Friday, August 28, 2015

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

First, an apologia. I haven’t completed reading Adam Smith’s The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. I’m reminded of this when I log into goodreads and it inquires about how I’m progressing. (It’s annoying. "I know, I know.") Right now, it’s on the backburner. But it’s not there because it’s not worthwhile (it is), nor because it’s poorly written (it’s not), but because, as Roberts mentions, it’s written in 18th century prose that—for all its beauty—can prove challenging to those of us living in the Age of Twitter. 

In addition to all of that, Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments is only one of many of the Great Books that I haven’t completed. I read a lot, but sometimes it seems like climbing an endless mountain. One must cast aside so many worthy candidates to delve into one. If I’m reading The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, I’m not reading Smith’s more famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

All of this brings me to an important point: secondary works, commentaries that riff off the original, provide a valuable service when we can’t manage a complete St. John’s-style—original texts only—reading diet. Is reading a commentary as good as delving into the original? No. But it’s better than no exposure at all. It reminds me of going to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence this summer. I did the audio tour, skipping careful examination of many great works, but with limited time—the ultimate scarce resource—it was the way to go. Thus, with secondary works (more than Cliff Notes, of course) you can follow someone like Roberts as he explores Smith’s work. The quality of the guide can vary. But it’s clear that Roberts has put in the time to qualify as our docent.

So why Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments and why via Russ Roberts? First, Smith.

A sketch of Adam Smith facing to the right
Smith without sunglasses, not in profile
Most recognize Smith as the intellectual father of modern economics via The Wealth of Nations. The “invisible hand” and all that. But The Wealth of Nations was just one end of the spectrum for Smith. His first and last book (in that he revised it up to near the time of his death) is Moral Sentiments. At appears that Smith considered this the more important of the two books. Moral Sentiments deals foremost with our life in face-to-face social circles and how we interact with one another through emotions (“sentiments”). The Wealth of Nations, at the other end, deals more with markets, those places where strangers (at least initially) come together to “truck, barter & exchange”. These insights make Smith one of the founders not just of modern economics, but also of modern social theory that deals with more than just markets.

Russ Roberts, The EconTalker
The other reason that I listened to this book was Russ Roberts. I’ve listened to many episodes of EconTalk that Roberts hosts, and I enjoy it very much. Roberts is a Chicago-trained economist who knows his econ, but he’s also a gracious and inquiring interviewer (his podcast consists of guest interviews). Roberts does a good job, even with guests with whom he disagrees. Not afraid to raise a point of contention, he’s also willing to hear the answer. He provides thoughtful conversation, not entertainment (if you can call people talking past one another entertaining). I sometimes disagree with Roberts, such as on the usefulness of government action (its flaws notwithstanding), on the ability of civil society along to deal appropriately with the mega-institutions of contemporary global capitalism, and on the wisdom and efficacy of sensible Keynesianism*. But I have a strong sense that if we sat down for a chat about politics and economics, we’d both benefit from the conversation, finding more points of agreement than disagreement. Disagreeing without being disagreeable. It’s refreshing.

As to the book itself, it’s a reflection on Smith’s insights into human nature and sociability. Roberts puts Smith’s insights into contemporary contexts and idioms. Smith, despite his bachelor life, developed some terrific insights into how society worked, how people work (their sentiments, emotions), and how people interact. In fact, along with his friend Hume and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith helped develop theories of sociability and morality that deserve greater consideration. (For the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, read Garry Wills’s Inventing America. These Scots, more than Locke, provided the intellectual foundations of Jefferson’s thought.) Smith was not an ideologue of individualism—far from it. Instead, he always located the individual within his or her interactions with others. Roberts explores these themes, teasing out their contemporary manifestations and applications. It’s a well-written, entertaining, and enlightening introduction to this neglected aspect of Smith’s work.

My guilt at not having read Moral Sentiments is assuaged by the fact that Roberts, well into a career as an econ professor, admits to having read the work only relatively recently. And now with his book, Roberts has helped take a bit more of my sting of shame away.

Postscript: I listened to this book instead of having read it. It was on my reading list (such a long list and still growing!), but serendipity struck by way of a sale offer on Audible. Listening works well for this book, but I have to say that despite the fine reading, I was disappointed not to have Roberts reading it. After having listened to so many of his podcasts, and with his relaxed manner—not as folksy as Garrison Keillor—but still with an inviting air, it would have been good to have Roberts read it. But as it was, I simply substituted his voice in my head as I listened.

*For a fun example of Roberts’s fairness, watch the brilliant videos of Keynes and Hayek that (among other things) poke fun at the perpetual sense of inferiority that Hayek and Hayekians feel about Keynes, Hayek’s Nobel notwithstanding.

(That is what’s going on, right?)