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Guide Timeless Classics: The Wealth of Nations

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments has been picked by two people on five books before. The other was Karl Rove. Are they dramatically different? Hume, too, takes a human rather than transcendent view of morality. He, too, says that it comes from the sentiments. Hume also says that right and wrong are established by the right kinds of sentiments.

Smith also sees religion more positively. It helps people to follow moral norms, to regard them as sacred, whereas Hume sees it as mostly pernicious, morally speaking.

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The third book on your list is that which you view as the best commentary on The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Tell us why you picked it. During the 20th century there were a number of economists and intellectual historians working on Smith, maybe a political theorist or two here and there, but very, very few philosophers even read Smith, much less devoted serious attention to him. It remains one of the very best, most comprehensive analyses of The Theory of Moral Sentiments that I know of.

Griswold not only provides an incredibly rich, careful and rigorous analysis of the text, but also puts Smith in a dialogue of sorts with ancient philosophy, especially Plato, and situates his thought within contemporary debates over the virtues and shortcomings of Enlightenment. He even says that scarcely anyone would claim a different heritage.

But almost nobody accepts the Enlightenment in its totality, either. People find it to be overly universalist, or rationalist, or individualist, or whatever. People—especially academics—describe all kinds of problems with the Enlightenment. So Griswold holds up Smith as an exemplar of somebody who embraces the broad Enlightenment worldview but also himself sees some of the potential pitfalls and dangers associated with it and tries to find ways we might combat those.

Adam Smith in His Time and Ours

I think Hume was on to that as well—that it is the passions that, perhaps slightly counter-intuitively, provide a stronger-rooted basis for constituting human society. Hume and Smith see reason as weak and fallible and a thin reed on to which to hang a social order. People are far more likely to be moved by their feelings or passions or emotions. And not just the selfish ones. The Wealth of Nations is, of course, one of the most famous, though certainly not most read or understood, books of all time.

It was first published in Smith argues that the chief source of productivity is the division of labour, and given that the division of labour is, as he says, limited by the extent of the market, free trade both within and among nations helps to promote the prosperity of all.


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Adam Smith talks about commercial people not gathering together without conspiring against the public. Can you tell us anything about that?

Harvard Classics, Volume 10, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, A

He thought wealthy merchants were often going to collude against the public interest. I think one of the interesting things to note in connection with The Wealth of Nations is that Smith was far more willing than one might expect, given his current reputation, to acknowledge potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. For instance, Smith accepts that commercial society necessarily produces great inequalities. That great as the division of labour is for productivity, an extensive division of labour can exact an immense cost in human dignity by rendering people feeble and ignorant—the idea being that if you spend your whole life working on the 18th part of a pin you have no opportunity to exercise your body or your mind.

And, also, there are worries about happiness.

He worries that the desire for wealth often leads people to submit to endless toil and anxiety in the pursuit of frivolous material goods that he thinks will provide, at best, only fleeting satisfaction. He absolutely did. It constitutes a definite improvement over the poverty and insecurity and dependence that dominated almost all pre-commercial ages. Not just with outside countries, but within Britain there were all sorts of barriers to trade. What are most of the restrictions that are in place in the 18th century? We often pit free trade against helping the poor today, but he saw the two as going hand-in-hand.

Yes, in one of these books the author says that at the beginning of the century, tea was an luxury that only a couple of people could afford, and by the end, even builders were knocking back cups of tea. I just loved that image. Presumably a lot of the economic restrictions were related to agriculture: it was about the protection of aristocratic interests.

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The Wealth of Nations - Wikipedia

If you removed them, the price of bread would fall. Yes, for all goods he thought that they were just being made more expensive by the rent-seeking behaviour of the rich. You mentioned the malign consequences of free trade and labour specialisation—inequality and people doing very tedious jobs endlessly.

Did he offer any kind of remedies for those consequences? Smith wrote a page-long diatribe about the division of labour and its potential ill-effects. For the ill-effects of the division of labour, he thought education was a great remedy. With regard to rent-seeking, this is, again, a big part of why he argues for free trade.

The more free trade you have, the fewer restrictions there are available for the merchants to extort from the legislature. He does offer various counter-measures for the ills that he describes. There are always going to be ills. I think Smith would have said that commercial society and the activity of commerce might not encourage us to reach the moral heights, but it would discourage us from reaching the moral depths. If you live in a commercial society, you live by exchanging with others, so you depend a great deal on your reputation.

Or does he use it in both books? He uses it just once in both. He also used it once in an essay that was published posthumously.

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In the 20th century, the Chicago school of economists picked it out and made it the central thing to the point where now, when people hear the name Adam Smith, the invisible hand is the first thing that they think of. I do think the idea behind the invisible hand is pretty central to his work, though. The idea that there are often unintended consequences to various policies, that a lot of times things work in a bottom-up, Hayekian way, the idea that spontaneous order creates our system of morality and our economy without individuals intending it.

There was a think-tank founded by some friends of Margaret Thatcher here in the UK, which became very influential. That did for his reputation on this side of the Atlantic. They were very much on the right, economically, and used his name to advocate the necessity of a minimalist state. Yes, many people wore Adam Smith neckties. They were very popular in the Reagan White House, as I understand it. It shows just how many deep philosophical questions Smith tackles in The Wealth of Nations , either explicitly or implicitly—not just with respect to economic and political issues, but also with respect to things like human nature, human psychology, morality and happiness.

Fleischacker writes very clearly and even beautifully. So you can look at the bits that interest you. Yes, and it goes well beyond political economy. For a long time, most of the books about The Wealth of Nations were just about free trade and mercantilism etc. It's free. He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in Fundrise and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

But a lot of that age-old money wisdom makes sense years later. One of my favorite investing books is Buffettology by Mary Buffett. I read this several times in high school and thank God I did. Ha, that is a good read… but a little dense and perhaps a little too focused for a general money book. Definitely a solid pick though!


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Great list! The Richest Man in Babylon is excellent. The basics to achieve wealth are so simple yet so many people come up short. I just re read that book this week and it is so easy to similarities to our working world today. A very good list John. I have already bookmarked it and will share it to my social commnity. My favorite one is already on the top The Richest Man in Babylon. I will also subscribe to your blog for more posts like this in my inbox.