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On the Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World by P. J. ORourke

John Mark Eberhart
McClatchy Newspapers

Humorist P.J. O'Rourke livens things up in a new book on economic pioneer Adam Smith.

On the Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World

Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 0871139499
Author: P. J. O'Rourke
Price: $21.95
Length: 242
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-01

Even the most voracious reader may raise an eyebrow at the sight of a tome nearly a thousand pages long.

Now: Make it a doorstop about economics, and add that it was written in the 1700s, and you can almost guarantee that Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations is not going to be No. 1 on anytime soon.

Recently, though, humorist/commentator/smart guy P.J. O'Rourke read the whole shebang. Good thing, because O'Rourke's latest book is called On the Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World. And his funny but informative take on Smith's milestone is just 256 pages.

In economic terms, that's what's known as "a really good deal."

Sure, Smith is widely considered the father of free-market economics. But even econ students who are supposed to read the book have been known to, um, skim.

"It's primarily a quantitative problem," O'Rourke says in a telephone interview from his home in Peterborough, N.H. And then there's that "18th-century style of language."

Worse, O'Rourke says, Smith "had no statistics" to draw on.

"He couldn't just say, well, the World Bank says this or the International Monetary Fund says this.

"And the other problem is that he was doing graphical analysis without the thing you really need to do that -- which is graphs. They hadn't been invented yet."

Ah. Several generations of D-pluses or worse in economics now begin to make sense.

O'Rourke honestly believes, though, that readers can get past all those drawbacks and get a better understanding of Smith's work and the value of a free-market society -- especially if they pony up $21.95 for On the Wealth of Nations.

Seriously, though, O'Rourke does think his book helps shed some light. To get absolutely basic about it, O'Rourke says, just look at it the following way. Government interference: Bad. The free market: Good.

Especially bad: Government trying to act like a business. "All you have to do," O'Rourke says, "is look at any socialist country. When the government runs business operations, it invariably does so very badly." (Remember the Pentagon's thousand-dollar toilet seats?)

"Society can endure some Gordon Geckos and some Enrons," O'Rourke says. "But it can't endure too much of that -- or you end up with the Soviet Union."

O'Rourke himself has been a pretty canny beneficiary of the free market. He has written for magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to Playboy.

He's frequently called upon for TV punditry by the likes of Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time. Along the way, he's penned books like Parliament of Whores and Peace Kills, which manage to jeer at pretty much every facet of the American political spectrum.

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