Sunday, February 25, 2007

O'Rourke on Smith

Just finished reading PJ O'Rourke's new book, on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.

A disappointment. To be fair, I am a really, really big fan of both O'Rourke and of Smith, so my hopes were perhaps unrealistically high.

But Smith is subtle, and it is hard to understand his main thesis on division of labor. PJ apparently doesn't, or at least skips over it any real discussion. He wastes chapters paraphrasing Smith's language, instead of summarizing his ideas.

PJ is capable of deep understanding, as his famous essay, "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" illustrates. That article changed my life, and dating/driving habits.

Seriously, I thought Parliament of Whores was so good I use several chapters in class. And All the Trouble in the World...well, the chapters on environmentalism are simply brilliant.

And, to be fair, O'Rourke's analysis of Smith does have a couple of terrific chapters. Chapter 7, on power and regulation, is outstanding. Not just funny, but fundamentally insightul. And Chapter 13, "An Inquiry into Adam Smith," is a wonderful overview of the man's life.

But too many of the other chapters just don't rise to that standard. Okay, but not great. You are still better off, if you don't want to read the whole WoN, just studying Book I and Book IV carefully, IMHO.

(cross-posted from DoL)


Jacob said...

How can any political scientist excuse not reading Book V??

Mungowitz said...

Two answers, J:

1. I've never taken a course in Poli Sci, at any level. So, you might have to ask a political scientist to get your question answered.

2. But....Smith's insights on politics weren't. Weren't insights, that is. He was a closet life-arranger. It's okay, because he did intuit an awful lot. But Book 5 is a Pandora's box of wishful thinking and unconnected aphorisms. Whenever I try to read Book V I end up throwing the book against the wall.

Juris Naturalist said...

I agree with your review. PJ is just trying too hard to be funny. Eat the Rich was much funnier. The chapter on Theory of Moral Sentiments was useful.

ummm.. Is taking Poli Sci classes worthwhile if you are studying economics?

Mungowitz said...

Eat the Rich was not just funnier, but better! All around more useful.

I have three degrees in economics. And not one CLASS in poli sci. So, I guess that answers your last question, from my perspective at least....