Adam Smith is a deeply underrated thinker. This might seem like a strange thing to say about the author of the Wealth of Nations, which is often described as free market capitalism’s foundational text. Adam Smith Clubs around the world sell ties with Smith’s face printed on them.
Smith’s fame came during his lifetime. In How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and to a dinner party in 1787. At the dinner was the then English Prime Minister William Pitt, two future prime ministers, and the legendary abolitionist William Wilberforce.
When Smith entered, all these illustrious figures stood. Smith urged them to sit. ‘No,’ responded Pitt, ‘we will stand till you are first seated, for we are all your scholars.’ No doubt Smith was flattered. But we can get some hint of how he would have felt about the gesture from his other masterpiece, the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith made it clear that the pursuit of fame and fortune would not lead to satisfaction or the gratification of a life well-lived. As Roberts speculates, Smith’s fame ‘wasn’t what he planned or sought. It was gravy. It came to him but he never sought it out. He took the quiet road, the one less travelled.’
Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University but is best known for hosting EconTalk, a popular economics podcast. His latest book had its origins in one of his EconTalk interviews. Roberts was eager to learn about Smith’s ‘other book’. From that discussion came How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life—part self-help guide, part Dummies Guide to Smith’s ideas about happiness and virtue.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments is now only read by specialists, but to Smith it was central to his philosophy.
Written in 1759, Smith revised it repeatedly during his lifetime. It was his first published book and the last work he revised before his death. In many ways, the Theory of Moral Sentiments offers the moral framework upon which the Wealth of Nations is based.
Smith’s two books have quite different moral outlooks. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is all about sympathy and how we relate to each other—family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. It is about virtue and the good life. Smith is particularly vehement about the hollowness of a life in pursuit of money. Contrast this with the apparently morality-free world of the Wealth of Nations, where selfinterest rules and social organisation relies on disinterested markets.
The difference between Smith’s two books has been one of those great intellectual puzzles. It has its own name, ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’, after the nineteenth century German scholars who most famously articulated it. Roberts argues, convincingly, that in both books Smith is in fact writing about two scales of human endeavour. In the Wealth of Nations Smith is speaking about the relationships between strangers, separated sometimes by continents, and sustained by the division of labour and anonymous patterns of trade. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he is concerned with the relationship between close relations.
Indeed, one of the arguments he puts forward in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is how our sympathy for others in distress varies according to distance and interest. As Roberts relates it, Smith’s ideas are useful for understanding why we feel the way we feel. We are more concerned with tragedies nearer to ourselves than those far away. A death in the family is felt more strongly than a high-casualty natural disaster on another continent.
The first step to self-awareness is understanding what Roberts calls the Iron Law of You—the natural self-centeredness that places our own self at the origin of all things. Realising that we are not the centre of everyone else’s world is a big step for our development as toddlers, but it is not a delusion we ever completely shed.
Hence Smith’s idea of the ‘impartial spectator’, a hypothetical observer we conjure up to judge our actions dispassionately. It is all too easy to delude ourselves that we are correct; that we are right to be offended, or angry, or greedy, in social situations. But what would an impartial spectator think?
Smith has some interesting things to say about how our social lives moderate sympathy. In strangers we meet our impartial spectator. As Smith says, the company of strangers has a moderating effect on our personal emotions. It is easy to be angry with a spouse but then find ourselves calmed when taken away from that emotion by a phone call from work or a routine task outside the home.
Here Smith makes some intriguing observations about how our sentiments are regulated—coordinated—in social settings. Roberts is careful to point out that Smith’s thought is in many ways quite similar to Friedrich Hayek’s views on the coordinating power of markets. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is an intimate little book. It’s full of Roberts’ personal reflections on Smith’s ideas. Roberts structures the book with the
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is an intimate little book. It’s full of Roberts’ personal reflections on Smith’s ideas. Roberts structures the book with the conceit of talking to Smith over the course of an evening, whiskey in hand, fireplace crackling. But it is more like watching Roberts read a conceptually powerful book that forces him, every few paragraphs, to raise his head out of the pages, clarify his understanding, and reflect on his own life for a moment. The Theory of Moral Sentiments may not be any more widely read after the publication of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, but it should be more widely understood.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments may not be any more widely read after the publication of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, but it should be more widely understood.
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