The Bog of Lost Scholars

June 16, 2011

Reading The Wealth of Nations

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society,The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 6:54 pm

For several months now I’ve been working my way through Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; I’m not quite a quarter of the way through.

Why read The Wealth of Nations? It’s a foundational document of Western economics; it was hugely influential when it was published in 1776, but all I knew about it was the idea of the “invisible hand”.

And there’s a reason most people today haven’t read it. It’s long, and it’s often tedious. (Smith was well aware of the latter; early in the book, he says, “I am always willing to run some hazard of being tedious, in order to be sure that I am perspicuous.”) If my goal was a greater understanding of economics, I’d be better off reading some shorter and more modern works.

But the book has little rewards that make it worth the slog. So many of Smith’s examples still make sense 250 years later and resonate with situations in the modern world. And it’s a huge pleasure to see what makes Smith himself tick — when his tone has been even and rational for a hundred pages, and then suddenly he’s discussing legal restrictions on workers’ ability to switch jobs, the shift in tone jumps off the page. You’re in no doubt that he considers it appallingly WRONG.

At the rate I’m going, it’ll probably be 2014 by time I finish reading the book, and it’s worth the trouble. (And this is a perfect book for reading on an iPod Touch. It’s dense reading, and the tiny screen gives about the right amount of text for me to process in one chew.)

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