How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

A few months ago, I had never really heard of Russ Roberts except maybe in a passing reference to his podcast in Jonah Goldberg’s podcast The Remnant.  But then, because Jonah is such a fan, Russ had Jonah on his podcast and vice versa.  I enjoyed both episodes so much that I subscribed to EconTalk and now listen each week.

Through that listening I began checking out Russ’s writing.  It turned out I had The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity already on the shelf (which I am reading now).  But the book that interested me the most was How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.  So checked it out from the library.  It turned out to be a wonderful and thoughtful meditation on life, love and happiness through the eyes of Adam Smith.

Many people are familiar with Smith’s The Wealth of Nations even if they aren’t economists but few are aware of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Though aware of it, Roberts hadn’t read it either.  After discussing it with a colleague and author on EconTalk he decided to read it.  It changed his life; no really.

The book changed the way I look at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself.  Smith made me aware of how people interact with each other in ways I hadn’t noticed before.  He dispenses timeless advice about how to treat money, fame, and morality.  He tells the reader how to find happiness, how to treat material success and failure.  He also describes the path to virtue and goodness and why it’s a path worth pursuing.

So Roberts set out to explore why so few know that the author of “perhaps the best book on why some nations are rich and some are poor” wrote “as eloquently as anyone ever has on the futility of pursuing money with the hope of finding happiness.”

Part of the answer is the language and style.  It takes work to read an academic treatise with all that went with that hundreds of years ago.  The prose can be daunting and the structure complicated.

The beauty is that you can read Robert’s book and explore the arguments and insights of Smith in very accessible and readable prose.  If that motivates you to go back and read Smith all the better.

I wont offer a detailed summation of the book, but there are two main concepts worth highlighting: the importance of self-knowledge and the proper pursuit of happiness.  The two are connected.

Self-knowledge is important because it helps us get past both our inherent selfishness and our biases and ability to self-deceive.  Smith argues that humans care about themselves and what affects them; they see the world through the lens of their own lives.  But this doesn’t mean they are ruthlessly selfish and completely uncaring.

This caring for others comes not from an innate goodness but from a sense of duty and morality outside of ourselves. He uses the concept of an impartial spectator.  We think of someone outside the situation, without direct involvement, and ask what would they think of our choices/actions.  Whether this is God or our conscience or some other concept, this moral sense guides our actions even when we are not explicitly thinking about it.

But Smith also argues that this is a way for humans to understand their motivations and actions better, and thus act in more compassionate and honorable ways.  Since we care about ourselves and those we love first and foremost, it is easy to act selfishly and self-centered.  Keeping the impartial spectator in mind allows us to see our actions in a different light and judge our actions more accurately; to see ourselves as we really are.

Which leads to one of Smith’s most famous quotes and the point on which the rest of the book turns:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

Robert’s in many ways spends the rest of the book unpacking this quote and connecting this to happiness:

When we earn the admiration of others honestly by being respectable, honorable, blameless, generous, and kind, the end result is true happiness.

The book carefully walks the reader through Smith’s arguments and insights about the temptation of confirmation bias, gadgets, flattery, celebrity, riches, and a host of things we might not associate with the eighteenth century, and their connection to virtue and contentment.

It is thought-provoking and convicting but never preachy.  Roberts has a sense of humility not often connected to self-help books but nevertheless offers much sage advice about life.  Through anecdotes, biographical notes and hypothetical scenarios, Roberts helps you think about the choices you make and have made, through the lens of being both loved and lovely.  It is not always a comfortable process but it is rewarding and important.

It is not an exaggeration to say that working through these issues is an important step to improving our lives, communities and world.

If, like me, you are a listener of the EconTalk podcast but have not read Russ’s book, I highly recommend fixing that. We could always do with more thinking about how to love, how to be worthy of love and how to connect that to the larger world.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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