Russ Roberts

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and The Infidel and the Professor

EconTalk Episode with Dennis Rasmussen
Hosted by Russ Roberts
The Dance... The Infidel or the Professor?...

Infidel%20and%20Professor.jpg How did the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith influence their ideas? Why do their ideas still matter today? Political Scientist Dennis Rasmussen of Tufts University and author of The Infidel and the Professor talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book--the intellectual and personal connections between two of the greatest thinkers of all time, David Hume and Adam Smith.

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Podcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: October 27, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Dennis Rasmussen's latest book, which is our subject for today's conversation, is The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought.... Your book is about Adam Smith, David Hume, their friendship; and, it's also about their place of origin and where they spent most of their time, most of their lives--18th century Scotland. You write, "How did a nation that began the 18th century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe manage to become such an intellectual powerhouse by the middle of the century?" Give us a quick answer to that question, because it's an extraordinary thing.

Dennis Rasmussen: Sure. It is. The Scottish Enlightenment, as we now call it, is really one of the intellectual golden ages in the history of thought. So, when Hume and Smith were growing up, Scotland in the early 18th century is synonymous with poverty and barbarism, and a sort of dour, oppressive form of Presbyterianism. But during their lifetime, there's a vibrant new age of economic prosperity, cultural achievement that everybody notices--people in Scotland, people elsewhere--notices how much the country is changed. To the point where there's now even a recent, fairly best-selling--I think it was a best-selling book--called How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Which I think is maybe an overstatement, but it's amazing the number of great thinkers and ideas that came out of this period. So, how did this happen? As always with a big cultural, social change like this, I'm sure there are lots of factors involved. I'll just go through a few of them. So, one was the innovative system of parish schools that had made Scotland the most literate society in Europe, maybe in the world, by that time. The educational system also extended to the universities--Glasgow and Aberdeen, to some degree St. Andrews, grew to be some of the very best universities within Europe; lots of reforms within the universities enabled that. There are lots of clubs and debating societies, many of which Hume and Smith were members of. Really a thriving publishing industry. Two of the biggest changes, I think, had to do in the Church and in politics. So, in the Church, there is still lots of conflict within the Church--the Church of Scotland, the Kirk--over the course of the 18th century. But as the century wore on, there's a number of moderate ministers--many of whom were good friends with Hume and Smith--came to take control of the Kirk and made it much more kind of tolerant, much more attuned to the advances in the polite, enlightened world that Hume and Smith were helping to bring into being. Also, the political climate--I think we can't ignore the Union of 1707 that created Great Britain. So, the Union, which is being reconsidered by the Scots recently, led to great--it took a little while; it took a couple of decades--but it led to a great, an economic boom; it gave Scots greater personal freedoms and opportunities. Hume and Smith in particular embraced it with open arms. And so, there are lots of these changes that are going on that made something like this possible.

Russ Roberts: Who were some of the other figures in Hume's and Smith's circle? Many of them you write about them in the book. Many of them are obscure to us today. People like Joseph Black; or Adam Ferguson, which some of our listeners may have heard of because I like to quote one of his lines now and then about things being the product of human action but not human design. Who were some of the other folks in their fields?

Dennis Rasmussen: Sure. So, a number of them would be better known in philosophy circles than maybe in economic circles. Thomas Reid is a famous common-sense philosopher, as he's often known today. William Robertson was a great historian. There are a number of other philosophers: Francis Hutcheson [1694-1746] , who was Smith's teacher. A guy named Henry Home [1696-1782], who became Lord Kames. Hugh Blair [1718-1800]. So, a number of these are moderate ministers within the Kirk. There are also a number of figures outside of what we would think of kind of the philosophy/history. James Hutton was the founder of modern geology, many would say. James Watts, who was of course famous with the steam engine. So, there are number of figures. Hume and Smith are of course the leading lights.

Russ Roberts: Of course, some of it's just random, that these people--they weren't average people who were simply in a great environment. They were extraordinary people who were in a great environment. And that combination created the explosion of creativity and contributions that we're talking about. You can think about other times in human history and other places. I guess you need both. But it's clear that this happened there. It's pretty amazing.

Dennis Rasmussen: Mmm-hmm.


