The best Adam Smith books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Adam Smith and why they recommend each book.

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How the West Grew Rich

By Nathan Rosenberg, L.E. Birdzell, Jr.,

Book cover of How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World

In the late eighteenth century, Adam Smith famously asked: Why are some nations rich and others poor? You probably aren’t going to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations to find out the answer. And thanks to Rosenberg and Birdzell’s readable book, you don’t have to. While more recent books offer complementary accounts of wealth and poverty, How the West Grew Rich remains the best.

Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”

I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

The Wealth of Nations

By Adam Smith,

Book cover of The Wealth of Nations

This is a big, yet easy-to-read, theoretical discourse on market economy that is meant to be a popular read. Reading or even possessing a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was forbidden before 1990. I studied in a Soviet Union university in the 1980s and was taught how to criticize Adam Smith’s positions using Lenin’s and Marx’s arguments. However, I, like all other students, was not permitted to read the actual book. When I finally held The Wealth of Nations in my hands in 1999, I “devoured” the book in one night. Either, it was that fast a read or I was that hungry for the original story following years of communist misinformation and censorship. 

Who am I?

I'm a Mongolian woman deeply interested and engaged in politics, human rights and history. Until I reached 25, my country was a communist state and I wasn't allowed to learn many things including foreign language other than Russian. Life, school, and books surrounding me had not only legal but also very strong ideological restrictions dictated by communism. As the most attractive melodies were ‘banned music’ and most beautiful love songs were ‘banned songs’, I grew up hungry to learn the true stories hidden behind all the bans. Later, I decided to write historic fiction on the important stories that were not taught to us in schools but necessary for Mongolians and the world to understand. 

I wrote...

The Green Eyed Lama

By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Jeffrey Lester Falt,

Book cover of The Green Eyed Lama

What is my book about?

Based on a true story, The Green-Eyed Lama, will transport you to the rugged but beautiful northern border of Mongolia. It opens with a love story between a handsome Buddhist lama (priest) and a beautiful nomadic herder woman. Far from an ideal match according to their social roles, the pair struggle for acceptance in the remote traditional herder community in which they live. The timing of their love affair could not be worse. It is 1938 - the year Joseph Stalin commands Mongolia’s communist government to crush Buddhism nationwide.

Stories like The Green-Eyed Lama were totally banned by the communist leadership until Mongolia’s 1990 democratic revolution. And even today the history depicted in the book is not fully taught at schools.

Bitter Money

By Parker Shipton,

Book cover of Bitter Money

It isn’t just African politics that is different. Economics is too. If modern economics had been invented by an African, instead of Adam Smith, it would look very different. Wealth would be measured in people rather than material objects, property, and capital. There would be much less emphasis on markets. Some things, should never be sold, and if they were it would create “bitter money” and bad luck. This book is a great place to start to re-think your ideas about economics.

Who am I?

I am a social scientist who has been doing fieldwork and research in Africa since 1999. For me, there’s no more fascinating part of the planet – Africa is the cradle of civilization, more diverse than anywhere else and culturally and institutionally vibrant and creative. I have worked in Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe investigating the determinants of political institutions and economic prosperity. I have taught courses on Africa at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Ghana at Legon and this summer the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

I wrote...

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson,

Book cover of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

What is my book about?

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.

In Search of Wealth and Power

By Benjamin I. Schwartz,

Book cover of In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West

This book was recommended to me in graduate school and was a natural fit for the kind of comparative research I was then busy with concerning the global dispersion of national ideas among cultural elites in the nineteenth century. That story is contextualized here through an examination of the life and thought of Yen Fu (1854-1921). Shwartz's work was immediately praised as a model for such a study and continues to appear frequently in bibliographies and course reading lists.

Who am I?

I was a pretty poor student in high school and college but did reasonably well in my history classes. Much of the credit goes to a few inspired teachers who, at least in memory, made me feel that I was a witness at every turn to some grand Gibbonesque moment of truth. Perhaps they aroused in my mind the wonderful prospect of a life spent roaming unfettered in the realm of ideas. In reality, much else comes with the territory but it is nevertheless true that we academic historians get to use up a fair number of unpoliced hours doing just that. Mine have largely been expended on problems of collective identity and the formation of national movements.

I wrote...

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

By Dean Kostantaras,

Book cover of Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

What is my book about?

