On this episode of the Authors Corner, Ethan Yang sits down with AIER Visiting Scholar Dr. Caroline Breashears to talk about her extensive research into the ideas of the great economist, Adam Smith. A particular topic discussed in the interview is an article she wrote comparing the themes found in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series with the ideas found in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a foundational text in political economy. Caroline is particularly known for her ability to combine her economic prowess with her formal training as a professor of English, which she currently teaches at St. Lawrence University. Her ability to comprehend and leverage themes in literature while tying them to core economic concepts is a unique skill in this profession. This is particularly helpful when discussing works such as Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which can be difficult to approach given its dated language and abstract ideas.
To begin the interview, Caroline first introduces Adam Smith the man, who is widely considered to be the father of modern economics. He was a Scotsman who wrote and lived during the 18th century, and whose thoughts were key to the Scottish Enlightenment. His writings would form the foundation for the way we approach economic thinking today, detailing the importance of self-interest and the existence of a natural order independent from the design of the government. His work made tremendous contributions to society’s understanding of the primacy of the individual.
Two of his most famous works are of course The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The former being a massive book explaining the function of what we would call modern capitalism and economics. The latter details how individuals act in the social sense beyond market transactions and how people also self-regulate their behavior based on the expectations of others. Combined, these two books form the backbone of Western understanding of economic and social behavior. They also provide a powerful explanation of why society is able to function without the presence of a central dictate.
The Wealth of Nations is quite well understood given its practical applications to many areas of importance. The Theory of Moral Sentiments on the other hand is more abstract, although its ideas are certainly critical to our understanding of human behavior. It seeks to explain why people act in moral and productive ways, even in the absence of economic incentives. Many skeptics of capitalism and economics in the mainstream sense would point to the fact that market functions can’t explain all social behavior as a critical shortcoming for liberal thought. However, The Theory of Moral Sentiments fills this gap, explaining the incentives and rational decision-making that go into human behavior in the absence of economic benefit.
Dr. Breashears explains that although J.K. Rowling likely did not intend to make the Harry Potter series an illustration of Adam Smith’s ideas, she accomplishes that nicely. Some important concepts from Smith’s work include the idea of an imagined impartial spectator, as well as the power of judgment, and sympathy. Such forces explain how people rationalize their behavior in a social setting and provide the incentives to act in ways that may not be able to be rationalized from an economic standpoint. For example, Harry finds himself having internal debates and rationalizations that play a key role in his behavior in the book series, such as how his decisions as a Quidditch captain will be perceived. His internal appeal to an impartial spectator allows him to rationalize his circumstances to himself, which then allows him to navigate the judgment of his peers. Of course, Rowling does not use such explicit language in her book, but by including such themes she unknowingly showcases one of Adam Smith’s core ideas regarding human behavior.
By better understanding the ideas in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, much like any area of political-economic thought, we can better understand the world around us. We can see how people are rational and free-thinking actors that respond to incentives. Sometimes they are economic, and sometimes they can be social. By exploring the intersection of literature and economic thought, we can see an unintentional but powerful affirmation of core theories. That is because when authors construct themes and plot lines they do so based on their understanding of normal human behavior, which by extension, provides credence to the technical observations of economic thinkers.