How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life - by Russ Roberts

How to Know Yourself

Our behavior is driven by an imaginary interaction with what he calls the impartial spectator--a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly. It is this figure we answer to when we consider what is moral or right. The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble--the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially. If we are only for ourselves, it's not a pretty sight.

Whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people's imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness--the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

How to Be Happy

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely. When we earn the admiration of others honestly by being respectable, honorable, blameless, generous, and kind, the end result is true happiness.

To be loved without being lovely--to be praised without being praiseworthy--is a temptation for the weak and foolish person, not the wise one. Smith is encouraging us to strive for harmony between our inner self and our outer self. We may be tempted at times to be loved without actually being lovely. The wise man, says Smith, avoids that temptation. Once you realize the importance people place on being loved and lovely, you become a little better at detecting strategic flattery. And you're less likely, perhaps, to indulge in it yourself.

How Not to Fool Yourself

We are prone to self-deception. The impartial spectator whom we imagine and whose counsel we hear isn't quite as impartial as we'd like to think. In the heat of the moment, when we are about to act, our self-love often overwhelms any potential role for the impartial spectator, "the man within the breast," our conscience. The imagined impartial spectator is an imperfect spokesperson for doing the right thing. Our urges can easily overwhelm our judgment.

You aren't as lovely as you think you are. I'm not as lovely as I think I am. Our inability to face this reality, our desire to see ourselves as lovely, as more lovely than we truly are, keeps us from repairing our behavior. Self-deception makes us think we're lovely when we're not. Self-deception lulls me into thinking I'm virtuous when I am not.

Smith reminds us that it's hard to be objective when you have a horse in the race--your own self-interest. It's easy to convince yourself that you're doing the right thing when you're merely doing what benefits yourself. One way to protect yourself in such a situation is to seek out a mentor or a truly impartial real-life spectator who can help you see through the haze of self-love that so often blinds us.

The Universe is full of dots. Connect the right ones and you can draw anything. The important question is not whether the dots you picked are really there, but why you chose to ignore all the others.

The biggest challenge to applying Smith's insights on self-deception is the tendency to see those around you as blind to their own faults, overconfident in the research they champion, and unaware of the deep truths behind the worldview you champion. There is a temptation to say of all people besides yourself that they are the easiest people to fool. But it isn't so. Remember Feynman's insight: you are the easiest person to fool. Don't deceive yourself about your lack of self-deception.

How to Be Loved

For Smith, money and fame should be kept in perspective. He concedes that most of us will always prefer having more money to having less. Public recognition is pleasurable. But don't be consumed by the desire to consume or a passion for public acclaim. You'll end up violating the rules of prudence or justice. By justice, Smith means the virtue of not injuring or harming others. By prudence, Smith means the virtue of taking care of oneself using both foresight--looking down the road to assess the consequences of our action--and self-control, the ability to give up something today in return for a greater gain in the future.

For Smith, ambition--the desire to be rich or famous or both--is a poison to be avoided. Once you get on that treadmill, there is no rest.

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.

How to Be Lovely

We have enough troubles of our own. Taking on the suffering of others in full measure would be too hard. Our ability to sympathize with others is limited. But that limited amount is enough to bring them consolation.

Behaving with propriety is the ability to conform to the expectations of those around us, and they in turn conform to our expectations. When we conform to such expectations, we allow those around us to trust us. That trust allows us to share our emotions with each other at the right level of intensity for the different rings of intimacy we inhabit. That's the beginning of loveliness, of earning the respect of those around us, along with self-respect. Acting with propriety is one measure of what Smith would call a gentleman. Propriety--that is, acting properly--gains you the approval of those around you, says Smith. But it is not admired or celebrated. For admiration and celebration, you need virtue.

How to Be Good

Virtue is multifaceted for Smith, but his big three are 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.

The prudent man is genuine. He is modest about his skills and successes. A simpler way to capture Smith's advice is "Say little, do much."

How do you maintain your dignity in an increasingly undignified world? Your best bet is to use the modern arts of social media and self-promotion, but as unquackishly as possible. The question is how to say "Look at me" in the most prudent and dignified way. For starters, don't lie or embellish. Don't exaggerate your achievements or qualifications.

