Adam Smith for our times

Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments has had something of a revival in recent times. Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments focused on it, and Nicholas Phillipson’s recent biography of Smith, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life underlined its importance in Smith’s thinking. My own dear publisher Peter Dougherty also gave it due credit in his Who’s Afraid of Adam Smith: How the Market got its Soul. So, while still far less well-known and less widely read than The Wealth of Nations, Moral Sentiments is creeping onto the intellectual radar of our times – we are rediscovering the Adam Smith we need now.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Penguin Classics)

It gets a deserved boost from Russ Roberts’ new book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (which I read in manuscript and provided a little comment for). This is a delightful book translating Smith’s 18th century prose into a 21st century guide to individual and collective living well. I choose that phrase because it isn’t just a guide to leading the Aristotelian good life, nor a book about how to run the economy better, but combines the two into insights about how wise choices can help the individual and society.

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

For example, in the chapter ‘How to Make the World a Better Place,’ Roberts says: “In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith describes how individual choices can lead to important social outcomes. He’s talking about something more important than the price of apples. He’s describing the role each of us plays in creating a moral society.” And he goes on to explain how emergent social norms create the standards or proper, moral behaviour. “Smith argues that norms and culture are the result of the tiny and infinitely numerous and subtle ways we interact.” I particularly like this chapter. It combines Hayek and Ostrom in a rather unexpected way.

The chapters have titles such as ‘How to be Happy, ‘How Not to Fool Yourself’, ‘How to be Loved’, ‘How to Live in the Modern World.’ The last of these links The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, explaining that they share the same world view, the same view of human nature, but apply it to different domains, the personal and the commercial.  “A modern person has to inhabit two worlds at the same time, a world that is intimate and a world that is distant, a world that is held together by love, and a world that is held together by prices and monetary incentives.”

Russ Roberts will be known to many readers of this blog for his Econtalk podcasts, a huge public service. He’s an excellent writer – I am a fan of his novels, The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything.  If you haven’t read A Theory of Moral Sentiments, or if you have and would like an enjoyable reminder, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a pleasure to read.

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2 thoughts on “Adam Smith for our times

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith for our times | Homines Economici

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Diane. TTMS is too often neglected.
    In my book on formal no-layoff policies, I used the following quotes – one from each of Smith’s 2 major works – as evidence of Smith’s strong conviction that even given the importance of “enlightened self-interest,” no moral man could ignore the impact of his business practices on the world at large.

    “By pursuing his own interest [a man] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” (The Wealth of Nations,1776)

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments 1759)

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