Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 30 - No 4 Contents BOOK REVIEWS
48 POLICY • Vol. 30 No. 4 • Summer 2014–2015
summary of these ideas in How Adam Smith Can
Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human
Nature and Happiness, and he does it with zeal.
An economist from the Hoover Institute at Stanford
University, Roberts makes an early admission that
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) was not a book
he was initially familiar with, though Smith himself
is said to have preferred it to The Wealth of Nations.
A six-part series from Roberts’ podcast EconTalk.org
forced him to become well versed with the publication.
The result is plain to see.
A self-help book it is not, although it will
undoubtedly lead to self-improvement if its lessons
are put into practice. Rather, it is a journey to discover
the provenance of morality and to build foundations
for a fulfilling and happy life.
The book covers a broad horizon of ideas: how
to act around people we know compared to
strangers; why most of us are disinclined to steal
even when we know we wouldn’t be caught; how
to deal with glory and tragedy in our lives and
the lives of others; the perils of chasing celebrity.
Despite this breadth of topics, it is a book based in
economics—Roberts’ home turf. In his eyes, questions
like how to get the most out of life, make good
choices, understand opportunity costs, and use
your time wisely are all suited to economic analysis.
In reading Roberts’ book, we are reminded that
its foundations lie in that of another. Direct quotes
from The Theory of Moral Sentiments abound. Where
Roberts excels is his ability to link those musty passages
to the contemporary world, and it does no disservice
to the prescience of Smith to give Roberts credit
for this. Chapter by chapter, we are introduced to a
theme which Smith considers pivotal to a successful
and fulfilling life, and Roberts is able to furnish
anecdotes from his personal and professional life
to make Smith’s point clearer to the modern reader.
We hear why Marilyn Monroe and Whitney
Houston died unhappy, with their deaths making
so many people sad; why we can hear news of a
devastating earthquake in a faraway continent, yet
quickly resume business as usual; and why Bernie
Madoff wouldn’t sleep as easy as Warren Buffett, even
before his criminality caught up with him. We’re
told of the fisherman who enjoys a relaxed lifestyle
in his sleepy fishing village, and the businessman
who implores him to move to Los Angeles to create
a fishing empire so that he may retire to the same
relaxed life he was already living, just richer.
We learn how today’s need for gadgets is no stronger
than it was in 1759—times may change, but human
nature doesn’t. In Smith’s day, the latest iPhone was
a tooth-pick. He commented on how the mode
for the clothes was an ever increasing number of
pockets in order that one could carry all of one’s new
gadgets. We are also reminded how the seduction
of money is very strong but still no panacea to our
problems: “A lot of ink has been spilled reminding
us that the rat run is run by rats,” writes Roberts, and
“there’s a little bit of rat in all of us.” His advice? “Stay
human and subdue the rat” (p. 83).
In homage to the economists that have gone before
him, Roberts gives us the “Iron Law of You.” You
think about yourself a lot more than other people
think about you. To be a good person, remember
this, and constantly fight it. We have to step away
from our perspective and try to see how other
people see us. Throughout the book we are reminded
of this and we see that the Iron Law of You underpins
the market of society, howsoever it is manifested.
The overriding message bestowed to us is one of
mindfulness. Be mindful of yourself, be mindful of
your friends, and be mindful of strangers. After all,
what is life but a series of interactions with other
people? Ultimately, satisfaction is gained through
these interactions and how we make ourselves
and the others in our lives feel. You could be the
most famous person in the world, but without
mindfulness you could feel more alone than ever.
It comes down to what Smith claimed were our
two strongest motivations: to be loved, and to be
lovely. We cannot rid ourselves of the “impartial
spectator” Smith feels governs our morality.
With the help of Roberts’
the motivations and aims of
you and your spectator into
better alignment, because
“if you want to get better at
this thing called life, you have
to pay attention” (p. 35).
Alex Russell is an
intern at the Centre for
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