How Adam Smith changed my life

I have not read Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I doubt I ever will. I have tried, but I’m not ashamed to say that I’m not willing to put in the work. Call it a moral failing, but there it is. It’s a slog, with language exceedingly challenging to the modern eye.

But I did make it through How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, by Russ Roberts. That, in contrast, was easy. It’s a pleasure to read. Russ puts Smith’s Moral Sentiments in modern language and context, which is a substantial help to a lazy reader like me.

My interest was also heightened because I read the book exactly as I was (and still am) wrestling with some aspects of what I do here and on other blogs, even Twitter. (See my discussion with Bill about this subject.)

The crux of it is this: almost by definition public writing involves public recognition, however modest. To the extent one garners a certain kind of attention, there is an element of—or at least an opportunity to—influence. One may fail at this, even if one tries, but the opportunity is present, even if in a small way.

I don’t know what my relationship with this is or should be. I mostly don’t think about it. In a way, I’m afraid to. Should I give any consideration to how I might work and write to achieve something? And if so, what thing(s) in particular? Would an attempt to achieve certain ends be corrupting? Smith, through Russ, convinced me that that is possible.

An answer that almost everyone would accept is that I should write and act to make the world a better place. The real question of Russ’s book is, how does one do that?

There are at least two broad answers. Perhaps not in words, but in deeds, nearly all of us answer this question by striving to make the world materially better for ourselves and those we’re closest to, at least to some extent. As selfish as this sounds, this can make the wider world better too. To maximize our own material reward through our labor we need to produce value for others who would pay for it and what it produces. In this way, incentives for your value and my profit are aligned. Scale that up by billions of daily acts of exchange in a great web of commerce and you have something truly wonderful. That’s a message conveyed in Smith’s other, more famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

There is, of course, another view. The valuable things we can produce with labor and buy with money are not the only things of value. That’s especially true for those closest to us. My relationship with my children isn’t enhanced if I get a raise. I’m no closer to my wife if I spend the evening working instead of with her. My friend won’t have more fun if I cancel our lunch to make a sale. The members of my congregation do not value my presence more if I get promoted. My neighbors mostly want me to keep my yard neat and not make too much noise.

All these people need me not for what I produce with labor but for the things I can do for them that they cannot buy. I need them too. I need the love of my kids and wife, the camaraderie of my friends, the support of my congregation, and I want my neighbors to behave as well as they expect me to.

Many people know such things, and live accordingly, at least to some extent.

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely,” Smith wrote in Moral Sentiments.

As Russ explains, this is not a desire for mere adoration, but of respect—in particular, respect for one’s character and acts, not for one’s achievement of fame or fortune. To be truly lovely in the Smithian sense is to know in your heart that you’re doing the right thing. The right thing rarely requires an argument of justification. When we start to justify ignoring our parental duties to watch a ball game (“I’ll be a better dad if I relax first”) or do more work (“I’ll be a better provider if I earn more”) we should start to wonder if we’re being lovely. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes we need to relax. Sometimes we need to earn more. But most of the time the right thing is the thing that is the easiest to explain, and it’s the thing you’d want others to do too.

It’s fascinating how in very small ways we don’t always do the right thing. We’re not always as lovely as we could be. Often, it would hardly cost us much to be more so.

On a walk the other day, I found a dollar on the sidewalk. Nobody was around to see me pick it up. Before reading Russ’s book, I’d have put it in my pocket. It was only a dollar, but not knowing whose dollar it was, it might as well be mine.

Then I looked around. Up the block the public library was having a sale on its lawn, thinning its collection of older books. I’d been to such sales before, and I know sometimes it’s hard to juggle dollars and books at the sales table, particularly if the wind picks up. It’s easy for a bill to fly off on the breeze.

I decided to be a little bit more lovely. I decided that dollar had probably been blown down the street in an attempted exchange of books for cash. Even if that wasn’t true, it led me to a more lovely act than putting the dollar in my pocket. I walked right to the book sale table and handed the dollar to the salesperson. “I found this down the street, and I figured it blew away from your table. The library should have it.”

It’s only a dollar. It’s only one, small act. But so is the exchange of a dollar for a book. Yet through billions of similar, small acts of commerce, a great, worldwide economy is made. The world is better for it. Likewise, billions of small, lovely acts makes the world better too.

I’m no closer to figuring out the answer to how I should think about my meager public presence, or whether I should think about it at all. Nevertheless, Adam Smith really did change my life, a little. I think he, through Russ, made it a little lovelier. Maybe that’ll come through in my public writing. Maybe that’s enough.


Hidden information below


Email Address*