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Op-Ed

Adam Smith preached self-interest—and self-help, too

“Behave as if an impartial spectator is watching you. Use the idea of an impartial spectator to step outside yourself and see yourself as others see you. Use that vision to know yourself. Avoid the seductions of money and fame, for they will never satisfy.”

It sounds like something from a theologian or self-help guru. But those words were penned by Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations,” the late-18th-century work considered the first real book on economics.

The quotation is from “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” a less well-known book that Smith wrote earlier in his career but that is, arguably, equally important.

The insights in “Moral Sentiments” have been revived in a remarkable book published late last year, “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life,” by economist Russ Roberts

Like many people, I thought Smith was the original champion of why acting in one’s self-interest was good for society–ostensibly because it allowed each person or firm to specialize in what he or it did best and then trade for whatever else was required. But the self-interest that Smith made famous can be a powerful force for good in one’s personal life.

According to Smith, many of us do good things because we want others to approve and admire us. Mr. Roberts explores implications of this and other Smith insights.

Mr. Roberts’s witty, candid take on Smith is filled with his own wisdom. Gurus, theologians and economists alike might learn a thing or two from him and the first modern economist.

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