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On the Wealth of Nations (Books That Changed the World) [Hardcover]

P. J. O'Rourke
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Perseus Oto; 1st Edition edition (4 Dec 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871139499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871139498
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.6 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,406,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Reads Adam Smith's revolutionary "The Wealth of Nations". --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag 12 Aug 2007
By gerryg VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am a fan of P J O'Rourke's writing and sympathetic to his libertarian stance. Never having read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, I thought I could take a short cut by reading this. Overall I am not sure that I have achieved my original objective.

You are likely to be interested in economics to want to read either Wealth of Nations or P J O'Rourke. The rest of this review is written on that assumption.

Overall, the book is untidily written (particularly the first chapter) and for the non-USA reader, some of the references seem beyond obscure. The author fails to avoid getting between you and the subject matter. At times (thought not always) it is unclear whether we are reading about Adam Smith's opinions regarding economics or those of the author.

Which is not to say that the book is without merit, I think I know more about the topic than I did, P J O'Rourke's comment is often funny, it just doesn't obviously meet the objective of reading one into "Wealth of Nations"
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5.0 out of 5 stars That's Entertainment! 31 Aug 2008
As Thurber said (I think/paraphrase?) "Only humor can safely approach the burning column of truth" so it is possible that the ~180 pages of O'Rourke can safely approach the 900 pages of the Wealth Of Nations.

You will either "get it" or you won't but I doubt *you* will ever pack so much info as O'Rourke manages into so few words and paragraphs so entertainingly - this trick is *only* possible with humour.

Thus any sort of critique cannot approach these columns safely so let the man speak for himself!

<quote P19/20 of On The Wealth Of Nations>
...For example, a passage from the aforementioned digression on silver:
<Adam Smith>
Labour, it ust always be remembered, and not any particulare commodity or set of commodities, is the real measure of the value both of silver and of all other commodities.6
<end of Adam Smith>
<quote continues>
This can be powerfully condensed: 'Labour... is the real measure of...value.' In quoting Adam Smith,'...'is sometimes the most trenchant thing he said. And it may be that just such a trenchant ellipsis in The Wealth Of Nations was what sent Karl Marx off his rocker. Notice, reading Smith's original sentence, that no grand Marxist 'value theory of labor' was created. The more so because, three hundred pages later, Smith makes the same kind of argument about food grains: 'The real value of every other commodity is finally measured and determined by ...the average money price of corn.'7 Smith thus maintains that work (or something akin to it, such as our daily bread) provides a sensible index for determining how much other things are worth to us.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A book for burning 1 Sep 2007
I love books but over time I have come to think that book burning has been given a bad name. The problem is not books that you disagree with - they can be stimulating. Its books that are a complete waste of paper. They are rare but they exist. This is one. Rourke may be a top humourist in the US but he seems to know nothing much about economics, nothing much about Adam Smith and he is simply not funny here. What do you do with a book that is too bad to sell, pass on or give a way? Rourke does at least point out that Smith's view of the market is based on a moral theory of sympathy with our fellow humans. If you have bought this book you have my sympathy. If you are considering buying it I would opt for checking out a library copy. Mine is on the fire.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  58 reviews
143 of 150 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Age and Guile pay a call on the Enlightenment 18 Dec 2006
By Well Read - Published on Amazon.com
There may be a puzzle here for some: P.J. O'rourke is a humorist, why is he taking on such an...academic task? Looking for "the lighter side" of the darkest slice of current events has been his shtick for some time but writing a gloss on one of the most-glossed works in the library would seem out of character, at first.
Those familiar with O'rourke's work will know that humor is but a tool he uses to get at the real nub of an issue. In the end, he finds the blithering idiocy at the heart of the world's worst injustices; and those injustices always, always involve wonton disregard for the provable laws of economics.
Smith's "On the Wealth of Nations" is often cited but rarely understood and even more rarely actually read. It takes a fellow with a good sense of humor (and an army of research assistants) to dive into this musty tome and tell us what it has to say for the modern world. And what it has to say can still surprise us.
It is a universal truth that each generation assumes it is smarter than the one before. By extension, the mall-rat with the lip-ring has several thousand self-awarded IQ points on poor, simple Adam Smith. The fact that Smith has been misquoted and taken out of context by a dozen generations has clouded the perceived relevance of his works still further. Smith's most enduring observation is that free trade leads to prosperity and restraint of trade leads to misery. History offers ample proofs before Smith's time and since and still the tired debates go on.
Humanity will place the study of economics alongside the study of spelling and mathematics or humanity will die. Any work that makes this more likely to happen for even a small slice of humanity is worth reading. O'rourke adds the allure of his devious wit. A fun and enlightening read.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can Economics Be Funny? 23 Jan 2007
By Publius - Published on Amazon.com
It is not often that someone reading a book about Smithian economics ends up laughing out loud every page. This fantastic book offers just that. Not only does it humor the reader, but the humor serves to illuminate Smith's salient points, without doing damage to the original text. O'Rourke summarizes Smith's points quite cohesively: "wealth depends on division of labor, division of labor depends upon trade, trade depends upon natural liberty, so freedom = wealth." This simple point rings with as much clarity today as it did in 1776. Unfortunately, very few people, especially 'intellectuals', fail to understand Smith's essential libertarian philosophy. These are the same people that do not understand that the words 'trade imbalance' are essentially a contradiction in terms. They are also the people that still contend, despite being disproved for the last 50 years, that government is the best solution to achieve individual happiness. Smith has been called the first true prophet of the market economy, but as O'Rourke points out, he was by no means in the mold of a Tony Robbins. He is, in essence, again in P.J.'s words, the UN-motivational speaker. Instead, Smith emphasized the transient nature of money, or as O'Rourke's writes, 'money doesn't buy happiness...it merely rents it.'

