On The Wealth of Nations

P. J. O'Rourke, Author . Atlantic Monthly $19.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-87113-949-8

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.)