The last I read of P. J. O'Rourke, he seemed to be pretty well washed up. His last book was yet another collection of current events essays, which this time barely managed to elicit an occasional wry grin from me. The idea of a hippie turned conservative satirist simply wasn't so novel anymore, and it seemed like P.J. was at a loss as to where to turn next.
This little tome is a delightful place-holder, while he's still deciding. So far as current events satire is concerned, he's been gradually going the way of Tom Wolfe, using current celebrities and brand names for punch lines, to disguise his growing disconnect from the zeitgeist. And that's no sin--the world passes everyone by sooner or later. So taking up a 230 year old book to jest over is inspired, and the results do not disappoint.
Oh, the collaborative nature of the book is fairly obvious at times. P. J. thanks his researchers in the acknowledgements, after all. And their presence is too obvious in places, such as when an off-hand mention of Thorstein Veblen is made--as if P. J. had any idea who Veblen was before he started this book. But P. J.'s distinctive wit is sharp and plentiful throughout, much to the pleasure of old fans like me.
The charge that the book does not plumb the depths of Smith's thought is misguided. We are living in a unique period of biography nowadays, with the return of the "brief life" type books. It may not be science, but it isn't dismal, either! If P. J. O'Rourke's On The Wealth of Nations leaves you entertained AND curious to learn more, then there's nothing else to call it but a success.
Some fair use passages:
A good head for business is a middle-class invention. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for all their genius, didn't have it. Otherwise they would have abandoned slave labor with its health benefit and pension plan burdens. They would have free the slaves, turned them into customers, and outsourced the unskilled jobs to Sogdiana and Gaul. The medieval burghers, besides becoming really free, became really smart in our present sense of the word. "The habits," Smith wrote, "of order, aeconomy and attention, to which mercantile business naturally forms a merchant, render him much fitter to execute, with profit and success, any project of improvement."
Later economists, such as, in the early nineteenth century, J. B. Say, felt that Smith undervalued the economic contributions of service. And he did. The eighteenth century had servants, not a service economy. It was hard for a man of that era to believe that the semi-inebriated footman and the blowsy scullery maid would evolve into, well, the stoned pizza delivery boy and the girl behind the checkout counter with an earring in her tongue.
Even in the heady days leading up to the Declaration of Independence there was a prosaic and businesslike aspect to the American Revolution. The French Revolution did not get its start in a tiff over custom duties. The sans-culottes were not middle-class entrepreneurs like Paul Revere and Sam Adams, and running around without pants they weren't likely to become so. The Jacobins didn't put on feather bonnets to stage a commercial protest. If there ever had been a Paris Tea Party, the revolutionaries would not have been dumping oolong, they would have been scalping everyone in sight and then each other. No beer is named after Dr. Guillotin.
The boggling complexity of tax law and the ceaseless fiddling with taxes, even by legislators who would lower them, violate Smith's principle that "a very considerable degree of inequality...is not near so great an evil as a very small degree of uncertainty." It's a principle that applies to practically everything, as anyone who is in love or waiting for a check in the mail knows.
Smith came very close to stumbling on marginal utility when he noted that "Nothing is more useful than water, but it will purchase scare any thing." With an additional eight ounces of water all we get is a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. With an additional eight ounces of gold we get the upfront payment to lease a Lexus. Marginal utility explains why gold, vital to the life of no one except hip-hop performers and fiances, is so high-priced.
Leftist critics of free markets assume that there is a fraudulent aspect to capitalism. They're right. We tricked the feudal powers into setting us free, and we remained free by continuing to bamboozle them. We used chicanery and sharp dealing to found our cities, become rich bourgeoisie, and supply ourselves with creature comforts. We left the barbarian aristocrats in their drafty castles throwing chicken bones on the floor.