Is “The Wealth of Nations” Really Worth Reading?

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By: Adam Smith
Published: 1776

Some of the classic books, including those on economics, are long. Very long. While many of us choose to pass on reading books that are in excess of a thousand pages, you have to admit that from time to time, you catch yourself wondering “What am I missing? If it is that long, it must be important!”  Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations has always been one such book for me.

Is it fair to assume that just because a book is long, that it must also be authoritative or important? It is true that some authors have been paid by the page; I am told that this was the case with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Smith mentions in Wealth of Nations that attorneys and clerks of court in Europe were at one time paid for their work by the number of pages their work entailed, thus creating the verbose legal speak we have today. And not many of us would claim to be the wiser for waxing eloquent in the finest legal speak. Whether or not this was the case for Smith, I will simply reference what Edmund Burke wrote to him in a letter “You are in some few Places, what Mr. Locke is in most of his writings, rather a little too diffuse.” 1

My pithy recommendation is simple: No, I do not recommend this book for everyone. If you claim free markets economics as one of your favorite conversation topics, I would recommend reading at least large sections—if for no other reason than that it is the book often discussed, yet seldom read. Yet for the economics reading audience writ large, I am not going to discourage people from passing on this book if they have no pressing desire to complete it.

That being said, I enjoyed reading it and am glad I did (disclaimer: as of writing this, I do have a little left in order to finish the book). However, making the suggestion for others to read it is a tough sell and I think it would risk my credibility. Instead, I would like to recommend three sections of this book that I find particularly interesting and definitely worth the read:

Chapters 1- 4 of Book I: The beginning section of the book includes an in depth look at the division of labor and history of money. It is from this portion of the book that we find the often quoted line “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.”

Chapters 2- 4 of Book III: Smith discusses the development of towns in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The history of this section is fascinating and helps us understand the subsequent development of Europe.

Chapter 7 of Book IV: This chapter is entitled “Of Colonies” and is perhaps my favorite part of the book. Smith discusses the development of colonies in general, and provides an interesting perspective on the development of Colonial America in particular.

Admittedly, two of the three sections I have mentioned may seem to have more to do with history than free market economics; yet, the history of towns and the development of colonies are just as important for teasing out economic issues as is a discussion of how labor is divided or how money came about. After reading these three sections, I suspect that some readers will decide to expand their reading to larger sections, or even the entirety of the book.

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Notes:

Edmund Burke to Adam Smith, personal letter, 10 September 1759

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