Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Russ Roberts’ new book on Adam Smith is part introduction/summary and part self-help. Roberts takes a fresh look at Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments to see what we can learn about how to make our own lives better. Along the way, we are introduced to Smith’s ideas of morality, economics, and human nature.

While I am familiar with Smith’s TMS and his approach to morality, I am no expert and the refresher of key elements and ideas was most welcomed. To understand Smith, one needs to return to him again and again. Like many profound thinkers, his insights seem obvious once you get them, but before that you need to go back to Smith many times to grasp what he is getting at.

Roberts takes Smith’s insights and applies them to how one lives his or her own life. How should we think about the pursuit of material wealth and good? How do we treat loved ones, strangers? And what does that treatment say about us?

One of the more interesting sections is where Roberts looks at what an understanding of Smith can tell us about making the world a better place. He doesn’t focus on grand gestures or big plans. It is more about the little things we each do every day: smiling at the store clerk, being honest and trustworthy, or being good at one’s work. All of these are things that are good to do, and they also help make the world better. Appealing to Smith’s idea that social norms and civilization evolves out of the aggregation of all the actions we all take, the more good actions we do, the better the world gets. We show other people what counts as goodness. We encourage other people to good. We reinforce our own habits of acting well. Conversely, when we do bad things – even small, seemingly minor things – we make the world a little worse.

Roberts also examines the “Adam Smith Question”: how to reconcile the apparent (and I think seriously overplayed) inconsistencies between TMS and The Wealth of Nations (WN). The latter is supposedly focused on humans as self-interested actors while the former focuses on the so-called altruistic virtues of love, sympathy, and justice. Roberts’ response is that TMS is about how we interact with those we know and care about it: our personal interactions. WN is about our market and commercial interactions which are mostly with strangers and usually are one-off. Smith isn’t using a different theory of human nature; he is focused on understanding human nature in different contexts, so the focus is different. The nice way Roberts sums this up is: “Love Locally, Trade Globally.”

This is a quick, easy read; worthwhile for anyone interested in Smith, morality, and those interested in how to live better in their own lives. Warning: it’ll make you want to go and read Adam Smith.

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