Hard-and-fast rules are easier to keep than rules that are slightly relaxed.

How to Make the World a Better Place

Smith argues that each of us acts in such a way that together we create morality, trust, civilization. None of us intends that outcome. In fact, he argues, it comes about naturally. It's part of who we are. No one plans by his or her actions to improve the world. Yet we do so without having to think about it. How is that possible? Smith argues that norms and culture are the result of the tiny and infinitely numerous and subtle ways we interact. In the same way that what is considered good English evolves, our cultural landscape is created, without design or oversight, by our individual interactions with each other.

Smith also points the way to how we might maintain civilization and even make it better. We all have two parts to play in that process. The first is to be lovely even when we can get away with not being lovely. When we act poorly, when we take advantage of someone else, when we are cruel, we make the world a little less civilized. But we also have a part to play in encouraging others to behave well and to discourage others from behaving badly. And that is to honor those who are honorable and to dishonor those who are dishonorable. Our accumulated actions create the standards of loveliness. We create the understandings of the impartial spectator that we each in turn use to moderate our self-centeredness.

If you want to make the world a better place, work on being trustworthy, and honor those who are trustworthy. Be a good friend and surround yourself with worthy friends. Don't gossip. Resist the joke that might hurt someone's feelings even when it's clever. And try not to laugh when your friend tells you that clever joke at someone's expense. Being good is not just good for you and those around you, but because it helps others be good as well. Set a good example, and by your loveliness you will not only be loved, but you may influence the world.

How Not to Make the World a Better Place

By reminding us of the perils of the man of system, Smith is reminding us to be wary of hubris. We think we can move those chess pieces where we want. We think we know what's best for them. Smith is saying that even when we're right, even if we think we know what's best for others, sometimes it's best to leave them alone, because our efforts won't just fail or fall short of the idea. Sometimes they'll do more harm than good. Sometimes it's best to walk away from the board and set our sights on smaller, better fields of play than the chessboard of society.

How to Live in the Modern World

The Theory of Moral Sentiments simply has a different focus from that of The Wealth of Nations. It doesn't represent a different view of human nature or a different theory of how people behave or a more optimistic vision of humanity. It's about a different sphere of human interaction. The author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is the same man with a consistent view of humanity. He is mostly interested in how people actually behave, not how he'd like them to behave. He's interested in understanding human behavior. So in the two books the emphases are different because he is writing about two very different spheres of life.

As F. A. Hayek pointed out in The Fatal Conceit, a modern person has to inhabit two worlds at the same time--a world that is intimate and a world that is distant, a world that is held together by love and a world that is held together by prices and monetary incentives. Hayek argued that we have an urge to take the norms and culture of our intimate family life and try to extend them into our less intimate commercial life. By that he didn't mean being nice to the cashier at the grocery (assuming your grocery has a cashier) or kind to your co-workers. He meant that we have an urge to try to make the macroeconomy more like the microcosm of the family, taking the egalitarian norms of the family and extending those norms, via the political system, to society at large. Hayek thought that extending the norms of the family to society at large would put us on the road to tyranny.

Smith felt that we cannot extend the love and concern (both selfless and self-interested) beyond our immediate circle of friends and associates. We can only pretend to do so. Whether that pretense is a noble ideal or a dangerous urge is an unanswerable question. Where I think Smith would agree with Hayek is in our desire to look up to, adore, and entrust our fate to powerful leaders. Out of the womb and out of the house, we often crave security and a parental figure to trust. The problem is that the Hitlers and the Stalins and Maos are not our parents. They cannot love us like their own children, no matter our eagerness that they take care of us. They mainly exploit our longings, meanwhile taking care of themselves. Smith and Hayek are warning us about the danger inherent in that yearning for a politically powerful figure whom we can trust. That danger doesn't exist just with tyrants--citizens in democracies have similar yearnings.

Looking for love? Look locally. We have precious little of it in our lives anyway. Let's reserve it for those we see every day. Love locally, trade globally.