It is well past the point where I need to describe what this book is about. So maybe it’s just worth noting that, even after I’ve been steeped for my whole life in a culture that reveres Smith as a god, there was still room to be surprised by how far ahead of its time [book: The Wealth of Nations] is. It still holds lessons on the power of institutions, on trade policy, and on why nations succeed or fail. Indeed, despite its title, I think we’ve become accustomed to thinking of Smith’s book as a mere celebration of capitalism. But no, it’s really about what it says it’s about: how nations become and remain wealthy. This includes long digressions about, say, the pernicious influence of religious education. But it also contains lots of nitty-gritty about the folly of trade restrictions and a million other things besides.
If your schooling was at all like mine, you’ve heard that [book: TWoN] was an attack on “mercantilism”, which has always been accompanied by the only use of the word “specie” that you’re likely to hear in your life. The doctrine is that a nation is wealthy or poor depending upon how many or few pieces of gold it has; this doctrine, in turn, leads to policies that aim to maximize exports (which would send, say, corn out of the country in exchange for gold coming in) and minimize imports. But this fetishization of gold and silver confuses the map with the terrain. The ultimate wealth of a society doesn’t come from how many coins it has on hand; wealth comes from the productive labor of its workers. Smith adopts the simplification — which maybe was appropriate in its time — that an hour of labor is a fungible commodity, which over all time is worth the amount of food necessary for the worker’s survival (and no more than his survival). So any measure which increases the cost of feeding the worker — like restricting corn imports to keep gold within a country’s borders — is going to increase the *real* cost of that labor, even if it’s decreasing the *nominal* cost.
That was the most surprising piece of [book: The Wealth of Nations] for me: that its most central argument is essentially about the real-versus-nominal distinction. Nowadays we’re inclined to think of real-v.-nominal as inflation-adjusted versus not, but Smith was using it in what feels like a more natural sense.
The book is well worth reading. But having worked through all 1200-odd pages of the unabridged original, I can now safely say: it is not important that you read the unabridged original. Much of it is given over to minute discussions of tax policy over the course of several centuries of British kings. Then there are many-page digressions which I thought were some sort of 20th-century British affectation when I read them in Wilson’s [book: The Victorians] or in Ernest Gellner, but apparently started hundreds of years before. A better modern edition, which would leave in only the parts that a modern reader would need to know about, would be a vast improvement over this one. I’m sure such editions exist. (And no, this is not similar to asking for an edition of Shakespeare that translates it into hip-hop idiom. Smith is interesting and readable, but his prose is not so special that it needs to be preserved.)
The edition I read also thinks it’s very important to note the differences between Smith’s first, second, and third editions in the footnotes. Turns out that’s not important; those differences amount to the use of the subjunctive “were” in place of the indicative “was”; I learned within the first couple pages to ignore the footnotes entirely.
So: worth reading, but maybe not worth reading just exactly *this*.