How can Adam Smith change your life?

The opportunity for independent retailers in 2015 and beyond is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of local shoppers and to become the “daymakers” that communities will want to connect with.

You have two sets of competitors: other local retailers of a like mind, and the big grocery and internet companies with their advantages of scale.

Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher who, 250 years ago, wrote the book that made him to many the father of capitalism, may be able to provide the answer.

For the man whose book on how markets work lived in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag also wrote another book – and this had been vividly brought to life by US academic Russ Roberts.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life advises that if you are “Looking for Love? Look locally.” Roberts also writes: “Love locally, trade globally.”

There is lots to recommend in this book but as it is election year, I think the following extract advertises its strengths:

“Economists love pointing out that it is irrational to vote. Your vote is meaningful only if there is a tie and your vote breaks the tie. Otherwise your vote makes no difference to the outcome.

“When I point this out to non-economists, I usually receive a Kantian response – but what if everyone acted that way and chose not to vote? The reply of the typical economist? Don’t worry, no one is going to stay home just because you do: your vote simply doesn’t matter. That reply is correct. But it shouldn’t determine whether you vote or not.

“The act of voting usually fails a cost-benefit analysis based exclusively on affecting the outcome of the election. But the categorical imperative implies it is immoral not to vote, unless you think democracy can survive in a world where only a few people elect public officials. Some of my friends disagree: they argue that the current two-party [US] system is corrupt, and that voting only encourages the scoundrels to believe that people actually like the status quo. That’s a legitimate argument… My point is that the argument that it’s OK not to vote simply because your vote is irrelevant is not a moral argument, and it shouldn’t be. I want to live in a world where people understand and act as if their small actions have spillover effects on the actions of others. So did Smith.”

This is one of the central parts of Roberts’ chapter on How to Make the World a Better Place. In earlier chapters he explains Smith’s ideas on themes such as How to Know Yourself, How to be Happy, How to be Loved and How to be Good. Roberts updates Smith’s language to demonstrate how his ideas can help you today.

At its heart, Roberts’ book is important because most people know about Smith’s ideas that people are self-interested and that politicians and policymakers use these ideas to shape our work. But Smith also argued people do not become happy by pursuing money and wealth.

People know that acting always in their self-interest is wrong. Roberts takes these ideas and makes them relevant to today – and you can use these ideas to make yourself a better person and to provide local shoppers with the authentic value they are searching for.

‘How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness’ by Russ Roberts is available on Amazon


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