Feeling a little ambitious? Be careful what you wish for.

Hamlet

Ambition: not to be clowned around with

Here’s a truly sobering passage from the pages of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ambition – or at least an ambition which has run its course – is painted as a kind of living death, and echoes those famous lines from Hamlet: “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. To achieve your goals can indeed be a fearful thing. It’s no coincidence that Bob Geldof’s autobiography is called, “Is That It?“, published after what must have been a monumental comedown post Live Aid. It’s also possibly the reason why Pulp’s last album was the supremely miserable, “This is Hardcore“, recorded after Jarvis Cocker’s realisation that fighting for what you want for so long, and then getting it, simply resulted in spending lots of time in hotel rooms alone watching films you probably shouldn’t. Even George W. Bush’s surprisingly readable autobiography, “Decision Points“, ends with the sorry post-presidential scene of him picking up poodle poop from his front lawn. Caveat emptor, dude.

‘Love,’ says my Lord Rochfaucault, ‘is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love.’ That passion, when once it has got entire possession of the breast, will admit neither a rival nor a successor. To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay. Of all the discarded statesmen who for their own ease have studied to get the better of ambition, and to despise those honours which they could no longer arrive at, how few have been able to succeed? The greater part have spent their time in the most listless and insipid indolence, chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy, incapable of being interested in the occupations of private life, without enjoyment, except when they talked of their former greatness, and without satisfaction, except when they were employed in some vain project to recover it. Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

A Farewell to Arms? Don’t be too hasty.

Early Cannon

Don’t go trick or treating at this guy’s house…

In ancient times, the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times, the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. The invention of fire-arms, an invention which at first sight appears to be so pernicious, is certainly favourable, both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The Origins of Legalese?

Jarndyce vs Jarndyce

Jarndyce vs Jarndyce

It has been the custom in modern Europe to regulate, upon most occasions, the payment of the attorneys and clerks of court according to the number of pages which they had occasion to write; the court, however, requiring that each page should contain so many lines, and each line so many words. In order to increase their payment, the attorneys and clerks have contrived to multiply words beyond all necessity, to the corruption of the law language of, I believe, every court of justice in Europe.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

On the Three Duties of the State

Houses of Parliament

According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works, and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

The Ten Commandments of Economics

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Who said free markets was a religion?

Here’s a great episode from Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time series on the History of the Physiocrats, a movement which can lay good claim to be the first real school of economics. At the root of their school was their version of the Ten Commandments, called the tableau économique, an audacious attempt to describe how economic systems work on a single page. As the Marquis de Mirabeau grandly stated, “There have been since the world began three great inventions which have principally given stability to political societies, independent of many other inventions which have enriched and adorned them. The first is the invention of writing, which alone gives human nature the power of transmitting, without alteration, its laws, its contracts, its annals, and its discoveries. The second is the invention of money, which binds together all the relations between civilized societies. The third is the economical table, the result of the other two, which completes them both by perfecting their object; the great discovery of our age, but of which our posterity will reap the benefit.”

They got a good deal right (Adam Smith himself acknowledged their influence on his own thinking), such as the need to free markets and trade, but they got a whole lot wrong too (their dismissal of the what we would call “industry” as the “sterile” or “barren” class seems ridiculous today). That said, this is a fascinating account of a school of thought which deserves much more airplay. Enjoy!

Happy 290th Birthday Adam Smith!

Featured Image

I’m pretty gutted that I’m a day late wishing Adam Smith a happy birthday, but so be it. You can’t win them all.

Here’s a snippet from the ASI website. They’ve posted a couple of terrific links to Smith-related resources which I’ll be delving into over the next few weeks.

From their blog: “Had Adam Smith somehow survived until today, he would be 290 years old, having been born on 5th June 1723. The economist, now adorning the £20 note and credited with founding the modern discipline of economics (or political economy as it was known earlier) was originally renowned as a moral philosopher for his widely respected Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Read the rest.

Trade and the Zero-Sum Fallacy

Video

Economics is Fun Series – Part 4 – Trade

Another great video from the Adam Smith Institute. This week Madsen Pirie looks at trade and also dispatches the zero-sum fallacy (the “big cake” argument which says that trade must leave someone worse off). He also recommends a way to make poorer nations richer – “buy their stuff”! Watch and learn.

Want more? Watch the previous episode on specialisation.