Smith wrote that 'the person who either acquires, or succeed to any political power, either civil or military...his fortune may, perhaps, afford him the means of acquiring both, but...does not necessarily convey to him either.' That's why Joe Kennedy, despite having all the money in the world, could never win an elected office. It also explains why his son, Jack Kennedy won the presidency. Money is important, but you need a small amount of charisma to go the next step. So, can economics by funny, entertaining and enlightening at the same time? Well, with P.J. O'Rourke doing the writing, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars O'Rourke strikes again 7 Feb 2007
By Bruce F. Webster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I consider P. J. O'Rourke to be one of the great social, political and economic commentators of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Three reasons suffice: he is brutally honest about foibles and failings across the entire political spectrum; he actually learns about what he writes about (including extensive travels, interviews, and readings); and he is drop dead funny, though preferring the absurdity of truth over the cheap quip or easy slander. _Eat the Rich_ has long been my favorite treatise on economics, and I have purchased copies for several of my (adult) children.

On the other hand, I likewise own Smith's _The Wealth of Nations_, but have struggled to get past the first few chapters. O'Rourke, with this new book, has provided what could be considered merely an entertaining 'Cliff Notes' version of _The Wealth of Nations_. But his book also provides a context and framework for reading TWON itself...which I will probably now do. (Hey, I have lots of other books in the queue.) And if you're unlikely to ever attempt TWON itself, then by all means buy and read this book. ..bruce..
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine, funny introduction to free enterprise's most important thinker 12 Feb 2007
By The Sanity Inspector - Published on Amazon.com
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.
22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars PJ Fans Beware 16 Feb 2007
By R. Pollard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am an economist and a great fan of P.J. O'Rourke's, so I looked forward to his interpretation of the Wealth of Nations. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations. P.J. is in over his head when he attempts to explain economic theory. He attributes the velocity of circulation to Keynes, who was actually a critic. It seems he never heard of Irving Fisher who was its main exponent. Nor does he understand that the velocity of circulation is part of the quantity theory of money. He claims that "no one understands it," which I guess leaves out Milton Friedman. He also does not understand the difference between a "lump sum" tax and a "flat tax." Beyond the economic flaws, the book lacks his usual wit and wisdom. It is hard to summarize Smith's 18th century prose and there are sections that drag on like a history of economic thought text. My suggestion: Reread Parlaiment of Whores.
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