Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Editions of Wealth Of Nations of Varying Quality

The News & Observer runs a feature (from The New York Times) (23 Jan) here:

New in paperback: The latest releases.

"The Wealth of Nations," by P.J. O'Rourke (Grove). Adam Smith's treatise revolutionized economic thought when it was published in 1776; it established the intellectual foundation of capitalism and free markets. But today few readers make it all the way through the more than 900 pages of Smith's convoluted prose.”

The problem with popularising ‘Wealth Of Nations’ (of which many have attempted over the years 19th to 21st century) is that their authors are prone to errors, some of them fundamental, not least recently because they usually adopt the neoclassical and general equilibrium Chicago version of Adam Smith which is often a travesty of his actual views (even his actual words).

To some extent this is not the fault of the authors, though sometimes it is, because they take on trust what prominent modern economists, including Nobel Prize winners (no mean gold standard) report about what Adam Smith’s political economy was about.

On occasion accomplished economists introduce a strict reprint of Wealth Of Nations, but their introductions, and sometimes their footnotes, are extraordinary examples of ‘there’s none so blind as those that cannae see’, when their ideas of Adam Smith’s work is contradicted within the text they presumably have read before appending their names to the introduction they wrote.

Not all such introductions to Wealth Of Nations are of such a sloppy vintage. One such counter-example to the sloppy, inaccurate and, in my view, tendentious editions, in which the author of the introduction shows how to introduce Wealth Of Nations accurately and close to Adam Smith’s intentions, is to be found uniquely in Andrew Skinner’s Penguin editions of Books I-III (1970, reprinted 1986) and Books IV and V (1999), in which he provides excellent essays on Adam Smith’s scholarship.

The two other modern editions of Wealth of Nations that are outstanding are the Edwin Cannan’s, 1937 edition (Random House) which is still widely quoted by modern scholars, in which he edited (including the footnotes, notes and marginal summary) and shows a scholar at work. The other excellent example modern scholar’s Glasgow Edition of the ‘Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith’, Oxford University Press, edited R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (textual editor, W. B. Todd), well known for its unique textual reference system.

From a personal view point, I would welcome an opportunity to present the Wealth Of Nations and comment on it as Adam Smith of Kirkcaldy intended it, with special attention paid to all the places where his legacy has been substituted in modern economics for something smuggled in by sloppy editors, more intent on slipping in their own ideas in place of Adam Smith’s. But that’s another project for sometime in the future, perhaps, should I live long enough.

I realise I have said nothing about P.J. O'Rourke or his version of Wealth Of Nations. If it leads to some of its readers going on to read one of the edited versions of Wealth Of Nations I have listed above (Andrew Skinner, Edwin Cannan, or Campbell, Skinner and Todd) then it will be a good thing.

PS When reading Cannan’s magnificent 1937 edition, readers may safely ignore the short ‘introduction’ by Max Lerner.


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