October 19, 2014

Review Corner

Smith helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul, and why people can think monstrous thoughts but rarely act upon them. He helped me understand why people adore politicians and how morality is built into the fabric of the world.
Not bad for an 18th Century bureaucrat.

Russ Roberts has been treated well on these pages. His The Price of Everything somehow escaped Review Corner, but in searching I found several recommendations to buy it -- once to buy two copies. His latest is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.

While everyone thinks of Adam Smith as the author of Wealth of Nations, Roberts plumbs the depths of his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I actually read Wealth of Nations. My first economics course assigned several sections and I just read the whole thing. His prose is indeed a bit dense for the modern reader but I enjoyed it. I went back recently to read Theory of Moral Sentiments and stopped a third of the way through. I don't know if I have lost my appreciation for turgid or whether the subject was less interesting, but I quit. I'm not proud of it but, like Spike, I'm man enough to admit it.

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:

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 isnít 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 isnít 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 .


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.

There are a few shots across the bow -- from Smith and Roberts that will fall harshly on certain ears 'around these parts. Sorry Randians:

This seems to confirm a commonly held view that Smith sees the world as driven by selfishness. Smith is often caricatured as a Scottish forerunner of Ayn Rand, who in addition to Atlas Shrugged wrote a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Smith spends a lot of time in The Theory of Moral Sentiments talking about various virtues. Selfishness does not make the cut.

And Prosperitarians:
My point is that the best case Smith can make for material prosperity and commercial life within the pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is pretty thin. He is saying that we have within us great drive and ambition, which serves us poorly as individuals but ultimately has led us out of caves and into the sunlight of civilization. It's a compliment, I suppose, but it's pretty backhanded.
[...]
Smith couldn't imagine a twenty-first-century machine -- a robot on an assembly line , or an electric razor. But his insights into technology are surprisingly prescient. He understood the human desire to make life easier, better, faster. And he also understood the seductive appeal of machines, and that ear pickers and nail clippers may not always deliver on their promise of excitement and novelty. But we want them anyway, and we look for ways to make them more effective and more elegant.

Roberts points out that the wealthy of his day were noblemen and assorted leeches. Perhaps a McCloskeyesque bourgeoisie would have been more pleasing to his temperament. But I would not bet the proce of a new iEarPicker S6 on it. Smith is the anti-firebrand, though his name comes up frequently in fiery arguments. A longer look shows that he offers wisdom and sagacity -- some better ways to "be lovely."

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.

This is a superb and charming book. Five stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at October 19, 2014 10:38 AM

"See yourself as others see you." Know yourself, seek wisdom and virtue, avoid false virtues. This is truly selfishness, is it not?

The "selfishness" that "does not make the cut" is a package deal comprised of other, shall we say, attributes, that are commonly viewed as benefitting the self but, in fact, are harmful. But your closing quote is quite an elegant description of how to make oneself a priority for one's thoughts and actions.

Posted by: johngalt at October 20, 2014 2:15 PM | What do you think? [1]