Adam Smith

Adam Smith was a giant figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and his two major works — The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and In Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) — have advanced our understanding of what motivates us and how human society works.

Isaac Newton postulated the existence of a force called gravity to explain part of the emergent order we observe in the world of matter. Charles Darwin explained the observed evolution and diversity of life by postulating a mechanism that leads to speciation, namely, natural selection. Alike to them, Smith explained how our human-created social world works.

Few people, including contemporary card-carrying economists, actually read Adam Smith in the original. I don’t bemoan that fact because scholars who studied Smith professionally have explicated his ideas competently, and we can understand the essential ideas more efficiently by reading their explanations of Smith’s theses rather than reading the original.

People who come later have an obvious advantage over those who came before. Smith read and understood Newton’s laws of motion (Smith also published an essay on the History of Astronomy) but Newton never got to read Smith; Newton died in 1727, long before Smith’s Sentiment and Wealth were published.

These days thanks to the internet we have the advantage of easily accessing thousands of important ideas with a few clicks of a mouse. Accessing easily does not imply understanding easily, though. Besides, there’s an additional cost because we have a more difficult task of sorting through an impossibly large collection of principles, theories and facts; people in the past had a far limited amount of information to internalized to knowledge.

If all you had were a dozen important books to read (and nothing on the internet, radio and TV), then you’d likely be able to devote lots of time to understanding what you read than if you could distract yourself with the piles of horseshit that comes your way on the main stream and social media. But I digress.

I agree with Karl Popper in his view of how to understand something. I quote from the transcript of some of his lectures on the scientific method. He said,

“… [in reading it is] the quality that matters and not the quantity. It is more important that you read what you read carefully than it is for you to read a great amount. … Anything worth reading is not only worth reading twice, but worth reading again and again. If a book is worthwhile, then you will always be able to make new discoveries in it and find things in it that you didn’t notice before, even though you have read it many times.”

I cannot stress enough the value of re-reading what is essential for understanding principles. Which is, by the way, why I don’t follow the news. I have only a limited amount of time and attention; following the trivially ephemeral is always at the cost of understanding the eternal — which are the general principles that operate in the world. I value the latter and don’t care for the former.

All this chatter is mere throat-clearing before the main point: I want to point to what helped me better understand Adam Smith’s core ideas. Let me address another point that’s important: I cannot understand something until I have explored it from different angles. I am not that smart that I can figure out the nature of the elephant by only touching it from one angle. I have to walk around the elephant and touch it repeatedly — which I can only do by reading various people’s account of their experiences of touching the elephant.

With that preamble, here’s what I found useful and I present it for your edification and enjoyment. Here’s Vernon Smith (Oh no! another Smith), an economist who was awarded the 2002 “Nobel” prize in economics. I learned a great deal from his essay “Scientist and Evolutionist – Part 1“. The main point in this post is to motivate you to read it — a few times, if you get my drift.

Let me not detain you with any more chatter. Go read Vernon Smith on Adam Smith. And don’t just stop there. If you really want to understand why Adam Smith matters, you have to continue walking around the elephant.

I think that any real education should include (but of course is not limited to) the ideas of Newton, Darwin and Smith. I had some idea of what Newton and Darwin were about but absolutely unaware of Smith’s contributions. I think the Indian education system is pathetic.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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