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Like a Rolf Harris portrait of the Queen ... can you tell what it is yet?,
This review is from: On the Wealth of Nations: A Book That Shook the World (Books That Shook the World) (Paperback)
P J O'Rourke - he of Republican Party Reptile - is a gifted, witty and acerbic writer but one whose views, even when on his mettle, one should take wth a pinch of salt: more useful as an antidote to loony-tunes leftie thinking than as a properly constructive conservative alternative. As with all politically committed writers, left or right, his core analysis tends to be glib: the brushstrokes with which he paints the world are vigorous but, like many paintings that look good at a distance, they don't always bear close examination.
Expounding on Adam Smith's classic The Wealth of Nations, then, O'Rourke both is and isn't on home turf. *Is* in that, superficially, Smith is the godfather of O'Rourke's libertarian, optimistic, Republican brand of economics in observing that the natural opposition of interests of buyers and sellers is a functional tension such that folks left to their own devices will, quite without meaning to, generally act is a way which is constructive and efficient in its allocation of resources. *Isn't* in that O'Rourke is a journalist and a polemicist not an economist, much less a moral philosopher (though to give him credit he makes no bones whatever about that) and Smith's 900 page tome is a far more nuanced volume than its hackneyed headline about the invisible hand - which is all most of us know about it: hence O'Rourke's book - suggests.
To his credit, also, O'Rourke has also spent time assimlating Smith's companion (and much less well known) volume A Theory of Moral Sentiments, and does some good work to contextualise Wealth of Nations by reference to it.
All the same, O'Rourke's simplistic economic viewpoint - and sardonic air - remain untroubled by Smith's nuance, and at times this entry drifts closer to representing O'Rourke's own theory of the Wealth of Nations rather than considering Smith's. Most readers will have far less interest in that, no matter how funny it might be, particularly as O'Rourke has had a go at that book already, a decade ago, in Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, and more particularly because on this outing O'Rourke's wit isn't as sharp, nor his insight as valuable, as it can be.
In any case you can be sure that P J O'Rourke wouldn't need 900 pages to expound his theory. You could write it on a cocktail napkin (Eat The Rich notwithstanding), and for all his praise of Adam Smith's pragmatism in the face of ideologically driven idealism (anachronistic though it may be, at the time of publication the dread socialism being still a good century and more hence) O'Rourke's laissez-faire view of the world is as idealistic as any, supposing as it does perfectly rational actors, a complete absence of government, ubiquity of perfect information and an omnipresent infinity of buyers and sellers, and (as we can now say in November 2008 with 20:20 hindsight) just as flawed: there are, we know know, times where even perfectly rational actors simply won't act and in these times the invisible hand without so much as a by-your-leave vanishes altogether and the only credible mechanic left to deal with the black swans carousing about is good old nanny state. And Warren Buffett.
This is by no means a bad book, and for those interested in a *somewhat* deeper reading of The Wealth Of Nations, more pleasant than the one that can be had by actually reading it, step forward - but bring that salt cellar. For this P J O'Rourke book more than any, you'll be needing it.