Russ Roberts: Most of our listeners, including myself, know a lot more about Smith than we know about Hume. And I'm ashamed to say that I've read very little of Hume. Even though I took a lot of, a reasonable amount of philosophy in college. Maybe 4-5, maybe 6 courses in philosophy. And, yet, I don't remember--I'm sure I read some Hume. But I don't remember. I have a book of Hume's, that I think comes from that time. But I couldn't have told you much about him. Why is Hume important in the history of ideas, history of thought? And, what's his relevance for us today?

Dennis Rasmussen: So, Hume is, I think, widely seen as quite simply the greatest philosopher ever to write in English. Maybe second to Thomas Hobbes, depending on who you ask. He is widely known as both an empiricist and a skeptic. So, he is standardly seen by philosophers as the third in the trio of great British empiricists--Locke, Berkeley, Hume--so this is John Locke, George Berkeley, and then Hume. He's also widely seen as part of the skeptical tradition that starts in the ancient world, goes through moderns like Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Bayle. So, he kind of straddles the empiricist/skeptical line. He's one of the great, greatest, I think, philosophical critics of religion, and yet also one of the greatest philosophical critics of reason, at the same time. So, he's quite a provocative philosopher on a number of different fronts. Philosophers still read his first book, the Treatise of Human Nature, and take this to be his masterpiece. And it's kind of a book on which beginning philosophy students kind of cut of their teeth and deal with all of--human, really complex arguments in that book about causation and personal identity and a whole number of things. But he was also a really wide-ranging thinker. The philosophy is almost just the tip of the iceberg. He was known for many generations as an historian first and a philosopher second. He wrote a massive, 6-volume history of England that became a best-seller; it was seen as kind of the standard history of England for, I think almost a century. He wrote a great deal on religion. He wrote a great many essays on a whole range of topics. Lots of them are on politics, but a whole range of topics: aesthetics, you name it. So he is really one of the--in addition to being the great thinker on epistemology, which is what he is best known for today--he really did influence a huge range of subjects.

Russ Roberts: And we'll put up links to a lot of his work, which we have online.


Russ Roberts: Now, reading your book, and reading some Hume more recently in my life, as I was reading and writing about The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it's a little alarming for a Smith fan to see how much Hume there is in Smith. Now, Hume is older, by--what? I want to say 12 years?

Dennis Rasmussen: Yes. Twelve years.

Russ Roberts: Twelve years older than Smith. And, so, Hume was already a world-famous person when Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759. And, I always suspected--having dabbled in Hume, that, 'Well, some of these ideas in Smith must have come from Hume.' I didn't realize until I read your book that the whole beginning of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is in some sense a response to Hume. And an extension of Hume. The whole book is to some extent an extension of Hume. And yet, as you point out, in that opening section at least, Smith says nothing of Hume. Does not mention his name. And yet, the examples he uses--many of them are the same. So, for readers of the day: They understood, I assume, that it was a--that Hume was sort of the backstory of the opening of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But for us today, it's not so obvious. So, talk about a couple of things. Talk about, first: What was Hume's vision of morality? And then how Smith extended it. And then maybe speculate on why Smith didn't explicitly talk about Hume in that opening, in those opening chapters.

Dennis Rasmussen: Okay. So, they are big questions, but I'll try to--

Russ Roberts: We can spend the rest of the time, obviously, on just telling us about Hume's view of sympathy and morality. But, yet, do what you can.

