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How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 13, 2015
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"A remarkable book . . . Mr. Roberts’s witty, candid take on Smith is filled with his own wisdom. Gurus, theologians, and economists alike might learn a thing or two from him and the first modern economist."
— ROBERT LITAN, The Wall Street Journal
"I loved it. A wonderfully readable appreciation of Smith’s ingenuity. You can’t fail to be entertained."
— CLIVE CROOK, Bloomberg View
"This is a fun, fascinating, and original book that will challenge you to become a better version of yourself."
— DANIEL H. PINK, author of To Sell Is Human
"An engaging and inspiring meditation on virtue, friendship, and happiness. The result is a wonderful guide to living a good life."
— JONATHAN HAIDT, author of The Righteous Mind
About the Author
Russ Roberts is the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He hosts the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk and is the author of three economics novels, including The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity. He is also the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos, which have been viewed over seven million times on YouTube. His twitter handle is @econtalker.
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Long-time fans of econtalk or Cafe Hayek won't be surprised to know that Russ weaves in thoughts on emergent order, Fredrick Hayek, and the 2008 financial crisis, and the book is better for it in my opinion.
Finally, based on the one existing review (as of this time), I was expecting a heavy dose of the Talmud (not a bad thing), but I thought that review overstated it. Russ mentions it, but he also mentions Hume, Darwin, Hayek, Einstein, Warren Buffett, etc. Above all, this is exactly what the title says: an unexpected guide to human nature and happiness. Recommended.
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.
Roberts's book on the book (P.J. O'Rourke did a pretty good one on Wealth of Nations), conversely, enraptured me. Why didn't I get this out of it? Some authors are better read about than read. Even my hero Karl Popper falls into this class: Richard Dawkins, Michael Oakeshott -- perhaps I'll just put Smith on this list. Yet I would love to connect with ToMS as Roberts did.
Wealth of Nations is about economics; Theory of Moral Sentiments is about personal choices and structuring your life for optimal satisfaction. That's the conventional wisdom and Roberts does a great job comparing and contrasting the two works. But he asks first whether they are different as they appear. He tries to explain the heart of economics to casual contacts who think he can grace them with a hot stock pick:
<blockquote>Alas, I am not an accountant or a stockbroker, I explain. But one very useful thing I've learned from economics is to be skeptical of advice from stockbrokers about the latest stock that's sure to skyrocket. Saving you from losses isn’t as exciting as promising you millions, but it's still pretty valuable.
But the real point is that economics is about something more important than money. Economics helps you understand that money isn’t the only thing that matters in life. Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. And economics can help you appreciate complexity and how seemingly unrelated actions and people can become entangled .</blockquote>
Smith's suggestions for complexities and actions and personal choices are not about optimizing capital. Smith's suggestion to which Roberts keeps returning is the twelve words "Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely." To be worthy of esteem, to be admired and admirable. Roberts then mines some superb advice on achieving this
Knowing Roberts from his Café Hayek work and The Price of Everything, he is a great champion of liberty and free markets and limited government and I suspect the Infield Fly Rule. Channeling Smith's temperance and prudence, this is not a strident or pugnacious book. One can almost hear Smith telling me and my Facebook friends to tone it down a bit. The developer of the invisible hand is dubious about excesses of ambition, the great sage of free trade (who ended his career employed as a tariff collector) cautions about excesses in desiring and acquiring the latest gadgets, conveniences and contrivances. The new watch you covet, he cautions, is not likely to make you more punctual.
Smith in his book and with his life is telling us how to live. Seek wisdom and virtue. Behave as if an impartial spectator is watching you. Use the idea of an impartial spectator to step outside yourself and see yourself as others see you. Use that vision to know yourself. Avoid the seductions of money and fame, for they will never satisfy.</blockquote>
This is a superb and charming book. Five stars.