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848 addresses enduring problems concerning the emergence of the first national movements in Europe and their role in the crises associated with the Age of Revolution. Considerable detail is supplied to the picture of Enlightenment era pursuits in which the nation appeared as both an object of theoretical interest and site of practice. The work thus offers an advance in narrative coherence by portraying how developments in the sphere of ideas influenced the terms of political debate in the years preceding the upheavals of 1789-1815. Subsequent chapters explore the composite nature of later revolutions and the relative capacity of the three chief sources of unrest – constitutional, national, and social – to inspire extra-legal challenges to the Restoration status quo.

The Money Game

By Adam Smith,

Book cover of The Money Game

No one wrote about money better than Jerry Goodman (under the pseudonym Adam Smith), whom you know from PBS’s long-running weekly Adam Smith’s Money World. When I read The Money Game, the crazy Go-Go years of the late 1960s were just ending. Now, with Jerry having gone on to that great Securities Repository in the Sky, his book would be a fun way for you to absorb that whole era in just a few hours.

Who am I?

My dad gave me $5 when I turned five, $6 when I turned six... and, well, the rest is history. (Of the most minor sort.) I was treasurer of my high school class each year; treasurer of the Democratic Party for 18; and lucked into launching the first widely used personal finance software at more or less the dawn of personal computers. Money. What can I tell you? I like the stuff.

I wrote...

The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need

By Andrew Tobias,

Book cover of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need

What is my book about?

“Lives up to its brash title.”Los Angeles Times 

“This is the only investment book I have read that truly made sense.”  — Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

The Scottish Enlightenment

By Alexander Broadie,

Book cover of The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation

I think understanding the intellectual background to a historical period is always important, and I was introduced to the Scottish Enlightenment at West Virginia Wesleyan College through this book. I have since had the pleasure to meet and work with Alexander Broadie while at Glasgow, and he is a kind, generous, and supportive scholar.

The Scottish Enlightenment covers the significant breakthroughs in the thought of the movement, and the contributions of the characters behind it such as David Hume and Adam Smith. The importance of studying history, morality in civil society, religion, and art. The Enlightenment laid the groundwork for our modern society, so how could anyone not study it?

Who am I?

I dropped out of law school to pursue a PhD in music at the University of Glasgow and to write the history of the flute in Scotland. Essentially, I wanted to know that if Scotland was a leader in Enlightenment thought, and if there were hundreds of publications with flute on the title page, and since the flute was the most popular amateur instrument in the eighteenth century, why was nothing written about the flute. I obsessively read Scottish mythology as a child, and was always drawn to the stereotypical wild misty landscapes of Scotland without knowing much about it. 

I wrote...

The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

By Elizabeth Ford,

Book cover of The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

What is my book about?

This is the first (and only) book devoted to the flute in Scottish music history. It explores the rich history of the flute in Scottish musical life through people who played it, made it, and offers in depth analysis of surviving flute manuscripts.

This might sound dry, but it has pictures, and has been called “required reading” and “groundbreaking.” I suspect this is because the common misconception is that no one in Scotland played flute, that flute in traditional music is an Irish thing. I debunk that, along with the other myth about ladies not playing flute. The flute’s use in Scottish music gets moved much earlier than previously thought along the way. 

The Darwin Economy

By Robert H. Frank,

Book cover of The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good

Frank explains why Darwin is a better guide than Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to the problems the economy raises for almost everyone. The most important market and the only market where almost everyone is a seller instead of a buyer is the labor market. Yet it is the one that Adam Smith got almost completely wrong and Charles Darwin got almost completely right. Frank shows us how the Darwinian process of the labor market makes employers rich at the expense of workers, and how they stitched their advantage into the “Right to Work” (at lower wages) laws.

Who am I?

Even before I became a philosopher I was wondering about everything—life the universe and whatever else Douglas Adams thought was important when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. As a philosopher, I’ve been able to spend my life scratching the itch of these questions. When I finally figured them out I wrote The Atheist’s Guide to Reality as an introduction to what science tells us besides that there is no god. In How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories I apply much of that to getting to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us, me included, to really absorb the nature of reality. 

I wrote...

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

By Alex Rosenberg,

Book cover of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

What is my book about?

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right? Wrong. Narrative history is always, always wrong, not just incomplete or inaccurate but deeply wrong. Our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long Darwinian pedigree and a genetic basis. Our love of stories is hard-wired. Human evolution improved primate “mind-reading”—the ability to anticipate and explain the behavior of others, whether predators, prey, or cooperators—to get us to the top of the African food chain. It was a useful enough tool in its time, but neuroscience reveals that human culture shaped hard-wired mind-reading from a tool useful for survival into a defective theory of human nature. As science has revealed, we'll only understand history if we don't make it into a story with a plot.

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