Speaking of Smith

Five Great Books on Adam Smith

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

If you haven't encountered them already, these five books make for great reading on a range of topics related to Smith.
Hey there Speaking-of-Smithers! It’s January, it’s a new year, there’s a plague on and it’s still really cold outside here in the Midwest…. Which leaves me thinking: what better time to sit down or cozy up with a worthwhile book on an interesting subject, to revisit some old ideas, and to possibly absorb some new ones? 

If you’re thinking along these lines too, and want to deepen your familiarity with Adam Smith, then this is the post for you. Today, I am sharing five of my favorite books on Adam Smith and his life, times, ideas, and legacy. While by no means exhaustive, this short collection of titles should help those curious about Smith gain a greater perspective on who he was, what he was all about, and why you (or anyone else) should care.

The Wisdom of Adam Smith: A collection of his most incisive and eloquent observations

Selections by John Haggarty; Edited and introduced by Benjamin A. Rogge

This little book, available in both hardcover and paperback editions from Liberty Fund, is a wonderful collection of direct quotations excerpted from the writings of Smith. The quotes are organized by theme, so it’s a great resource if you want to scan Smith’s mind on a given topic, such as “Government,” “Sympathy,” or “The Impartial Spectator.” As a professor of rhetoric Smith knew full well how to turn an artful phrase, so I heartily recommend this collection of pithy quotations and insightful gems to anyone seeking a thematic introduction to Smith in his own words.

Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy

Edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley

This book is a treasure trove of scholarly articles on Adam Smith. While a newcomer to Smith might not be interested in every article, such a person should definitely not avoid the book on that account. Indeed, chapters such as Hanley’s “Adam Smith on Living a Life” and “Adam Smith: Some Popular Uses and Abuses” are thoroughly accessible to any attentive and interested reader. If you find yourself spending some time with this book, I would recommend skipping around a bit, so that you might get a sense of how various types of scholars think and write about Smith.

Adam Smith in His Time and Ours

By Jerry Z. Muller

If the previous book somewhat encourages jumping around from article to article, this book is one to read straight through. It is a masterful synthesis of Smith’s thought as a whole, and one that ably lays out the “civilizing project” Smith intended to advance using markets, institutions, and principles of good governance. This is a book that speaks to the power and promise of well-designed institutions as channels for our political and social passions, a theme that seems especially relevant amidst a pandemic and in the wake of a tumultuous 2020 summer, the raucous general election season, and the unsettling political violence of early 2021. Muller's learned survey of key ideas in political economy is bound to leave you thinking about how some of our most important institutions have fallen short, and what can be done going forward to set them right.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

By Russ Roberts 

This book, by Econtalk host Russ Roberts, is another great one-stop option for those looking to get a quick injection of Smithian ideas into their life. Roberts is a leading economist and a great writer, but most of all he is an exceptionally thoughtful human being. His book is a guide to how Adam Smith’s insights into psychology, relationships, and behavior retain their relevance today, and yes, how they can change your life. That is, if you want them to, and are willing to put in some effort.

Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

By Samuel Fleischacker 

This book is an extended, in-depth discussion of the concept of “sympathy” in Adam Smith, and how it relates to our modern idea of empathy. Fleischacker is a subtle and deep reader of Smith, as well as a scholar of philosophy and religion, and his insights are always worth pondering. AdamSmithWorks’ own Amy Willis sat down (digitally!) with Professor Fleischacker last summer to discuss the work, and you can check out that conversation here.

There’s my (current) top five books on Adam Smith! If there is a book that you thought might make it onto this list, but did not, please do let us know in the comments below. We are always interested in reader suggestions for other great books and resources on Adam Smith.

William Apel

My favorite (and only one I have read):

By Russ Roberts

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Bargaining with the Butcher, Baker, and Brewer: A New Look at Smith’s Most Famous Sentences

Jacob Sider Jost for AdamSmithWorks

Our desire to persuade each other is not reducible to our pursuit of self-interest in a narrow material sense; it is rather a deep feature of human nature, one we share with the men and women whom we rely on for our food.

Profitable Business: Adam Smith’s Moral Assessment

Gregory Robson for AdamSmithWorks

What we get in Smith is not a utopian view of profitable business, but a humane and realistic assessment of the power of firms and the markets in which they operate to do good in the world.

What Adam Smith Ate: Christmas Punch

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Smith would have enjoyed his favorite claret, what we would call Bordeaux today, as well as, perhaps, a Christmas punch. 

Adam Smith Wishes You a Mereology Christmas

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

Aristotle’s proposition that individuals belong more to the republic than to themselves folds the part (individual) into the whole (polity). This mereology collapsed, argues Strauss, when people adopted the Christian belief in a personal transcendent destiny and a loyalty to a kingdom beyond this world.

