How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

I read Russ Roberts’ book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, and it’s certainly the most heavily dog-eared book I’ve read in the last couple months. It’s slighter in hindsight, but still got some good stuff out of it. Smith is best known for the more macro-level, distant, impersonal view on economics in The Wealth of Nations. This books relies on Smith’s lesser-known A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the more intimate, direct relationships between individuals.

What I like is its undercurrent of humility and courtesy, for one, and the idea of ripple effects that go beyond us. There’s the idea of the “impartial spectator” in here – a hypothetical (and likely impossible) imagined outsider, an objective witness we can turn to to evaluate what we do. Of course, we’re delusional and biased and self-obsesssed. The principle stands, though, and the community around us helps to shape this hypothetical ideal that we imagine.

Virtuous behavior is like passable writing vs. great writing. At a basic level, there is grammar and syntax. There’s broad agreement on many of those details. But there’s a special something that goes beyond the basic requirements. Along the same lines, no one individual really decides what proper grammar is, and how a language works. But many people, making many small decisions every day, spread and sustain behaviors that add up to something bigger on the scale of family, office, neighborhood, nation, culture. And it’s that big-picture thinking that (hopefully) motivates us to “be lovely even when we can get away with not being lovely”. Going along with that are some healthy warnings about our obessions with powerful people, and about hubris when it comes to societal engineering.

Some other parts I like? Smith on keeping it simple:

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

Smith on praise we haven’t earned…

To us they [his praises] should be more mortifying than any censure, and should perpetually call to our minds, the most humbling of all reflections, the reflection of what we ought to be, but what we are not.

Or as Roberts phrases it, “Undeserved praise is a repimand – a reminder of what I could be.”

There’s another great section that talks about how gadgets are seductive. Roberts says, “We often care more about the elegance of the device than for what it can achieve.” Smith’s line here made me think about the tech and especially the #EDC community:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.

Smith on why friendship is so valuable when you’re grieving – we see our pain through their eyes, and see it’s not so bad:

We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

Roberts on caring on a smaller scale than save-the-world dreams:

Maybe, just maybe, your best way of making the world a better place is to be a really superlative husband or mom or neighbor. […] We forget that being good at our work helps others and makes the world a better place, too.

And a lovely bit of rabbinic wisdom:

It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.

A similar, more energetic book along the same lines is Sarah Bakewell’s very excellent How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.