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth of Nations" (a snappy title commonly shortened to "The Wealth of Nations"), then spends three hundred pages explaining why it's still important today.

The good

P.J. is unparalleled at this sort of writing. Two of his finest moments, in my view, have been "Parliament of Whores", wherein he examines the U.S. political process the way Bugs Bunny examines a broken V8, and "Eat the Rich", his economic/travel masterpiece, where he walks the globe and tries to figure out, from the footpath, why certain systems of rule work in some places and not others. With a solid focus on a subject by which he feels patently intrigued, P.J's prose shifts smoothly into top gear; his trademark analogising becomes a vital aspect of his style instead of a lazy way to patronise his own audience, and the reader (well, me) is forced into an invigorating intellectual sweat, wrangling the sense from translations of complex concepts whilst trying to separate the translator's personal opinions from the reality.

Regarding Smith's Wealth of Nations, the main thrust of P.J's argument (viz, the relevance of the tome) is lent weight every time he can surprise us with a modern concept, note of humour, lefty conceit etc from its pages. I realise that this is not entirely logical, but it works, probably because it's entertaining. There is an aura of respect around the dusty weight of Great Works high on a shelf in some formidable library, but O'Rourke has always understood that if he wants to convince (which he must, here, if we are to come away thinking of Smith as anything other than another long-dead theorist), then he must entertain. Good news for the familiar reader, because dissecting Smith's opus is a challenge for O'Rourke, who thus sheds the complacency which has dragged down his recent writing, and surprises in store for the new reader if he thinks there's no way this stuff could be interesting.

Surprise one, for me, was the character of Adam Smith himself. Not only was he a wise, kind, amiable, extremely well-liked and endearingly scatterbrained character NOT in the grand eighteenth-century intellectual tradition, but, as a writer, he was humanistic, conscientious, thoughtful, and willing to admit of ambivalence. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was a treatise on moral philosophy, much of which spent considering ways in which we could all stand to be nicer to each other, and discussing the factors behind the niceness we do extend. Obviously, minus P.J.'s interest, I would never have viewed the conceiver of capitalism in such a light.

I won't delve into the economic theory, because such things hang together in my head about as well as a sponge cake hangs together in a hammock in the rain. Worth noting, though, is O'Rourke's early emphasis on the degree to which, in the middle of the seventeen hundreds, Smith's theories were just that. That they underpin the basis of the civilization we see around us, two and a half centuries later, makes them worthy of this book and many more like it, but what I found impressive was the environment in which they were born. P.J. delights in making this plain. In the mid-eighteenth century, the height of civilization was Europe. Jostling monarchies were the norm, a strange and brutish soap opera which had been in re-runs for a millennia with little sign of a change to come.

Modern democracy was an American experiment off to a shaky start. Merchants traded internationally but their fortunes were tied to the armies, royal or private, which could be brought to bear to enforce contracts or stand behind the value of the relevant nations' currencies. Most germanely, concepts of national wealth were centred on ideas either simplistic or surreal - the amount of solid gold sitting in boxes in a treasury, the quantity of food a country could produce, the number of farmers doing the producing and so on, depending on who was doing the counting and what they considered worthy of tabulation. Smith, among many other things, expressed the unpopular, counter-intuitive truth that money moving around freely would always create more wealth than gold sitting in a box - combine this idea with the naturally, generally beneficial aspects of human self-interest, and you have the backbone of modern economics.

In answer to your bellowed entreaty, YES, I will now stop talking about economics before I embarrass us all further. In short, O'Rourke's On The Wealth of Nations, in a manner as modest as its author is capable of being, achieves a number of impressive feats:

  • 1- It distils the work of a great man into a prÇcis which maintains some of the complexity, subtlety and brilliance of the original work, yet is a lot more fun to read.
  • 2- It's a book that makes economics hugely entertaining to those with any interest - O'Rourke's second to manage this, no less.
  • 3- It works as both a biography of Smith and a study of his ethos whilst never feeling dry or dusty - O'Rourke is still skilled at instilling a sense of companionship in the reader. One seems to sit alongside the author (probably in a fire-warmed study with glasses of scotch at the elbow), rather than in a sterile classroom being lectured at, or simply adrift among scads of information. Maybe it's the Irish ancestry.

