I’m a big P.J. O’Rourke fan, so I made a point to get out to one of his many events in Washington, DC this week to promote his new book, On The Wealth of Nations. As one review put it, “O’Rourke reads The Wealth of Nations so you don’t have to!” That seems like a pretty tempting option since 1) Adam Smith’s work clocks in at over 900 pages and 2) P.J. is a smart guy when it comes to economics and free markets.
Being a fan of both O’Rourke and Smith, naturally I enjoyed the talk. But more interesting than the analysis of Smith was the analysis of how Smith is taught. O’Rourke thinks Smith is rarely taught correctly and when you look at the state of economics in academia, you can see why. It’s easy to sit back and blame political bias for the lack of understanding of Smith’s work. In many cases, this is true. It’s a shame when you’re in an economics program that teaches Marx and Zinn far more often than Smith or Friedman. But let’s put that concern aside — assume a school’s faculty is politically balanced or even conservative leaning. Smith still has a problem: he is a moral philosopher, not an economist (at least by modern standards). In fact economics as a subject was historically taught not as a separate discipline, but as part of moral science (Cambridge taught economics under moral science until 1912).
Modern economics has become a lot more focused with math, graphs, models, etc. which does not serve Smith very well. And with the structure of departments — were economics 101 is built for students getting ready to take economics 102, 201, 301, etc. rather than catering to students who want to learn the basics of economics — creates pressure for professors to teach Smith via mathematics and supply and demand charts rather than focusing on the core of Smith’s work — moral arguments that are best understands sans math.
It’s an interesting conundrum for Smith fans, and if O’Rourke’s book is half as entertaining as his speech was, the book should be well worth the read.