Saturday, July 14, 2007

Silly Saturday Stories on Adam Smith

Paula Hawkins reviewsP. J. O’Rourke’s recent book on The Wealth Of Nations in today’s Times Online (14 July) under the headline:

The American satirist reassesses Adam Smith's revolutionary economics'

She writes:

The original edition runs to more than 900 pages, and even abridged versions are more than 300 pages, so it is rarely read – except, perhaps, by those who are required to do so for economics courses.

And even if you were prepared to plough through it, O’Rourke argues that Wealth cannot be property understood without first reading Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, his philosophical tome published in 1759 – which is even longer

Is this sloppy fact-checking by Paula Hawkins or by P J O’Rourke? It is not clear from the context.

If was Paula, then both her and her sub-editors at the Times (London) are in breach of the second rule of journalism check all claimed factual statements. The first rule is: Keep your imagination to your expenses claims, not for your copy'. In this case she could have ‘Googled’ or ‘Yahooded’ (no bias here) both books in the comparison, or checked the books. Thought so; she hasn’t read either book.

If it was ‘P.J’, well what can I say? The master satirist should check with his expensive fact-checking agency and claim a re-fund, or perhaps, being in the USA, he should initiate a legal claim for, say, several million dollars for the trauma such sloppiness will cause him, loss of prestige and the cost of pulping and re-printing his book.

Fact: Wealth Of Nations at approximately ‘900 pages’ is an acceptable statement (see below for technical details).

Fact: FACT: Smith’s Moral Sentiments (OUP/Liberty Fund edition) is 412 pages plus a 52 page introduction.

So, what can we make of Paula’s sentence (perhaps misled by P. J. O’Rourke) that ‘Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, his philosophical tome published in 1759 – which is even longer’?

Somebody has not checked their facts.

You could protest that I am being pedantic. I would not agree. Paula’s error is not just of fact: she makes the comparison by way of stating that Wealth Of Nations is such a long book that readers of the Times On-line are unlikely to read it, especially as she insists, they would have to read the even longer' Moral Sentiments first.

But a simple check shows that it isn’t.

It is not the length alone that puts readers off. I doubt that any students are ‘required to read’ Wealth Of Nations in economics courses today (the best will, of course, en route for tenure track). The discipline has moved on and away from reading 18th-century authors, even one’s as famous as Adam Smith.

Potential readers have not been introduced to what Smith was about when he wrote hisr eport of his inquiry into the nature and cayses of the wealth of nations'. Without this understanding, Smith’s detailed argument, backed by his evidence, soon loses them, hence, the market opportunity for P. J. O’Rourke to write a popular version in his inimitable style. I reviewed it on Lost Legacy and it has my qualified recommendation – if it gets readers to turn to the original text, so much the better.

I have eleven editions of Wealth Of Nations (more, if I add my editions in my library in France) and I have only one which is under 500 pages, and that after widespread vandal-like cutting by its editor. Paula says there are editions with over 300 pages, which is either in 5-point type or is after a large-scale brutal abridgement.

Technical details:
Wealth Of Nations, two-volume ‘Glasgow Edition’, with footnotes, references, bibliography and, index, is 1080 pages + the 60-page editors’ General Introduction.

Moral Sentiments, the Glasgow edition (Oxford University Press/Liberty Fund), inclusive of a technical appendix and the index, is 412 pages. Even adding in the 52-page editors’ introduction, its pagination only rises to 464 pages, which is well short of the claim that it is ‘even longer’ than Wealth Of Nations.


Post a Comment

<< Home