Book Review: P.J. O’Rourke — On The Wealth Of Nations

I’ll admit a cardinal sin. I’ve never read The Wealth Of Nations. It’s always been on my “to read” list, as it is one of the most revolutionary books in economics history, and routinely quoted by many of the libertarians I admire. I actually bought a copy last year, and took a look at it. I realized it was 900+ pages of dry economics text, written in the style of an 18th-century Scotsman. I put it on my shelf, in order to get to it later. The shelf collapsed under the weight, so I rebuilt [and reinforced] it, put the book back up there, and there it has sat ever since. My guess is that many of those aforementioned libertarians I admire haven’t read it either, so a little book is making it easier on all of us.

I was a bit excited when I found out P.J. O’Rourke was releasing a book on Adam Smith’s revolutionary tome. The humorist which has supplied libertarians with countless quotes about the inefficiency, inadequacy, and impropriety of government was going to bring Adam Smith to the masses. And he hasn’t disappointed, in his book On The Wealth Of Nations.

The book is a bit of a Cliff’s Notes for The Wealth Of Nations, with humor added. Of course, it’s a rare Cliff’s Notes that is 196 pages, but not many 900+ page economics books get Cliff’s Notes. In fact, most of the summary of the original book takes up only about 130 pages of O’Rourke’s book, with a lot of added background on Smith himself (whose life was rather un-extraordinary), and on the impact that the book has had on the world. If you’re looking for a readable summary of The Wealth of Nations, with a little of the historical background thrown in, this is your book.

As a summary of The Wealth Of Nations, it is an eminently readable and concise measure of exactly where Smith was right— and where he was wrong. Adam Smith was a revolutionary thinker, blazing new ground on every one of those 900+ pages. Where he was right, he changed the world. Where he was wrong is forgotten (again, because few people have ever actually read the original). The original is separated into 5 books, which O’Rourke summarizes in 8 well-organized chapters. And again, he lays out exactly where Smith was right, in his writing on the pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and free trade. He also lays out where Smith was wrong, on his theory of prices (from where Marx may have derived the labor theory of value) and the whole of book 5, where Smith tries to advise the politicians of his day. In a nutshell, though, he gives the layman access to exactly what arguments Smith made in The Wealth Of Nations, without sounding like an 18th-century Scotsman, for which we can all be happy.

Beyond his summary of the original work, he goes beyond in order to give a background of the work and a background of Smith. This includes an entire chapter titled “Why Is The Wealth Of Nations So Damn Long?”, which frankly gave me a lot of cover for not having read the original. A chapter was devoted to The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, Smith’s previous work, which laid a lot of groundwork for The Wealth Of Nations. Finally, after summarizing the original, he provided a chapter or two on the biographical nature of Smith. From O’Rourke’s writing, though, one would think that Adam Smith was a bit of a boring man, a pejorative which may tend to apply to modern economists as well. Adam Smith wasn’t known for his eccentricities; he appears to have had none. Overall, though, O’Rourke does give a short biography of Smith that gives us a fair picture of the man, even if there wasn’t a lot of color.

As for humor, it’s not as evident as I would expect of O’Rourke, but when considering the subject matter, this is hardly a surprise. The book was intended as a serious book, and it should be taken as such. In a few places, the humor seems forced, however in a few others, it had me busting up in laughter. The humor made a serious topic seem much lighter than many I’ve looked into. Some of the historical books I’ve read on the American Revolution did not read as lightly as On The Wealth Of Nations, and given the fact that those were stories about a much more exciting subject, it should give you an idea of how easy this book was to get through.

Given that you’re looking at a very dry topic, but one that covers one of the most influential pieces of economic literature in human history, I think On The Wealth Of Nations easily hits its mark. The day may have come, some point far in the future, when I would have sat down and powered through the original over a span of weeks, but it’s not something I have the time or energy to do now. O’Rourke’s book distilled the original into something that could teach the essentials of Smith without boredom, and could be finished in less than a fortnight. I would consider it worth the time of anyone who has been putting off reading the original, due to the time and energy it might take. Plus, it hasn’t yet collapsed a bookshelf!

  • Dana

    Hmm…is that like all the socialist/marxists who own Das Kapital as some sort of prerequisite but have never actually read it?

    I tried once, but gave it up. There is too much out there that is more useful and better written (or translated, I don’t know…I didn’t try to tackle the German).

  • AT QB

    Post hijack: What do you think about potentially giving in on a carbon tax in combination with lowering payroll/income taxes?

    Liberals can make the environment a priority and shift preferences away from “bad” fuels. Conservatives can move to a consumption based taxation system, and eventually, as the invisible hand along with our carbon tax shifts tastes to cleaner energy, the carbon tax will eventually be fazed out of our lives (thus killing a couple of taxes with one stone).

    Is that workable?

  • AT QB

    ^^^Read article over @^^^

  • Brad Warbiany


    Well, I’m not a fan of finding new things to tax. Our government tends to squirrel away a tax on this, then a tax on that, then before we realize it they’ve got 50% of our income.

    Remember who pays a carbon tax. You and I do. We don’t get charged it directly, but we’ll be the ones paying it, in higher energy prices.

    Basically, while I think in the short term it might reduce income taxes, in the long term I think it just adds another revenue stream and the income taxes will float right back up. Plus, given our current budget situation, who’s to say they’d even trade lower income taxes for the carbon taxes? I can see the politicians now, “Well, we need this money, but we’re not going to raise YOUR taxes, we’re going to raise them on those evil polluting corporations!” And most of the public will be duped into thinking they’re getting a deal, while their energy bills skyrocket.

  • Lance

    I enjoyed it as well. He was especially good at pointing out the flaws in Smith’s thinking, and how we should think about them.