All Commentary
Friday, August 1, 1986

Book Review: Audio ClassicsThe Wealth of Nations Script by George H. Smith

Knowledge Products, 120 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02108; toll free, 800.453-9000, ext. 400 4 cassettes, $39.95; $170 prepaid for 24 cassette series

Cassettes will not replace books, but they give the literature of liberty an exciting new dimension. Scholarly discussions of classic works of political philosophy are now available on tape. “Audio classics” is a professionally produced, attractively packaged series of 24 cassettes presenting the ideas of thinkers whose books have shaped the modern world. If the four tapes on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations are representative, the series is a worthwhile investment for anyone who would like to supplement the printed page.

The Wealth of Nations tapes begin with a biographical sketch of Smith, the historical context in which he wrote, and the influence of his experience and acquaintances. The narrator outlines the structure, major points and purposes of the book. George Smith’s elegant script is written in accessible language, which clarifies difficult points without being patronizing or oversimplified. This is important for tape format, in which rereading is impossible. (Rewinding is, of course, but I rarely needed to do that.)

The presentations are clearly organized. Different sections are separated by music, and the script contains transition passages describing the relation of one section to another. The narrator reads in a slow, clear, ex pressive voice. A helpful and entertaining aspect is the use of voice characterizations for quotations from Smith and other historical figures (including Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Jean Baptiste Say, and others). Not only do these characterizations give the listener a feeling of “being there,” but also they obviate any confusion as to what is narration and what is quotation.

The content is interesting and admirably complete. The four tapes, each between sixty and eighty minutes in length, provide about five hours of detailed and varied listening.

The tapes effectively debunk the criticisms that have been leveled at Adam Smith, especially that he was an apologist for exploitative big business. They make clear that while Smith was an advocate of capitalism, he was a severe critic of some contemporary businessmen. That is, he was dedicated to the truly free economy, which leads to the well-being and prosperity of all people. Smith criticized those capitalists who pursued government privileges for themselves at the expense of consumers and their competitors.

In his book, Adam Smith strongly criticizes mercantilism, that system of bounties, monopolies and restrictions on trade which beset Britain at the time. Smith intended The Wealth of Nations to guide public policy away from mercantilism and toward free trade. The tapes distinguish Smith’s view of national wealth as the real income of all the people of the nation, which increases under a policy of free trade, from the mercantilist view of national wealth as the riches of the state or government, toward which mercantilism was directed.

Smith’s concern for the common man, who has no access to political power and privilege, informs the whole presentation. Smith was a professor of moral philosophy; his primary concerns were justice and fairness. He advocates the free market chiefly in concern for justice to the common man and equality under the law.

Listening to these tapes is no substitute for reading The Wealth of Nations, but for those who don’t have the time to read it, they are a wonderful second choice. They provide instruction while one is restricted to one’s car or otherwise unable to read. And when one returns to the original, he will find it much more accessible after hearing this fine introduction. The listener will delight in Smith’s language, the clarity of his insights, and the pertinence of his thought to the present day. Hearing Smith’s own words, read in an engaging Scottish brogue, one is reminded that classics are classics not because they are old, but because they are great.