Free Minds & Free Markets

Russ Roberts: Adam Smith's Surprising Guide to Happiness (But Not Wealth)

"It's kind of shocking to realize the person known as the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, didn't think the pursuit of wealth was a very good idea," say Russ Roberts. "He thought it was corrosive, thought it was bad for you, thought ambition was bad for you, thought the pursuit of fame would destroy your character and your happiness, your serenity, your tranquility.

Roberts is the author of the just-released How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, an extended and lively meditation of Smith's classic The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, years before Smith's better-known Wealth of Nations.

One of the most popular explicators of economic thought—and perhaps more importantly, the limits of economic thought—Roberts is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, the host of the great podcast EconTalk, a regular presence on NPR, co-blogger at Cafe Hayek, and the author of a host of previous books (including three novels: The Choice, The Invisible Heart, and The Price of Everything). He is the co-creator of the wildly popular rap videos illustrating the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, which have been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube. His personal website is here.

Roberts sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to talk about Adam Smith's relevance in both economic and moral arenas, the hubris of contemporary economists and the politicians who rely on them, the transformation of work from drudgery to a form of self-actualization, and how Adam Smith—a bachelor who lived much of his adult life with mother—just might help you live a happy life.

About 1 hour. Scroll down for downloadable versions and a transcript. Subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel to receive automatic notification when new material goes live.

Edited by Todd Krainin.


3:44 - LOVE: Fame, self-esteem, virtue, and Derek Jeter.
13:16 - VIRTUE: Prudence, justice, benevolence, and the iWatch.
19:44 - Why do we love the powerful? Hugo Chávez, Lady Di, Charles I.
25:09 - Adam Smith's personal life.
27:41 - Making the world a better place.
33:05 - The heroism of commerce.
38:48 - The knowledge problem of economics.
49:20 - What do we know about human nature?
52:14 - Fundamental principles.

This is a rough transcript. Please check all quotes against video for accuracy.

GILLESPIE: Russ, thanks for talking.

ROBERTS: Always good to be back.

GILLESPIE: Russ is known as the host of the weekly podcast EconTalk, which is one of the most interesting and most followed economics podcasts. Regular guest on NPR, you blog at Café Hayek. You were educated at the University of North Carolina and then got a PhD at the University of Chicago under Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize winner. You’ve taught at George Mason, Washington University, Stanford, and elsewhere, and you’re now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Russ, let’s get right to it. Your book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, seeks to recapture the energy and the power and the influence—or, what should be the bigger influence of Smith’s first great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. What brought you to talking about The Theory of Moral Sentiments?

ROBERTS: I opened to the fact, I have to confess, as I do in the book: here I was, an economist for decades, and I’d never read Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Dan Klein, at the time was my colleague at George Mason, approached me about doing a podcast episode on the book. I thought this is good, this will give me a chance to read it, and I picked up the book and after about three minutes I put it back down because I couldn’t understand what Adam Smith was talking about.  I picked it up again and eventually, I got the hang of it and ended up doing a six part, six hour long series with Dan—a little intense. Because I fell in love with the book—

GILLESPIE: Intense or boring?

ROBERTS: I like to think intense. You be the judge.

GILLESPIE: So it’s like Orange is the New Black or something: it gets more and more intense as it goes on?

ROBERTS: I don’t know what to do with that, I’ll leave that alone. I appreciate the cultural reference. But I started reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments really for the first time only a few years ago and I was totally captivated by many different factors that made the book interesting. One is that Smith is a great writer. He’s fun to read, he’s charming, he’s the Jane Austen of economics—which is maybe damning with faint praise, but I think not. He can really write a beautiful sentence and he had some deep insights into human nature, I thought. And what we’re here for and what we’re able to achieve and happiness that I thought were worth trying to convey to a general audience.

GILLESPIE: Moral Sentiments, he revised it over the course of his life, but actually he wrote that before The Wealth of Nations.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ant1sthenes||

    "don’t know what to do with that, I’ll leave that alone. I appreciate the cultural reference."

    Oh snap.

  • The Last American Hero||

    The world would be a far better place if more people listened to EconTalk.

  • robc||

    Just listened to the most recent podcast an hour ago.

  • robc||

    This summer it was my standard mowing listening. 1.5 hrs to mow, 1 of it being econtalk.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    You have a very quiet lawn tractor.

  • ||

    It would also be far better if more reporters did interviews as well as Russ.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    He was pleasant to Piketty and Stiglitz; I can barely write their names without vomiting in rage. But the Hayek contingent has always been far more diplomatic and gentlemanly than the harder edges of Austrianism, which have a strong heresy-hunting flavor to them.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I always think of statists as akin to astrologers. Astrologers have calculators, programs, books full of jargon and diagrams, and all they do is ape the motions of engineers and scientists without having any understanding of the fundamental principles at work.

    Besides being control freaks in general, political statism began when technology was beginning to change life -- telegraphs, railroads, steamships -- what couldn't be accomplished? Then add in light bulbs, records, telephones, and it realy began to look like there was no end to progress. naturally the control freaks brought in all the implements of science: the jargon, books, graphs, the language of mathematics. Why not extend that to society? I can understand all these control freaks thinking they would soon figure out how to change the world into a fairer place.

  • javabeast||

    Where be the mp3?

  • ||

    We fixed the mp3 issue. It should be available for download now. Please let us know if it's still a problem. Apologies.

  • triclops||

    I don't think there is a better ambassador for libertarianism than Russ Roberts. He's sharp and his knowledge is deep, but he is unfailingly patient and polite, and genuinely cares about being a good teacher, as opposed to a good polemicist.
    If you know anyone who might be ready for libertarianism, introduce them to Roberts.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    I don't think there is a better ambassador for libertarianism than Russ Roberts. He's sharp and his knowledge is deep, but he is unfailingly patient and polite, and genuinely cares about being a good teacher, as opposed to a good polemicist.



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