Funny Money: P.J. O\'Rourke\'s take on \"The Wealth of Nations\"

Posted In: Politics, National, Opinion,   From Issue 633   By: Mark Leffler

08th March, 2007     0

"Humor is a terrific tool for explaining things, especially when what you're explaining is frightening or dull and complicated."

P.J. O'Rourke

That quote by O'Rourke was found on his entry in Wikiquote, which contains citations from his eleven books and some waggish swipes and disdainful quips attributed to this concise, and amazingly witty, pundit. Peej, as he was known during his days at the National Lampoon magazine in the 70's, has been credited as having the most quotes in that cyber version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia.

As is evident to anyone who has visited their local comedy club or seen the current crop of sitcoms on cable, smart and funny is a rare combination. Smart, funny and to the right of Jon Stewart is even rarer phenomenon. So it's a pleasure anytime a book by libertarian icon and humorist O'Rourke appears in print.

His most recent work takes on the 900-plus pages of the economic classic, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" published in 1776. The book's full name is "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations." Just considering that title is enough to make the average reader's head hurt and reach for the whiskey. Or if they're suburban Republican, scotch or gin.

"On The Wealth of Nations" is the first volume of a series intended to introduce great books to a wider and more general audience.  Atlantic Monthly Press has wisely chosen the only current writer I know of who can explain complicated economic theory while making the reader chuckle regularly by making swipes at Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton. If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, in the world according to P.J. a snifter full of brandy and a fine Cuban cigar makes analysis of Smith's chapters like "Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth" apprehend able.

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

That most famous quote from the most influential book on Economics in the English language is also at the heart of Libertarianism, and O'Rourke has always been much more comfortable under their tent, where he can smoke and drink and do anything else that's none of your business as long as his wife doesn't find out.

Smith's genius, O'Rourke maintains, was for understanding what produced wealth (self-interest) and what didn't (protectionist tariffs and tight government controls). And Smith was bright enough and humble enough to also know what economists couldn't know: how to make wealth.

O'Rourke's take on Smith is not an easy read nor should it be.

Although he translates colonial mercantilism with a wit and panache rarely, if ever, applied to economics; it's still a book that requires total concentration and open-mindedness. For Reagan worshipping supply side supporters, it will explain the ideas behind tax cuts and smaller government. Old School Liberals such as me must be willing to challenge their almost pre-natal support for government spending and regulation.

It is refreshing to learn that Smith, the Patron Saint of the Reagan Revolution if you will, (the man with the Big Ideas) wasn't dismissive or unappreciative of social justice and charitable works, he just believed it didn't have much, if anything, to do with economics and producing wealth. And all the well-intentioned proposals of Hillary and Bono won't do for the poor what a booming economy will, according to Peej's interpretation of Smith.

Anyone who exercises understands that to make a muscle stronger you have to overexert it, break it down and then it will become stronger. It's been proven that children who are taught that intelligence isn't a static number you are assigned at birth, but something that grows with knowledge, do better and their grades improve.

But most people stopped reading difficult taxing books after they left high school or college. And most of those few who continue to read, read for entertainment or they buy political posturing by Bill O'Reilly or Al Franken only to reinforce what they already believe. It's known as "preaching to the choir", making arguments to people who already agree. Of course with O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingram the expression is literal.

The average Barnes and Noble shopper, if they find themselves in the Financial section, are just browsing for that book by that guy from that money show on MSNBC or "Online Day Trading for Dullards." Most of us know more about the medical problems of their Border Collie than they do about finances and economic theory.

Yet money is a central fact of life.

For many it is the central fact of life.

That might be sad or laughable depending on whether the person is a poor Hungarian single mother or Donald Trump, who will marry that woman's daughter. But we know very little about money. Many liberals pride themselves on their ignorance of financial matters as if it were a Dixie Chick Grammy. And conservatives become walking proof of the adage about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing while also believing devoutly in many things that are, according to Smith, just Wrong (such as that foreign trade deficits cripple economies).

What O'Rourke does so intelligently and hilariously is to demonstrate that with a little effort, even the densest intellectual forest can be navigated. It helps to have a guide who is one part H. L. Mencken and one part Mark Twain.

It would be cheating the reader, indeed, not to include some of the more quotable lines from the book. If you use them at your next dinner party or to chat up someone in a coffee house, you should probably send a check to P.J.

It would take someone with the genius of Adam Smith to explain whether there is value in writing, but it would produce the one sort of wealth P.J. is always in favor of: His.

"Knowing something about economics does not alter the fact that economics is unknowable. Economists cannot predict the future any better than Jennifer Aniston and Donald Rumsfeld could predict Brad Pitt and Iraq."

You may think you're not the lower ranks because you make a lot of dough, but your lifestyle is an "inconvenience to the society" big time, as you'll find out when I key your Hummer that's taking up three parking spaces."

"Brevity may be the soul of wit, but The Wealth of Nations was no joke. Anyway, a taste for brevity is a recent development. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address received a tepid response at Gettysburg. And semiliterate and sub literate types still enjoy a good stem-winder on AM radio or in Hugo Chavez' Venezuela."

"Freedom of speech is wonderful if you have something to say. A search of the "blogosphere" reveals that hardly anyone does."

"Marginal utility explains why gold, vital to the life of no one except hip-hop artists and fiances, is so high priced."

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