How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

Adam Smith002I first encountered Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments years ago on the recommendation of my economics professor who was, as I liked to say in jest, a power mad Libertarian. It was his opinion that this book was at least as important as The Wealth of Nations, if not more so. After taking him up on reading Smith’s work I found, just as Russ Roberts did, that it is a difficult read. The language style is outdated, it is circuitous and on occasion, tedious, but it is, non-the-less, a valuable work and one that, like others, published in the same general era, would benefit from “translation” into modern language and style. It is over 300 pages long in modern printing and is not a lightweight to carry around with you. That is where Russ Roberts comes in. He was so taken with Smith’s work that he decided to do what is essentially his own reworking of the original into a form that would be more easily read and understood by modern readers.

As soon as I saw the dust jacket I knew that this was going to be a fun read. It features a profile view of a bust of Adam Smith sporting a powdered wig and dark glasses that Roy Orbison would be right at home with. Adam Smith is now “cool” in a modern context. Not that Smith was ever really other than cool to anyone who understood what he was all about. And that is what Professor Roberts sets out to explain; that Smith’s work is an explanation of how life and human relations works. As Roberts puts it, “An unexpected guide to human nature and happiness.”

In today’s world where we see a plethora of books on human interaction and self-help, Adam Smith, with Prof. Roberts’ help cuts through a lot of the hype and psychobabble to the essence of human relations. He discusses how we view ourselves, how we view the world around us, how we make decisions and how all of this affects our lives and relations with those around us. It is all plain language, easy to understand, and thankfully not clothed in some new age mumbo-jumbo that removes all real meaning. Instead, it is the essence of real life for real people in a real world, as that real world really works. And more importantly, Smith and Roberts do not give you some formula for life, but rather, a thought provoking opportunity for one to come to realizations that are not often discussed in cacophony of modern society; a society that often revels in self-deceit, which is the opposite of what Smith was promoting.

After dealing with personal the book delves into the realm of technology and gadget collectors, which was something that was a social phenomenon even back in the 18th Century. Smith wrote about it and Roberts embellishes his work with modern adaptations that are brilliant and funny. We can all see our friends or ourselves in some aspect of this. This leads, predictably into the realm of ambition, fame, fortune and their attendant lifestyles. Are famous people happy or do they just seem to have lives that should lead to happiness? Smith discussed this two hundred years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The chapter titles tell you pretty much what to expect from Roberts and Smith:

How to know yourself; How to be happy; How not to fool yourself; How to be loved; How to be lovely (that is admired, respected and worthy of praise); How to make the world a better place; How not to make the world a better place; and How to live in the modern world.

Beginning with more personal aspects of life the topic shifts gradually to the more political and international, with an understanding of the intersection of three; the aggregate effect of negligible individual actions in economic and social situations adding to a significant effect; the way in which such effects create civilized society, or uncivilized, as the case may be. The contention is that the way we behave toward each other matters, perhaps only a small amount in individual cases, but in the aggregate, a tremendous amount. What follows is that the interrelationships between people matter. What Smith is saying and Roberts is rewriting for us is an roadmap to a better society based not on force, but on humanity, and that such humanity is created primarily by our interaction with the people closest to us, and in so doing we connect to the rest of the world.

Adam Smith was an amazing author, yet he tends to be neglected today, except as the father of modern economic theory, for which he generally gets a few minutes in undergraduate classes on economics or related political philosophy. Most of the time he is ignored, when he isn’t reviled by the opposition for being “outdated” in the face of “modern” socialist oriented theories.

But Adam Smith was on to something. If it weren’t for the fact that his styles of language and writing are not as easily understood today as they were two centuries ago he might be a lot more popular. What Russ Roberts has done is bridge the gap, making the old style understandable to the modern audience and, with luck, bringing a new generation into an understanding of human relations that is just as relevant today as it was when Smith was writing.

Not only does Roberts deserve kudos for this effort in and of itself, but also for creating a lively, fun, interesting work, sprinkled with anecdotes from his life and the lives of other people the reader is likely to be aware of from their own experiences. Everyone should have a copy on their bookshelf, not just to read, but to consult occasionally for self reflection and restoration of the understanding of each person’s place in the world. Smith’s work was a tremendous accomplishment. Roberts’ adaptation is no less tremendous.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is available at

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