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.
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.
A great Ted Talk here by Steven Pinker on the ongoing decline in violence. Not only does he present the hard data to show that the decline of violence is a fact, but he also gives several plausible explanations as to why the decline is happening.
Two points in particular that stand out for me. First, as technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, we are clearly putting a higher value on life in general. Second, Peter Singer’s thesis that our “circle of empathy” has evolved well beyond encompassing only family and friends (in part because technology is making it ever easier to “trade places” with other people’s feelings and emotions). Powerful stuff and well worth your time. Hat tip to Oliver Sycamore for this one.
Perhaps no economist will ever again so utterly encompass his age as Adam Smith. Certainly none was ever so serene, so devoid of contumacy, so penetratingly critical without rancour, and so optimistic without being utopian. To be sure, he shared the beliefs of his day; in fact, he helped to forge them. It was an age of humanism and reason; but while both could be perverted for the cruellest and most violent purposes, Smith was never chauvinist, apologist, or compromiser. “For what purpose”, he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence?” The Wealth of Nations provides his answer: all that grubby scrabbling for wealth and glory has its ultimate justification in the welfare of the common man.
Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers
For those of you interested in reading a little more about Heilbroner, I can suggest the following article on Reason. But the best thing to do is read his supremely influential book The Worldly Philosophers – it’s a truly brilliant historical overview of the subject and doesn’t once reference one of those tedious graphs mapping demand and supply. Highly recommend.
Fun stuff this. However don’t be tempted down the rabbit hole of becoming a libertarian as a result – society and the well-being of your fellow man is too important to get hung up too much on yourself. We have duties as well as rights. But as it stands, it’s a good introduction to the idea of self-ownership and property rights. Enjoy!