The Book: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts
The Gist: Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, explains the ideas behind Adam’s Smith’s forgotten classic, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The Quote: “[Smith’s] view of what we truly want, of what really makes us happy, cuts to the core of things. It takes him only twelve words to get to the heart of the matter: ‘Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.’ . . . when Smith says that we want to be lovely, he means worthy of being loved. . . . He’s saying that we want to be seen as having integrity, honesty, good principles. We want to earn respect, praise, attention, and our good name—our good reputation—honestly. We want to be worthy of love.”
The Good: Roberts does an amazing job of distilling Smith’s eighteenth-century treatise on moral philosophy into a compelling and practical guide to life for a twentieth-century audience.
The Blah: Although it’s a minor point, Roberts’s delivers a brief libertarian broadside against the “war on drugs” that could turn off those who don’t already share his conviction.
The Verdict: Adam Smith is the most influential economist you’ve (probably) never read. His ideas about the ‘invisible hand,” free trade, and self-interest have become staples of modern economic thought. Yet his earlier—even less read—work on virtue and “moral sentiments” is essential to understanding how the dross of individual self-interest is spun into the gold of communal prosperity. Both of Smith’s books are about human behavior, though the emphases are different because—as Roberts notes—he’s writing about “different spheres of life.”
As an economist himself, Roberts is capable of connect Smith’s view of personal virtue to the broader sphere of economic life. But like Smith, Roberts knows that economics is not the most important thing in life. What matters even more than the choices we make is the type of person we are—and are always becoming. Roberts explains how Smith shows us not only why we should be “lovely” but how we can curate the virtues that make us worthy of love.
Always engaging and insightful, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a “self-help” book in the best sense of the term. Unlike a lot of books in the genre that overpromise and underdeliver, Robert’s (and Smith) provide advice and guidance that can truly change your life. It’s the type of book that, if treated with due attention, can actually help you to become a better human being.
The Recommendation: Highly recommended to anyone who cares about virtue, virtues ethics, character formation, or just general self-improvement. Will also be of interest to anyone interested in everyday economics and those who (like me) know they should read The Theory of Moral Sentiments but probably never will.