The Wealth of Nations (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith, C.J. Bullock, Prasannan Parthasarathi According to the introduction Adam Smith was the “first modern economist” and “widely credited with laying the theoretical and philosophical foundation for the modern free market system” and “commercial society." He famously wrote that "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." And that by pursuing their own interest in competition with others, entrepreneurs are “led by an invisible hand” by economic forces to create a variety of goods and services that benefit the public. But even Karl Marx used ideas of Smith in arguing for communism--particularly his key idea of the labor theory of value can be traced to Smith--as was Marx's idea of the “alienation” of the worker. As the introduction put it, Smith was concerned about the “deformation of humans due to tedious and repetitive work.” He was also concerned about how business interests would use their potential monopoly power--particularly in how they might use politics against the consumer: The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this [business] order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. What struck me from the first about the book was how flowing and lucid it was to read. I’m not saying there aren’t difficult, dry passages--there are. But if you take the time, it is understandable without reading some Adam Smith for Dummies, and believe me, having read several books of philosophy and economics I appreciated that. And actually I found a lot of the reading quite lively. Like Darwin (and unlike Marx), Smith isn’t just erudite and well-read, but speaks of his personal observations, and in that regard his portrait of a pin-making factory and how it illustrates the efficiencies of the division of labor was very memorable. For Smith such specialization and the gains in productivity are key to the wealth of nations. And I found it interesting Smith stresses geography, not race, as the ultimate reason for differences of wealth between nations--particularly its role in access to markets as there ports and navigable rivers are crucial. An explanation not just enlightened for his time, but anticipating much-lauded recent arguments by Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel. Smith’s explanation of the formation and role of money still is among the most lucid and still rings true. All this is to say that Smith is quite readable and enormously influential, and thus well-worth the read. If anything might put a reader off, it’s the sheer length, since complete unabridged editions run to around 600 pages. And as I admit above, I’m not saying some of it isn’t a slog--just that it’s worth it if you want to educate yourself about the basis of modern economics; this is definitely where to start. At the very least, see if you can read an excerpt containing his description of a Pin Factory. It's clear, interesting, short, and influenced both free market and socialist thinkers.