On First Looking into The Wealth Of Nations
May 20, 2019
But Wealth of Nations? I’d heard of it, of course. It was that big famous book that began modern economics in the 18th century. Since, at the time, I was a graduate student specializing in poetry from earlier periods, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to tell me much that I would find useful.
Worse than that, I knew what this book would be like. It would be interested only in governments and companies and their interactions with each other. There would be tedious discussions of trade policy and manufacturing. It would have impenetrable columns of numbers. It would be, in a word, boring.
I was, in a word, wrong.
“One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head…it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper.”
"But the Appendix on the price of herring is still pretty boring."
Amen to that! And, mercifully, Don Boudreaux has us skip that section in the class on WN he teaches at GMU :-)
I have to say, my experience with Smith was similar. I came to him much later, my first encounter being in late undergrad when I had already been studying economics for several years. But the way he told stories, not just charts and theories of relentlessly maximizing automatons, spoke to me. As someone who was never good at math, I loved the intuition he built.
Fast forward a decade, and on a whim, I took Dan Klein's graduate class on Theory of Moral Sentiments. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. TMS was a key to unlocking the full potential of Wealth of Nations and to better understand economics in general. There was no need to assume away concerns of justice or the other virtues. Smith embraced them, and WN has a very jurisprudence and virtuous foundation to it. Concepts such as utility curves and demand curves became more dynamic (but inherently less precise). Economics became about people. Smith never forgot that. But somewhere along the lines, the profession did.
I think both a careful reading of TMS and WN go a long way to making one a better economist and a better social citizen.
I have a sneaking suspicion that economists like TMS best, and non economists like WON. "Dissimilar geniuses" and all.
“I was in, all of the way, with Smith.” This line and the following paragraph perfectly describe how I felt when I read The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
I was lead to Smith initially because I was watching a lecture, and the professor in question quoted: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” And when I heard that quote, there was just something about it that felt so unbelievably true. I remember I had to pause the lecture and just sit and think for awhile. I felt compelled to know more, hence why I picked up The Theory of Moral Sentiments shortly thereafter. It certainly did not disappoint, and years later is one of my favourite works.
What I think all three of our stories share in common, is a sense that what Smith has written is relatable to us. We could see it in our own lives. I think that really speaks to how accessible these texts can be, even to those who least expect it. There’s something beautiful about that.
I suppose a question that might arise out of this is: when is the best time for someone to discover Smith, and what is the best way for them to discover him?
For example, could it be in high school through reading select passages from the books, or maybe even earlier in elementary school when discussing the idea of empathy?
Elementary might be a little early for Smith, but high school probably wouldn't be a bad idea. At least insofar as my experience goes, not much philosophy is taught in high school, and Smith is a fairly easy introduction
I think you make a fair point, but why is elementary school too early?
A lot of moral lessons are taught to children at a rather young age. So wouldn't certain (definitely not all, but certain) aspects of The Theory of Moral Sentiments fit in? For example, the ideas of how we care about one another, how we feel happy when others are happy and sad when others are sad and envious when others have much more than us.
Perhaps an illustrated series on The Theory of Moral Sentiments for kids is just what this world needs to foster interest at a young age, and encourage self-reflection very early on. There's some discussion now on the importance of mindfulness for young kids, and Smith leads us in that direction too!
So there's the question of whether elementary school kids are ready for Adam Smith's ideas, which is separate from whether they are ready for his 18th century prose style. I think they're ready for the ideas, but not (necessarily) for the language.
I think I agree entirely with that!
Based on the above assesment, when looking at his writing, perhaps high school would be a good place to start. Either a Philosophy class, or maybe even in an English class, since the language of the work is part of the difficultly.
Sarah, did you find that the skills you learned from studying poetry helped you to better tackle the language and style of the Wealth of Nations when you first read it?
I think studying poetry always helps when tackling unfamiliar language from unfamiliar periods. But what was most useful for me (and I'm a weirdo, I know) is that I'd been reading so much material from the 12-17th centuries that 18th century prose sounded delightfully crisp and modern by comparison. I wouldn't recommend that as a teaching tactic, though. Instead, I'd be inclined to give students a short passage of Smith in the original wording--something like the passage about the Chinese earthquake, the pin factory, or the poor man's son, that excerpts nicely--and have the class work together to translate it into modern English. I think you could do that in economics, philosophy, or English classes--different subjects would just emphasize different aspects of the material.