- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

ON THE WEALTH OF NATIONS

By P.J. O’Rourke, Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pages, $21.95

P.J. O’Rourke has read Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” so we don’t have to. And what a favor and a sacrifice this turns out to be. (Please don’t tell me you read it in college — you may have been assigned it, but I guarantee you didn’t read it.)

“The Wealth of Nations” contains some of the best ideas on economics hatched by the mind of man, which, where they’ve been employed, have led to no less than, well, the wealth of nations. At least for those nations whose leaders have been nimble enough to follow Smith’s ideas rather than succumb to the kind of controlled, politicized and regulated-near-unto-death economies that invariably lead to poverty-ridden despotisms and kleptocracies (not to mention gulags).

But “The Wealth of Nations” is also a 900-page tome written in the dense prose and discursive style of the 18th century. Very heavy going. Mr. O’Rourke said it took him a year to read the book in preparation for writing his own.

Before we do the ideas, let’s deal with the obvious question: Why Mr. O’Rourke? Isn’t he that funny guy?

Yes, he’s a very funny guy. But unlike his friend, Dave Barry, another comic genius, Mr. O’Rourke has always written cogently on subjects with more intellectual weight than alien booger heads. He has shown in previous works such as “Parliament of Whores,” “The CEO of the Sofa,” “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and Bad Haircut,” “Eat the Rich” and others, that he can deliver the sharp insight along with the laugh. He knows his way around ideas. The spirit of his books seems to be fun with a purpose.

“On the Wealth of Nations,” perhaps Mr. O’Rourke’s biggest challenge because he must sustain focus on one man and one set of ideas for the duration, is no exception. Readers will learn and laugh.

Smith’s basic ideas are not hard to understand. At the most abbreviated they are: Remove trade barriers and make it light on the regulation and taxation. Then wait for the money to roll in. OK, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But not a lot.

Smith was right when his book was published in 1776, at a time when Britain was shackled by some unproductive mercantile policies. And he’s right now, as those who’ve gone down other planning and regulating and political trails have found to their sorrow.

Smith may not have invented economics. A bunch of French guys got there first. But Smith was the first good one, and one we can still rely on. His analyses of how wealth is produced and distributed, and of why property rights are critical for human happiness and what economic “equality” means, still hold up well because they’re based on practicality and close observations of the way people actually behave.

“ ’The Wealth of Nations’ argues three basic principles and, by plain thinking and plentiful examples, proves them. Even intellectuals should have no trouble understanding Smith’s ideas. Economic progress depends upon a trinity of individual prerogatives: pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and freedom of trade,” writes Mr. O’Rourke.

He says one of Smith’s most important insights was that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of self-interest. But it’s a mistake to read “Wealth of Nations,” as many on the political and cultural left insist on doing, as a justification of amoral greed. Morality is an important part of the equation for nations to benefit from Smith’s economic ideas, as he outlines in another of his books, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Movie meanie Gordon Gekko may believe in his flinty heart that “greed is good.” But he didn’t get this from Adam Smith. Smith’s take on acquisition and property rights are much more sophisticated, and more humane, than those of celluloid Wall Street traders.

Smith’s economic ideas have had a great run over the past 200-plus years. When his economic prescriptions have been supported by a moral society blessed with the rule of law (none of this works if you can’t enforce a contract, keep thieves out of your store or keep the government from taking your property), nations have prospered. Endless variations of progressive, liberal, leftist approaches as well as various “isms” have yielded results varying from stagnation to misery.

Familiarity with Adam Smith’s ideas is a requirement for economic literacy. Understanding them isn’t but should be a requirement for running for public office. Thanks to P.J. O’Rourke and “On the Wealth of Nations,” no one, save perhaps dusty economics dons, ever need slog through the original again in order to understand Smith and his ideas.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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