The bad

Of course, just because a reader sits comfortably in the author's company does not mean the reader concurs with the author. One might think that the academic aspect of this book would add authority to O'Rourke's voice, but in fact a combination of his desire NOT to sound like a university textbook and his possibly less deliberate tone of interpretability never lets us forget that we are forming our opinion of one man's opinion of another man's opinion (and if that wounds wanky, well, it is a book about economic theory). Yet, in general feel, it's nowhere near as crotchety and ideologically self-aggrandizing as O'Rourke's previous few books. Honestly, I felt a genuine, uncharacteristic humility from O'Rourke in the presence of The Wealth Of Nations; the book is the cornerstone of his weltanschauung, it's a world-changing work of theory, and it's a giant, difficult, dusty wad of paper - to a classically-educated man this alone equals plus fifty veneration points.

P.J. only gets yay humble, however, and if you don't occasionally have to pause for shouting breaks during "On The Wealth..." then you're a saner penguin than I am. My biggest single whinge about the book, as it relates to modern economics (which, again, it must, if we are to value Smith's work), is that O'Rourke refuses to draw any serious distinction between the bedrock tenets of free enterprise, without which modern civilisation could not exist as it does, and the ludicrous, lawless excesses of Friedmanian free market zealots across the world today. One of O'Rourke's favourite truisms, which earns hefty overtime here, is based on another of Smith's once-revolutionary counter-intuitive truths, that being that wealth begets wealth, and is not zero-sum - the rich, by being rich, do not make the poor poorer, and thus, by increasing the overall wealth of the society they inhabit, raise the median level of wealth for all. "Just because I have pizza, doesn't mean that you have to eat the box," summarises O'Rourke, in a trademark bumper-sticker truism. Obviously, the missing element from this argument is a giant blinking neon asterisk, linking to the word NECESSARILY. Just as in Smith's time, there are plenty of wealthy people whose income does derive directly from the suffering and poverty of others. The White House, for example, is overflowing with such cases. When Dick "Satan's Earthly Representative" Cheney creates, packages and sells a war, then grants a company in which he owns millions of dollars worth of shares no-contest contracts to rebuild in the aftermath, he is LITERALLY taking millions of dollars of taxpayers' money, largely drawn from the poor and middle class, and putting it DIRECTLY into his personal wallet, impoverishing the citizens of the country he supposedly represents and with the side effect of ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on the other side of the world way, way, way down the socio-economic ladder from him. If that's not eating the fucking box, then show me what it looks like. Of course, America's founders wrote laws to prevent such behaviour, but in such matters it appears we are looping back to the times they and Smith inhabited, wherein one was entitled to as much law as one could afford.

O'Rourke skips over the fact that Smith could not envision his system writ on the scale of the economic page which exists today, i.e. The Globe. Smith would have been horrified to hear of his ideas, taken to terrifying ideological extremes, forced into collapsing cultures at the end of a gun, as has happened in Chile, Argentina, Russia, South Africa and Indonesia. O'Rourke should have been willing to discuss this. Smith was no naÿf - he was quite aware that any meeting of merchants comprised, by its nature, a conspiracy - but he was, by all counts, a peaceful man. Confronted with O'Rourke's more bellicose output, he might have quoted himself thus:

"In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies...They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war."

War drums aside, this book, to my mind, is O"Rourke's best work since Eat The Rich. It's intelligent, challenging, and full of ideas from the profound to the profoundly disagreeable, navigating them being part of the fun. If any of the above tweaks your interest, check it out. No book about a book by a long-dead economist has should be this readable.

What I learned

Most of it's in this review. Which says everything about my rate of retention and nothing about the talent of Smith, O'Rourke, or the quality of their facts, trust me.

In short

Title: On The Wealth Of Nations
Author: P J O'Rourke
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0871139499
Year published: 2006
Pages: 256
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Political, Humour
Review Type: