Students can skip this economics class
January 5, 2007
Remember that cool professor in college? You know, the one with a style all his own ” perhaps a signature hat ” who sprinkled his lectures with four-letter words and pop-culture references. He might take you out for a beer or pass you a doobie on a campus rooftop at sunset.
He was also the one who made the Industrial Revolution, geological time or James Joyce come alive.
P.J. O’Rourke is just that professor, and his latest book, “On the Wealth of Nations,” is his attempt to prop himself up on the bar, turn to you and try to get you fired up about Adam Smith’s tome, “The Wealth of Nations.”
Sadly, he fails.
O’Rourke’s writing is a set of Cliff Notes to the 230-year-old, inaccessible 900-pager that kicked off modern economics. O’Rourke is at times very funny and certainly can turn a phrase, but unless economic theory already keeps you up at night, you might find yourself ” like me ” sleeping in the back of this class.
Smith’s thesis is this: “Wealth depends on division of labor; division of labor depends on trade; trade depends on natural liberty; therefore Freedom = Wealth.” And the bulk of “On the Wealth of Nations” outlines Smith’s belief in the pursuit of self-interest, increased specialization in industry as the means to progress, and free trade as the vehicle to success.
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Smith was a philosopher more than an economist, and “The Wealth of Nations” tackles everything from religion to politics, but Smith’s ideas are stark and inhumane. For example, Smith refutes the practice of slavery not because it is morally wrong but because it is inefficient; it is better to give people the freedom to think they are self-determined.
Smith’s later chapters on the history of economics take us from the fall of the Roman Empire through feudalism, the rise of the burgermeisters and merchants and, inevitably, capitalism and free-market economy.
O’Rourke tells us that the 18th-century Scottish professor was a cold-fish economist. Smith never married, lived with his mother and sister, and though the contemporary of some great minds of the 18th-century Enlightenment (David Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Ben Franklin), O’Rourke calls Smith “as regular and orderly and dull as any proponent of his ideas and defender of his character could hope.”
O’Rourke is at his best pulling the pith out of a long-winded Smith. The appendix of “On the Wealth of Nations” is a glossary of Smith’s best sound bites, which O’Rourke links playfully to modern topics ranging from homelessness to Paris Hilton ” great bathroom reading and an entry into the mind of Smith, something O’Rourke failed to do in the main text of his book.
O’Rourke’s close analysis of “The Wealth of Nations” is a pompom shake for the free-market economy. A hippy turned yuppie, O’Rourke does not hide his politics (see other works like “Parliament of Whores,” “Give War a Chance” and “Peace Kills”), and the cool professor loses me in the details on this one.
I’m left trying to borrow your notes and asking, “Is this going to be on the test?”