on 15 March 2008
O'Rourke is easier to read and shorter than Smith buy he is still not easy going. You need to pay good attention to the arguments. They did indeed influence the world and we are given good information on the historical context of Smith's writing. What I missed was any reference to the origin of Smith's title. It is a biblical quotation. O'Rourke is guilty of the occasional inaccuracy and non sequitur. It was the city council of Geneva, not Calvin who had Servetus executed.
It's hard to fault the previous review.
The book does start well, with Smith's moral (rather than economic) theory.
On the plus side it's an easy read (something you could never say about the original - I got to the bit about making pins and lost the will to go any further), and there is a neat summary of Smith's ideas and life.
However the jokes just seem to fall flat, and add little to the explanation.
You also have to be aware, that O' Rourke has a tendency to project his own views (Right wing American) onto Adam Smith.
The Wealth of Nations is one of those books most of us are never going to get round to reading. So P J O'Rourke's Cliff/Coles Notes on the subject are much appreciated.
Having read most of O'Rourke's other works, it does seem that he returns to some of his favourite topics - public bad, private good, making money is a respectable pastime, taxing people is bad, leave people alone and you'll get the best results. But his jokes are always pretty good, and he does keep you interested in the subject matter.
As a small businessman, I can see where Smith is coming from. You have to be very careful with your resources if you want to prosper, and you have to be very aware of the needs of your customers. Money is a beautiful thing, and a "steady friend", as he puts it. And when it comes to pricing, value is entirely subjective.
America is a tough capitalist society, you have to stand on your own two feet and lean on God. Britain is more of a socialist muddle. even after Mrs Thatcher's best efforts. My theory is that political parties are bankrupt because they serve nobody's interest apart from their own, and dealings with the council have convinced me that if they offer anything for free, it's organised for their benefit, and nobody else's. But the British love their charitee and paternalistic culture.
This book made me think about my attitude to Wal-Mart/Asda phenomenon, the pharmaceutical industry and TV shows like Big Brother. If they make money for their owners, is there a greater good ie Government, that should regulate them?
I have suffered from the massive increases of rents and house prices in London, but after complaining for a couple of years, I moved out, which has, after a fashion, put me in a better position.
So I finished this book more convinced that money, trade and freedom are good things.
on 21 September 2007
Adam Smith is to Tories/right wing Americans what Karl Marx is to socialists - an author capable of being interpreted and twisted to justify any particular argument. PJ O'Rourke's book is - I assume - an attempt to give modern readers a fairly straightforward introduction to Smith's writing and ideas without the need to wade through the sometimes dense and occasionally longwinded original.
It starts quite well - O'Rourke writes in an amusing and chatty style somewhat reminiscent of Bill Bryson, and quite correctly he argues that to understand Smith's economic arguments you have to read them in the context of his earlier philosophical work, the "Theory of Moral Sentiments". He also is happy to point out where Smith occasionally contradicts himself or gets himself in a muddle.
Where it falls down however is that, as the book progresses, O'Rourke's own views on the economy and free markets seem to intrude and he appears to be using the Wealth of Nations to back up his own interpretations and prejudices (apparently Britain was a socialist state after the second world war to the 1980s, news that will come as a shock to most Brits). And because he glosses over an important part of Smith's views on the role of government (that it is there to provide things which are not in the self interest of any one person to provide, but from which all gain - his famous example being lighthouses) as it doesn't fit with his own prejudices, the reader is left to wonder what else is being manipulated in his quotes from Smith.
Many of O'Rourke's contemporary references are incomprehensible to non-Americans, something that would not be a major issue were it not for the other faults in his approach.
Ultimately, if you are looking for an easy introduction to Smith and his ideas (and it is a very quick, undemanding read) this is not a bad point to start, so long as you take O'Rourke's interpretation with a very large pinch of salt.