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On The Wealth of Nations (Books That Changed the World) Hardcover – December 4, 2006

3.7 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The famous satirist headlines a new series of Books That Changed the World," in which well-known authors read great books "so you don't have to." While irreverently dissecting Adam Smith's 18th-century antimercantilist classic, The Wealth of Nations, O'Rourke continues the dogged advocacy of free-market economics of his own books, such as Eat the Rich. His analysis renders Smith's opus more accessible, while providing the perfect launching pad for O'Rourke's opinions on contemporary subjects like the World Bank, defense spending and Bill Moyers's intelligence (or lack thereof, according to O'Rourke). Readers only vaguely familiar with Smith's tenets may be surprised to learn how little he continues to be understood today. As O'Rourke observes, "there are many theories in [The Wealth of Nations], but no theoretical system that Smith wanted to put in place, except 'the obvious and simple system of natural liberty [that] establishes itself of its own accord." Libertarian that he is, O'Rourke would probably agree that one shouldn't take only his word on Smith. Still, the book reads like a witty Cliffs Notes, with plenty of challenges for the armchair economist to wrap his head around. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Old and weighty as it is, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations remains the seminal work on the fundamentals of economics. Political satirist O'Rourke plumbs the hefty tome, examining the eighteenth-century text in relation to our modern economy, demonstrating the enduring wisdom and application of Smith's work. O'Rourke marvels at Smith's ability to cut to the marrow of economic concepts, the simplicity behind the notion of division of labor and self-interest. Despite the lack of personal introspection shown by authors of Smith's era, O'Rourke finds Smith's sense of humor shining through the long-winded writing typical of the time. In a discourse on the need for imported goods, Smith ponders the trading of French wine for English hardware to avoid an oversupply of pots and pans in the nation. Working without benefit of the graphs and jargon that modern-day economists employ, Smith analyzed the nation's early mercantilism and its benefit to society. In a highly accessible, often hilarious tone, O'Rourke parses Smith's notions of political and economic freedom. Readers well versed and not so well versed in economic theory will enjoy this delightful look at Smith's famous and famously dense work. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Series: Books That Changed the World
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; First Edition edition (December 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871139499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871139498
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,324,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I should have been exposed to a reliable, useful exposition of Adam's Smith's ideas in my History, Political Science, and Economics classes. None of them did as good a job as O'Rourke has done, distilling 900 pages down. O'Rourke ties Smith to today's issues. So far I have given away copies of this book to government officials, teachers, and friends. Please do the same.

It is frightening to discover that so many politicians' proposed solutions to current problems have been tried and failed, with historical examples and explanations documented by Smith. Where is our sense of history! Smith offers not belief, but fact. We all want to solve society's problems, but the solutions ought not cause greater problems than they cure.

After I listened to the CDs, I bought hard copy to underline. Now I leave it on my iPod so when I shuffle, I get 3 minutes of pithy insight, interspersed with cleansing music. Put this on your permanent reading and rereading list.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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