Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, is best known for his 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But it is Adam Smith's "other book," The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that is the subject of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, a new book by Russ Roberts.
Mr. Roberts, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, has been an economics professor, is a co-creator of the Hayek-Keynes rap video, and is the host of the EconTalk podcast. Yet, like Adam Smith himself, he seems to sense that economics alone, in the absence of some sort of moral keel or system, is an insufficient guide for human behavior or happiness.
The book begins with a useful brief biography of Smith, reporting that he "spent the last years of his life" as a Scottish customs commissioner, "collecting taxes for the government from importers." Mr. Roberts appreciates the irony here; he might have also mentioned that two other prominent advocates of liberty in Smith's period, Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, also worked as tax collectors, though for Paine and Adams the work was at the beginning of their careers rather than at the end.
The rest of the book proceeds as an accessible gloss on Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. "Life's not a race. It's a journey to savor and enjoy," Roberts writes. He quotes Smith as observing that, "We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous." It's not that wealth and virtue are mutually exclusive, as some of today's campaigners against inequality would have us believe. But neither are they the same thing. (This, too, incidentally, is a point that Samuel Adams made, complaining about his wealthy political ally and sometimes rival John Hancock: "So fascinating are riches in the eyes of mankind!" Adams wrote, somewhat disapprovingly.)
Mr. Roberts writes: "There are two ways to be loved, to satisfy the desire we all have in us to be noticed and to be somebody. The first path is to be rich, famous, powerful. The second path is to be wise and virtuous."
Mr. Roberts at times buttresses Adam Smith's points with quotes from traditional Jewish texts. He quotes the Talmud: "Who is rich? asks the Talmud. He who is happy with his lot." That is indeed one definition of wealth in the Talmud, but Mr. Roberts, for whatever reasons, omits other definitions that are also elsewhere in the Talmud, among them my own personal favorite, that of Rabbi Yose: "Anybody who has a bathroom close to his [eating] table."
Mr. Roberts sums things up as follows: "What does Smith mean by prudence, justice, and beneficence? For Smith, prudence means, in modern terms, taking care of yourself, justice means not hurting others, and beneficence means being good to others. That's not a bad trio for thinking about how to live the good life."
He writes: "If you want to make the world a better place, work on being trustworthy. Be a good friend and surround yourself with worthy friends. Don't gossip….I like the Talmud's attitude toward transforming the world: 'It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.'"
That Mr. Roberts keeps working in mentions of the Talmud is, in my view, telling. Adam Smith wasn't Jewish. But his Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book that recognizes the need for some system of belief or values — whether it is an organized religion like Judaism or something else — beyond accumulating the most fame and fortune. It's hard to write about virtue without sounding preachy or sappy or treacly. Both Adam Smith and the sages of the Talmud managed to do it, which is one reason they are still being read hundreds or thousands of years later. Mr. Roberts isn't quite at their level, but he is nonetheless a skilled guide who does a real service by recovering their wisdom to enlighten a new generation of readers.