Adam Smith for Dummies

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Adam Smith for Dummies On the Wealth of Nations (Books That Changed the World) By P. J. O'Rourke (ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS, 242 PAGES, $21.95)

Reviewed by Joel Miller

DESPITE THEIR OBVIOUS DIFFERENCES, Das Kapital and The Wealth of Nations share at least one similarity: Nobody reads them. In the case of Karl Marx, this is no tragedy. Thanks to the colorful antics of history (many of them sticky and sanguinary), anyone can see that the bewhiskered dreamer was full of crap.

Not so with Adam Smith, whose tome revealed profundities from which anyone would profit-that is, unless you count the cost of actually digesting The Wealth of Nations. Any edition of this classic, published in 1776, is big and dense enough to double as a doorstop. Between American Idol and the latest Barack Obama coverage, who's got the time? Taking a cue from that thoroughly modern doctrine, "To each according to his attention span," in steps P.J. O'Rourke to explicate the truths of the great Scottish philosopher.

That is no small task I speak from experience when I say that had Smith submitted his manuscript to a modern publisher at nine in the morning, it would have been summarily rejected by noon. That underpaid proletariat known as editors would have raised pitchfork and laptop at any text so unnecessarily long. Between the meandering sentences and discursive tangents, any reasonable editor would balk.

In handling Smith, O'Rourke has several advantages over the editors. First, his author is dead. Smith cannot complain that O'Rourke has missed some essential point buried 19 paragraphs into a wild goose chase that the distiller has just deleted. Next, O'Rourke is better paid and working on a more luxurious deadline than the typical editor-which means he can be more patient and gracious with his dearly departed author. Finally, O'Rourke is working from home, which means if s easier to drink on the job when the job requires it (and this one surely must have).

The result is a usually pleasant, generally useful, and refreshingly insightful distillation of Smith: from 900 pages down to 242. Not a bad day at the office.

THE BEST EXAMPLE of O'Rourke's concision also happens to be the most important for the book, boiling the entire thing down to a simple elevator pitch: "The Wealth of Nations," he writes, "argues three basic principles and, by plain thinking and plentiful examples, proves them. Even intellectuals should have no trouble understanding Smith's ideas [of]... pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and freedom of trade."

If s the Cliffs Notes version or, better, Adam Smith for Dummies (which a quick Amazon search reveals does not yet exist). This "trinity of individual prerogatives" makes a useful guidepost for meandering through the tangle. When Smith is going on about the history of currency, for instance, or handily dismantling the theories of the French physiocrats, readers can know the ultimate relevance is tied to the Big Three.

O'Rourke also does a decent job of intellectual backfill. A common but woefully misinformed criticism of Smith is that he was simply counseling selfishness. But The Wealth of Nations is not a self-help book; if s a book about how to improve the station of humanity. And it happens to be a sequel. Smith's first book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, deals with improvement from a moral perspective, while Wealth comes at the same subject from the material angle. To put it in more biblical terms, Smith's books are the two tablets of the Law-one deals with more lofty concerns, the other says don't boost your neighbor's burro.

The whole of the man's corpus is important to keep in mind because the people who pretend that they've read Das Kapital like to think of Smith as a monomaniacal prophet of greed. …