It is easy to forget that Wight’s Saving Adam Smith is meant for teaching and learning. The objective of lessons in the roots of the economic and moral theories of Adam Smith. It has the kind of title that you might find on a blockbuster movie. Even though it does not present itself as a textbook would have, it is a surprise. It is unexpected that the book contains lessons which are incorporated into a complex and dramatic story about a guy trying to finish his dissertation, and find his place in the world. This is an unusual approach to a dry topic, and it is easy to imagine that the project could have failed. Wight is, however both a great teacher and a pretty good storyteller. In Saving Adam Smith Wight is able to offer more than a strong scholarly argument by offering an emotional appeal through the format of an engaging story.
It is easy to forget that Wight’s Saving Adam Smith is meant for teaching and learning. The objective of lessons in the roots of the economic and moral theories of Adam Smith. It has the kind of title that you might find on a blockbuster movie. Even though it does not present itself as a textbook would have, it is a surprise. It is unexpected that the book contains lessons which are incorporated into a complex and dramatic story about a guy trying to finish his dissertation, and find his place in the world. This is an unusual approach to a dry topic, and it is easy to imagine that the project could have failed. Wight is, however both a great teacher and a pretty good storyteller.
Richard Burns is the hero of the story. He is under pressure to produce and perform, and if he hopes to be successful he needs to complete his economics thesis for his doctoral study which will ultimately support an aluminum company which plans to take a leadership position in the Chinese market. Adam Smith is being channeled by an old, retired, immigrant mechanic who provides the hero of this story with a lot to think about. First of all, Smith feels tortured by how he is referred to in the modern world, and by what people remember of what he contributed to economic principles. Smith is devastated that the selfish and greedy actions of companies today is justified by the dogma of free market forces which create superior public good through consumer goods. Anyone can look in any supermarket today to see that many of the goods which the free market based on profitability alone have produced, and many of them not only hold little value for the consumer, but can actually harm them by facilitating diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. The free market that Adam Smith referred to in his works was one which created value for the consumer, and this is the idea that is lost in the discussions of Smith and his ideas today. It would be a different world if the morals of the community were present in the boardroom and reflected in the offering of goods on the market.
Adam Smith speaks to Burns and the reader through the Romanian mechanic, despite being dead since 1790. As a result of the chance encounter between Burns and the ghost of Adam Smith, Burns needs to rethink his life and what success would ultimately mean. The point of his dissertation is to support a company to pursue greed in the markets, and the point of his dissertation does not have any moral basis beyond a determination of profits to be made. There is a love story lost in there as well, but it is somewhat forgettable. What Smith was trying to tell the world, and how he has been misunderstood by most, becomes the center of an entertaining story, and rather than a dry dissertation on why we should read Adam Smith’s original work we are treated to the ghost of Adam Smith speaking through a modern-day character and providing commentary of how he has been understood, misunderstood and how he feels about many economic issues and patterns today. Further, the story itself allows the reader to interpret the conjunction of Smith’s moral and economic ideas in a memorable and easy to understand approach.
One of the aspects of the modern interpretation of Adam Smith which causes Smith to worry in Wight’s book is the idea that the market forces are more important than human forces, and selfishness and self-interest can be interpreted as economic tools. In fact, it was clearly stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that people are the core of self-interest because we as humans care about one another and find joy in supporting one another (Smith, 2009). This is reflected in Wight’s novel when he (as the Adam Smith being channeled through a retired mechanic) states, “A market can’t exist in isolation from people.” (Wight, 2001, 43).
There are three moral virtues in Smith’s view, prudence, strict justice and appropriate benevolence. These virtues belong in the marketplace just as much as they belong in the community, since the people involved are one and the same. Self-interested pursuit of profit at any cost does not produce wealth that has value, because it is missing the moral value of respecting others. In a competitive market, greater value is offered to the consumer, not greater potential for profit to potential investors. The invisible hand only works to direct market forces of progress when the three moral values are instilled in the market.
Whetstone (2003) provided a review of Wight’s book which noted the fit between the format and the target audience, which are typically young adults who are new to economic theory. Wight’s book is a much more attractive way to market Smith’s ideas, as well as the idea that Smith has been misinterpreted repeatedly. It also provides a return to the balance between Smith’s economic ideas, and his ideas about moral economy. Whetstone found it important that Adam Smith be understood by going back to the economist’s words and practical application, and Wight’s book provides a rather creative way of doing this. Specifically, Whetstone found that Smith was often misrepresented as having no ethical or moral insights or aspects, ultimately reduced to the invisible hand of market forces. Clearly Wight thought so too.
According to an article in the New York Times, Wight’s book is part of a movement to present scholarly ideas in a new format for today’s generation of students (Cohennov, 2002). In fact, this is a return to the past rather than a new innovation. In the early 19th century economics lessons were often presented as stories (Cohennov, 2002). It makes a lot of sense, when you consider that the Father of Economics, Adam Smith, presented a strong argument in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that economics, and free market forces, were about people and their lives. These older lessons kept the moral aspect of economies and economics intact. Said another author of a novel based on economics, “I’m trying to bring the poetry and the soul to economics, and you can’t do that with a graph and a chart” (Cohennov, 2002, np). Said another professor who authored such a novel “They really are a relatively painless way to learn economics” (Cohennov, 2002, np).
In Saving Adam Smith Wight is able to offer more than a strong scholarly argument by offering an emotional appeal through the format of an engaging story. The story and the characters are able to support the main proposal which is being made, which is that today’s economy and markets are a mess because profit and self-interest are being pursued to no value for the consumer or end beyond profitability. In the end, by using the people, as Smith proposes, Wight is able to make the reader sympathetic to Adam Smith and his aims. By arousing sympathy, a more engaged audience becomes curious and interested in the original works in a way that could never be motivated by a lecture or presentation on the history of economics or the summaries of Smith’s works.
- Smith, A. (2006). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1790. Sao Paolo: MetaLibri.
- Whetstone, J. T. (2003). A Review of Wight, Jonathan B.: 2002. Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Transformation, and Virtue. Electronic Journal of Business 12(2). Business and Organization Ethics Network
- Wight, J. (2001). Saving Adam Smith: A tale of wealth, transformation, and virtue. Pearson Education.
- Cohennov, P. (2002). Teachers Wrap Lessons In Fiction. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/16/books/teachers-wrap-lessons-in-fiction.html