It is the question all modern economists dread. Every couple of months we are asked, usually by a well-meaning colleague, what we think of the Wealth of Nations. To which, if we were honest, we would reply that we never really managed to plough through the entire 900 pages of Adam Smith’s sometimes dense, occasionally brilliant and often mind-numbingly boring prose.
We have all dipped in and out, marvelled at Smith’s bursts of lucidity, devoured his famous passages on the division of labour, whilst making sure we skipped his 67-page ‘Digression concerning the Variations in the Value of Silver during the Course of the Four last Centuries’. The new generation of economics graduates, reared almost exclusively on advanced calculus and econometrics, are even less likely to have read Smith or any of the great founding texts of their discipline.
So it is entirely to be welcomed that P J O’Rourke, the American satirist, has turned his piercing mind to Smith’s work; his latest book manages to be a surprisingly sophisticated and comprehensive guide to Smith’s economic and moral philosophy,