Saving Adam Sm ith 

Jonathan B. Wright  

 

Professor Wright brings Adam Smith back, "channeled" through a Virginia mechanic.  And Smith sets about teaching a college economics professor some key points to his thought that modern economics has overlooked -- primarily the importance of justice (the rules of fair play) in society as a pre-requisite to the power of the market operating for the greatest good.  He also makes observations on personal happiness and peace of mind.  There's also a love story, a bad guy with a gun (and an unfinished PhD in economics!), a domineering academic and a multinational corporation seeking an advantage.  It's not the greatest novel I've ever read, but it surely was an interesting way to bring out the relevance of Smith's thought to the 21st century.

Dr. Wright explains that the quotes for Smith in the book are primarily from his published works, and provides citations at the end of the book.  He also has a list of key economics concepts covered in the book, suggestions for further reading by topic, and suggestions for teachers using the book in class.

In one section, Smith and the economics profession meet a silicon valley entrepreneur (and surfer), Peter Chen, and see a key action in his company as he "fires" his major customer for repeated verbal abuse of his employees. Here are some of Chen's comments about allowing employees to achieve to their highest:

p. 207  “What is it that motivates people to work willingly with all their energy, and with sacrifice on occasion? … The secret is this:  people work harder when they appreciate themselves for what they have done.  When the goal of the enterprise is worthy of their highest aspirations.”  

p. 218, again Peter Chen, after talking about the energy released in an organization that does the right things:   

“'Yeah.  We’ve had to let people go who needed fear as a motivator,’ Peter said. ‘They’re so wounded they can’t think for themselves, they wanted someone to tell them what to do every moment, and someone to watch them to see it gets done.  No question our model won’t work for everyone.’”  

Since part of the purpose of this book is to highlight Smith's sayings, here are some that stood out to me:

 p. 107  “’Tis well known that the misfortunes of the greater part of men have arisen from simply not knowing when they were well.  When it was proper for them to sit still and be contented.”  

“Superior prudence … is the best head joined to the best heart"

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)  

“Prudence, benevolence, and justice are the character of virtue.  The truly developed person exudes these qualitites, the latter two of which connect him to others in a genuine way.”  Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.  

“Prudence, when it is directed to the care of one’s own fortune or reputation is never considered an endearing or ennobling virtue.  Such narrow prudence can perhaps make you rich, but it is not in being rich that truth and justice would rejoice.  No, I say, there is a superior prudence, one which involves wise and judicious conduct directed to greater and nobler purposes than to the needs of ourselves.  Superior prudence is the former narrow prudence combined with greater and more splendid virtues:  with valor, with extensive benevolence, with a sacred regard for rules of justice, and with a proper degree of self-command.  It requires the utmost perfection of intellectual and moral virtues.  I say to you, superior prudence is the best head joined to the best heart!

p. 219, quoting Voltaire, “All is not lost, when one puts the people in a condition to see it has intelligence.  On the contrary, all is lost when you treat it like a herd of cattle, for sooner or later it will gore you with its horns.”  

Note written:  August, 2003