Saturday, January 20, 2007

P.J. O'Rourke Says He Read The Wealth of Nations So You Don't Have To

He also read Theory of Moral Sentiments

O'Rourke's new book is out and I wish that I could say that it is as good as his classic, The Parliament of Whores, where he tells it like it is about our government in Washington, DC such as how there are two employees at the United States Department of Agriculture for every one American farmer. I loved that book, gave it to many people and kept a copy everywhere until I moved to small apartment in Brooklyn. I bought a copy of Whores from the man himself at a book-signing and asked him to sign it, he asked what I wanted him to say, I said, "say anything you want, I am a libertarian", he I believe didnt think that was too funny. Or maybe too many people waiting in-line for prolonged exchange. Oh well.

Point is, yes O'Rourke does a pretty good job of summarizing Smith's ideas, especially the not too well-known ones in Moral Sentiment about why selfishness isn't so bad (no one should be - or wants to be - a burden on anyone else) and laying-out some of the Scottish Enlightenment ideas post-Locke that Smith took unto his own. (O'Rourke is especially good at pointing out Smith's dislike of coercion, which is of course what lead me to the book-signing in the first place).

He also does a good job of describing what is known as the Adam Smith Problem - which capitalism's (which never has existed per Smith's view of it) critcis use often - which is that enlightened self-interest can destroy the fabric of a benevolent society and that specialization of labor can make the "common" and "lower ranks" of people stupido.

Which brings me to what (maybe the only thing) I don't like about Smith which is that he perpetuated the "us versus them" class system idea which permeates today eg in our political systems, capitalists versus labor dialectic (instead of the more basic ethic of maximization of individual choice without harming others), left versus right diatribe, USA versus everyone else etc (but that's coercion so a different story). We are all just people and to label is to negate, but, some good well-meaning thinkers (Marx? included) kept on with this labelling and it continues today.

A worker is not just a worker, s/he owns stock in his/her pension fund (that is unless s/he is depending on the government, in which case they have been lead down the primrose path), a capitalist is also a family man, and s/he works too for his/her money unless they are a lazy clown, but so can be non-capitalists too.

We had this discussion with a friend and a friend of a friend who was dying of AIDS. My friend worked for the labor unions (he is an attorney) and he kept trying to say well the worker needs this and the worker needs that. The other friend said we are all workers, and that, is that.

It is the human condition (an overused phrase) to think of things by which they are not.

But O'Rourke's book is not a brilliant page-turner like Whores and sometimes O'Rourke's post- Fraternity Boy humor (eg how is wife is in charge at the houe and how he gets homes late from "work" because he likes to drink) gets a little obvious, but he is a good writer, does capture some good ideas. I can't recommend that you buy it, but I can recommend that you check it out at the local library like I did. That being said, there are some great great lines, I just wish there were more of them. Minor complaint, probably.

If you are interested in classical economics the best thing to do is read the Liberty Fund's edition of Moral Sentiments, especially the introductory essay, but, like all of this blog, this is just my opinion. I especially like the parts about resolution of the Adam Smith Problem eg that if it gets down to making money or helping our fellow man we will help our fellow man, and the idea of aestheticism and meekness eg humility. See you later.