Happiness in Times of Crisis

Garret Edwards for AdamSmithWorks

By François Topino-Lebrun - Public Domain

"In highlighting the anecdote of Pyrrhus and Cineas, Smith moves away from an answer to the happiness question that is merely economic or material."

Adam Smith Wants you to ENJOY the Holidays

James E. Hartley for AdamSmithWorks

...the holidays are coming and the goose is getting…dropped from the menu. Multiply that by all those things you used to do and will not be doing this year, and it all seems rather bleak. But, why? Why aren’t you excited that your forthcoming celebrations are going to be novel and different?

Adam Smith’s Readers in Eighteenth-Century Libraries

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

One way to investigate the broader impact of Smith’s writings is through the lens of eighteenth-century subscription libraries. 

Adam Smith on the Emergent Meaning of “Stuff”

Lauren Hall for AdamSmithWorks

While it’s not in the nature of Smith to wax too philosophical over human meaning, I think his treatment of property, combined with the themes of spontaneous order and emergent meaning that thread their way throughout his work, can help us come to terms with and understand the role that property or “stuff” plays in our lives and why it matters.

Adam Smith: Myths and Realities

Brianne Wolf for AdamSmithWorks

LF capitalist.jpg 36.33 KB

August 31, 2020 

The Sympathetic Businessman

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

July 17, 2020

Maugham's story is worth a read for entertainment, but it also highlights an important aspect of commerce: the necessity of sympathy. 

Adam Smith and the Costs of the Division of Labor

Alex Aragona for AdamSmithWorks

July 3, 2020

One shouldn’t be satisfied with any discussion of the division of labor that leaves consideration of the costs off the table. 

The Hopeful Vision of Saint Augustine and Adam Smith

Kenly Stewart for AdamSmithWorks

June 22, 2020

Here I use Tertullian’s formula to ask a different question, “What has Glasgow to do with Hippo?”

"Saving Adam Smith" Saves My Economics Class

Leah Kilfoyle for AdamSmithWorks

June 19, 2020

Saving Adam Smith hit the bullseye for my most recent search for a book that not only covers a number of my state’s standards, but demystifies the broader understanding of Adam Smith’s economics.

Joseph Banks

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

June 15, 2020

"...Banks, perhaps instinctively, knew more about economic change than his educational and scientific background let on."

Adam Smith and Jane Austen

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

June 5, 2020

The similarities in Smith’s descriptions of moral weakness and Austen’s descriptions of people were undeniable. It was as if I could assign a different character in the book to each of Smith’s passages on moral philosophy.

The East Asian economic miracle: An iron hand, or an invisible one?

Rob York for AdamSmithWorks

May 18, 2020

A great leader isn’t necessary for great results, and an invisible hand beats an iron one any day. 

Fighting COVID-19 with Pretty Machines

Rachel Lomasky for AdamSmithWorks

May 4, 2020

Today’s machines are even prettier than the cleverly rigged piece of rope Smith admires. They are robots that help enable the prosperity of modern society. And during this time of global epidemic, their result is more than mere diversion.

The 18th Century and Social Networking

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

April 27, 2020

“...The mirth of … company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause.”

Pro-Slavery, Anti-Smith

Timothy Sandefur for AdamSmithWorks

March 16, 2020

It’s unlikely that Burke imagined, when sneering at “economists” in his Reflections, that his defense of feudal hierarchy would later serve as the foundation for a bloody rebellion aimed at perpetuating chattel slavery.

What Would Adam Smith Say About Fasting?

Nathanael Snow for AdamSmithWorks

March 9, 2020

To become willing to share bread with the hungry and to enter into solidarity with the suffering of others requires the activation of what Adam Smith calls sympathy, the ability to enter into another person’s sentiments through imagining one’s self in her place.

Adam Smith in the Car and in the Classroom

Andrew Smith for AdamSmithWorks

February 24, 2020

“Dad, what if there were no money? What if we could have everything we wanted and not have to pay for it?” 

The Future of Farmers – Adam Smith Weighs In

Paul Schwennesen for AdamSmithWorks

February 17, 2020

The ailment, clearly, is not affecting farming, but farmers, historically understood. Our issue is a social one, not a technical one.

The Imitative Arts: Some Fun with Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions

Maryann Corbett for AdamSmithWorks

January 13, 2020

In his essay on the arts, Smith says much that now looks wrong, but his questionable claims might be the most interesting things he has to say.

Adam Smith and Slavery

Matthew Lowenstein for AdamSmithWorks

December 2, 2019

...is he right on the economics? That is, are there instances when slave labor could, at least conceptually, more effectively mobilize and accumulate capital than free labor? 

Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?

Nir Ben-Moshe for AdamSmithWorks

November 11, 2019

To what extent did Smith believe we can become the impartial spectator?