P.J. O'Rourke. on the Wealth of Nations

By Coleman, William | History of Economics Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

P.J. O'Rourke. on the Wealth of Nations


Coleman, William, History of Economics Review


P.J. O'Rourke. On The Wealth of Nations. Cornwall: Atlantic Monthly] Press. 2006. Pp. 256. ISBN 0871139498. US$20 (pb).

Having first come to public attention thirty years ago as editor of National Lampoon, P. J. O'Rourke now offers from his pen On The Wealth of Nations.

The Smithian might tremble as he opens its pages. What he finds, however, is no bizarrerie but a more mundane compound of merit and demerit.

This mixed aspect reflects its mixed subject: the portentously entitled volume is as much about Adam Smith the human being, as it is about the Wealth of Nations. And this is fortunate, for O'Rourke is ill equipped to analyse the Wealth of Nations, but proves himself equal to casting some light on its author.

His portrait of Smith is approving, and, unsurprisingly, without reverence. At various points he ventures that Smith had 'no idea what he was talking about'; was 'muddled'; and spoke 'nonsense'. But this does not doom Smith: character is not condemned on the basis of intellectual errors solely. We will allow and forgive at least a dram of nonsense from someone we admire for other reasons. What will O'Rourke not forgive? The answer to that is found in the fact that P. J. O'Rourke is a satirist, a humorist, a wag; someone, he says, whose 'job is to make quips, jests and waggish comments'. And the raw material for quips are the less grave faults of mankind; above all, its pretension, pride, po-facedness, panickyness, and poppycock.

Fortunately for Smith, the Scottish philosopher provides the wag very few of these less grave faults O'Rourke approvingly suggests that Smith was an 'idealist' but not a 'visionary'; that he accepted 'religion' but not 'religiosity'; and that, whenever he exposed a delinquency in policy, 'Smith didn't proceed with the rant that we now expect from people who feel themselves, a little too obviously, to be in the right'. Overall 'Smith must have been a likeable man', but not 'however, one of those dreadful individuals of whom it was said "he was beloved by all'".

Being a satirist, O'Rourke is also a moralist, and it is telling that his attention seems most excited, not by the Wealth of Nations, but by Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Having fallen under the silent spell of the Theory, O'Rourke is required to address the question that beckons all students of these two brother works: what is their relation to one another? O'Rourke's position is common, if (in my view) fallacious: that the Theory of Moral Sentiments is about loving our neighbour, while Wealth of Nations is about loving ourselves.

Less commonplace and more insightful is O'Rourke's suggestion that both books share the same underlying principle: work. In the Wealth of Nations work is called 'Labour'. In the Theory work is called 'Imagination'. For Smith, as O'Rourke emphasises, imagination is no species of reverie, but a form of work: the action of the reasoning power. (1)

But while O'Rourke's instinct as satirist has made him alive to some moral issues, it seems to deaden him to others. The satirist, recall, is offended by the less grave faults of human existence. He falls silent in the face of its grimmer ones. We do not satirise famine. We do not satirise killing. The characteristic error of the satirist in the face of these bleak evils, is not to keep a silence, but to go on plying their trade by fastening upon the lighter faults of those persons properly revolted by these evils. Thus in the face of famine and war in recent years, what has O'Rourke produced?

All the Trouble in the World: the Lighter Side of Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death (1994). Or Peace Kills: America's New Fun Imperialism (2004).

Being a satirist besets O'Rourke with one other handicap in the project at hand. The satirist is captivated by the follies of human beings. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

P.J. O'Rourke. on the Wealth of Nations
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.