July 7, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

My good friend Russ Roberts wrote a terrific book a few years back, which he called How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. It’s a terrific introduction to Smith if you are looking for an overview and some context for the great man’s contributions. (Dan Klein recently did a nice job of honoring Smith’s 300th birthday, here at AIER).

Another friend, Drew Millard, recently published a terrific and quite funny book, How Golf Can Save Your Life. It’s a good summer beach read, if you are looking for one (that is where I read it, I’ll admit!) When I read the golf book, however, I was fascinated to recognize that Millard had independently reproduced, in near-perfect detail, two of Adam Smith’s most fundamental insights, in ways that were articulated by Russ Roberts, and of course by Smith himself.  This is why, at the risk of straining the reader’s patience, I want to argue that Adam Smith can save your golf game.

Two Fundamental Insights

Smith, like water, resists being compressed. The argument is lengthy, because it is detailed and carefully formulated. But one might plausibly claim that Smith’s two great works—the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations—are organized around two deep insights, which are then developed in detail.

1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments considers the social and cultural advantages of a system of propriety, founded on the cultivation of self-governance in accordance with an “impartial spectator” vision of human motivation. For the most part, society works (when it does work) because of the desire of people to become deserving of the praise, reward, and admiration of others. One does the right thing, under this spectatorial construct, because doing things right is a reward in itself, even if no one else would actually notice. The impartial spectator, which is our “man in the breast” looking at our actions from the perspective of someone who does not share our sense of self-importance and deservingness of reward, is the immanent scorekeeper. As Smith puts it:

The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to the first standard; the idea of exact propriety and perfection. There exists in the mind of every man, an idea of this kind, gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct.

2. The Wealth of Nations considers the underpinnings and implications of the human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange,” which elaborates—without any explicit intention, or even recognition, by most market participants—a system of “division of labor.” Division of labor is the source of all wealth increases, because it is the only way that cooperation can create can expand the total “stock” of goods and services, which Smith is right to note are the real definition of wealth. Again, quoting Smith:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.  

The reason division of labor is so important is that creates increasing returns to work: If I specialize in one thing, and you specialize in something else, and we exchange by using the things we create to obtain the things we need, we are both much better off.  This improvement in wealth and happiness is limited only by the “extent of the market,” arguing for increasing the size of the cooperation horizon and reducing barriers that prevent us from inventing new ways to serve one another better.

Adam Smith Saves Golf

Those are some big themes (though it is surprising how few people actually understand that those are Smith’s contributions). I was struck how it is possible to trace out the implications of applying these themes in almost every social context. Not least, as Drew Millard demonstrates, in golf.

The first point, about self-government and observance of the rules, may be more clearly and overtly true about golf than any other game. There are judges, referees, and umpires in golf, at least in professional tournaments, but they are in the background, offering rulings only if called on. For the most part, each player keeps his own score. Millard’s description would likely have garnered an approving nod from the elder Scotsman himself:

Golf is a great way to learn to do things for yourself. Even when you’re playing with other people, you’re playing only against yourself, keeping your own score and holding yourself accountable to a set of rules that it is your own responsibility to internalize. If you break those rules, no one else is going to penalize or punish you. Perhaps they will judge you silently, but never as harshly as they are judging you on the golf course of your imagination.

That is as accurate, and concise, a summary of Smith’s “impartial spectator” as I’ve ever heard. In Smith’s words:

Man has, in this manner, been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.

The second point, about division of labor, is just as striking. Millard speculates that somewhere in Scotland, around 1460, a farmer and some friends played with some sticks in a field, whacking some roundish rocks around. They were farmers because that was all there was to be, and then all the farmers could do was raise crops to pay their landlords. Not great. Oh, and they were all wearing kilts, because nobody knew how to make pants.

Well, except for one guy, Johnne, a tailor, who has made himself some pants. You show your friends (Johnne, and also Dawy, who is good at making golf balls) the new piece of wood you carved. You call it a “niblick,” a lighter club to use for short shots.

All of you, being Scots, are manly and self-sufficient. But pretty quickly, and without really planning it, Johnne starts practicing only making pants, Dawy only makes golf balls, and you only make niblicks. Because you are focusing only on niblicks, a thought occurs to you: All the niblicks break off, because they get stuck in the tall grass. (True Scotsmen don’t have fairways, it seems; the course is all rough.) As Millard puts it:

While carving your new niblick, you hit upon a revelation: if the point of this club is to cut through the grass, why not model it after your scythe? You took care to give it as sharp a bottom edge as possible, angling its face upward so that when you sweep the ground, you launch the ball in the air, turf be damned. You have no way of knowing this, but you’ve just invented a really primitive version of the modern golf club

You offer to carve a replica of your niblick for Johnne if he stitches a pair of trousers together for you. He accepts you go home as friends, and you’ve accidentally become the first professional golf club manufacturer.

Exactly: “no way of knowing this,” but division of labor saved the game of golf! And everything else, too. In Smith’s words:

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. 

It is perhaps no surprise that one of the greatest thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment has thoughts that can be aptly applied directly to the great Scottish game. 

Michael Munger

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is a Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research.

His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.

Munger’s research interests include regulation, political institutions, and political economy.

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