On the On The Wealth of Nations
Have you ever read the Wealth of Nations?
Yes, the one that talks about the invisible hand (except that it doesn’t talk about it as much as you would think it does) and the pin factory (it totally does). Adam Smith, a Scotsman who, at least when it came to writing, was anything but dour and uncommunicative, penned this seemingly never ending rumination on all things economics back in 1776. That’s actually a little inaccurate. He published it in 1776; he’d been writing it for about a decade prior to that year.
And if and when you get around to reading it, you’ll understand why it took a decade. Not only is it overflowing with powerful ideas, but these ideas are presented in, shall we say, elaborate fashion. Dear old Adam is quite anxious about whether or not we, his readers, will get the gist of what he’s trying to say, and therefore makes sure that he covers all angles in his explanations. He then explains his explanations, and covers all angles in the second round as well. Long story short, he rambles on a fair bit, does Mr. Smith.
Which is a pity, really, because there are some truly exceptional thoughts in that book, and that’s putting it mildly. The good news is, there is a book that you can read that gives you a pretty good idea about what Adam Smith is talking about, and this book is short, snappy and a positive pleasure to read.
P J O’Rourke, an author with much else to commend beside the book we are focusing on today, has an acerbic tongue and a sharper wit. These make for a very powerful arsenal as far as a writer is concerned, and the results are there to see in all his works – the ones I have read, at any rate. But they make for particularly engaging reading in this instance, because when you combine the intellectual achievements of Adam Smith with the biting prose of O’Rourke, you get a book that is immensely entertaining, and enormously informative.
And that particular combination is a precious, rare thing. Which is why the book “On the Wealth of Nations” is well worth your time. Part of a series called “Books That Shook The World”, it explains in a little more than a couple of hundred pages exactly what Mr. Smith was trying to say. Often, with truly great thinkers, what you need isn’t so much an explanation of what the t.g.t was trying to say, but more an explanation of the context in which t.g.t was trying to say it. And crucially, this is what O’Rourke provides in spades. Smith, as it turns out, was a moral philosopher who was trying to think through things related to economics. His concern wasn’t so much about what is the current day focus of economists (and who knows what that is), but was about how societies do, and should, evolve economic systems. Read in that context, The Wealth of Nations is as much an exercise in philosophy as it is in economics.
And, I hasten to add, that is a good thing.
And the good thing is made a better thing by O’Rourke’s explanations.
Another thing Smith didn’t have, besides graphs, was jargon. Economics was too new to have developed its thieves’ cant. When Adam Smith was being incomprehensible he didn’t have the luxury of brief, snappy technical terms as a shorthand for incoherence. He had to go on talking through his hat until the subject was (and the reader would be) exhausted
Perhaps my favourite part of the book is the last chapter, which O’Rourke calls “An Adam Smith Philosophical Dictionary”. Quotes from The Wealth of Nations are used as explanations for terms that, in O’Rourke’s view, need explaining. For example:
The policy of Europe, no-where leaves things at perfect liberty
Or consider this gem:
Statistics, Everything You Need to Know about the Government’s
I have no great faith in political arithmetic
As I said earlier, when the commentary is so enjoyable, and the subject so though-provoking, the book more or less recommends itself. If you want to get a grip on exactly what Adam Smith said all those years ago, and why all that stuff is so relevant today, this one book is all you need. Plus, you can pretend to be a knowledgeable fart at dinner parties.
How do you think I chanced upon this book in the first place?