Review – How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts
I recently was introduced to How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. Roberts takes the lesser known Adam Smith work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and selects useful highlights to illustrate how we can know ourselves better and pursue happiness.
I first became interested in Moral Sentiments when I read a P.J. O’Rourke book called On the Wealth of Nations. Like Roberts, O’Rourke analyzed Smith’s seminal works and made his own observations, (although O’Rourke worked far harder, and perhaps less successfully, at being amusing), and he referenced the earlier book enough that I bought a copy. Like many before me, however, I bogged down somewhere in the middle. Smith is brilliant, but his syntax can get complicated, and his reasoning is often roundabout. I got busy with work and family life and set it aside.
When a friend at izzit.org recommended the book, however, I was excited to re-open my investigation. Capitalism gets a lot of bad press as being ‘heartless’—evil capitalists are the villains of several TV shows and movies nowadays, it seems—but I believe capitalism is actually the most moral of economic systems. (As Smith put it, as everyone pursues his own self-interest, the good of society results, as if an ‘invisible hand’ were manipulating the process.) The challenge is to figure out how to explain this.
Roberts does a good job of selecting appropriate passages to explain key ideas from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He adds more modern stories to illustrate the concepts, such as the role of conscience (or what Smith called ‘the impartial spectator,’ whose approval we seek). At my school, moral instruction is important, and Roberts takes a book that raises important issues (like ‘How to Be Good’ and ‘How to be Lovely’) and provides a coherent, entertaining overview. I look forward to sharing portions with my students this year.
You might enjoy doing the same.