Dennis Rasmussen: Sure. So, Hume argues that morality doesn't come from reason. It doesn't come from the word or the will of God. It comes from us. It comes from, in particular, our sentiments--our sentiment of what we--our approval or approbation. That is not to say, of course--many students, when I first introduce Hume's thought and say that morality comes from human sentiments, they immediately think, 'Oh, so that just means whatever feels right to me is right for me.' And obviously, that can't be right. We feel bad things all the time. And so, Hume says we need to correct for our personal biases, for misinformation, and so forth, by adopting what he calls, you know, the general point of view or the common point of view. We need to look at actions, look at character traits, from the standpoint of sort of an outside observer. And this is exactly what Smith would come to call the 'impartial spectator,' I think; but Smith's impartial spectator plays the exact kind of parallel role to the general point of view does in Hume's. So, both argue that morality relies on disinterested sentiments. That is, what we feel when we adopt a position--when we have full information and when we are disinterested or impartial, we are kind of 3rd party perspective. As for why Hume didn't--so, you are right to say, and I think it's pretty clear that Smith is engaging with Hume throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments--as you say, [?] examples he uses. He, of course, doesn't--many Hume scholars would say, 'There's no point even reading Smith. It's all there in Hume already anyway. We kind of have it all there.' I don't think that's right. I think there are a number of places in which Smith extends or modifies Hume's view. In fact, he almost can't stop himself: Almost every time he brings up something of Hume's he says, 'Well, this is right; the basic point is right here. Morality comes from the sentiments. It originates in what they call sympathy. But,' he says, 'No, sympathy doesn't work quite the way you think Hume--' or, 'Utility doesn't play as big you think here in Hume.' He's constantly modifying, constantly changing Hume's views. But, as I started to say, he's engaging with Hume throughout the book. He never mentions Hume. Now, there are number of potential reasons for this. One scholar speculates as well that Smith is really cautious and prudent and he doesn't want to get mixed up with, you know, Hume's religious skepticism, and but it or called too much attention to his own side of thought. I think that's probably not right. So, first of all, he rarely names any of the philosophers whom he's engaging with throughout the book, except for parts of it in which is on previous systems of moral philosophy. He generally just talks as if he's--as you suggest--as if he's just bringing up an idea that--

Russ Roberts: No one's ever thought of--

Dennis Rasmussen: actually--well, yeah. Or, 'This is an idea that might come to you, dear reader.' That 'You might have thought through.' And this is what I think about it. But, if you know what Hume says, it's pretty clear in a lot of instances that he's engaging with Hume. In some cases, he refers more or less directly to Hume. He'll refer to, you know, 'This ingenious and agreeable author,' or something of the sort. You know, he's read Hume. He's talking about Hume, here. So, why else might he not have used Hume's name? Well, partly, he's engaging with Hume's thought, not just in the kind of second presentation of Smith's moral theory, but I think we're concerning the Principles of Morals, but also in his first book, The Treatise of Human Nature. And that's a book that Hume published anonymously. And, in the 18th century it's kind of a faux pas to name the author of a work if the work isn't published under an author's name. It was just not something that was generally done. The other thing to note, I think, is that, by this point, Hume--I said earlier that The Treatise was widely seen by philosophers as Hume's masterpiece--the greatest work he ever published. Ironically, it's a work that he came to all but disavow. Not only a few years after he had published it. And Smith was presumably well-aware of Hume's feelings on that subject. So I think--he might have avoided referring to Hume by name in part for Hume's own sake. But, again, with a number of unambiguous references to Hume throughout there, I don't think it was just a matter of caution or wanting to avoid Hume's skepticism. I don't think any pious reader who is looking for allusions to Hume could possibly miss them.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's, um--a modern person would say, 'Well, he left out those references to Hume because he wanted people to think they were his ideas.' And, that's probably not a good hypothesis, because we know they were good friends. They stayed good friends for decades after this, a couple of decades after Smith's book came out. And I think what's interesting is that, is your point, is that anyone reading at the time would have known he was talking about Hume. But in our time, they don't. And it's an interesting question why Smith is world-famous today and Hume is relatively obscure. Of course, your book may rescue Hume from some obscurity. But, it is the case that Smith's reputation eclipses Hume's, among the general public, in a much greater way.

Dennis Rasmussen: But not for his moral philosophy. Right?

Russ Roberts: Correct. For philosophy--but most people don't know about philosophy. It's a small--you know, it's like talking about Adam Smith as a philosopher. Philosophers know about Adam Smith as a philosopher a little bit. Most people have no idea of his philosophical writing. But, it's interesting to speculate--I think this is unfair to Smith but it's crossed my mind that part of his reputation is due to the, his, I would call it, marketing. He's a much better writer than most people of his era. So, Hume's a delightful writer, too, I discovered, from your book. But Smith is a little more accessible. And he packaged his ideas in formats and in two books that--you know, came down to us from the ages with great acclaim. Even though much of the ideas, many of the ideas in those books are not totally original. Comment on that.

Dennis Rasmussen: Well, I don't know if any philosopher is totally original. Right? Every philosopher, except for starting with the ancient Greeks when people are first starting to do philosophy, are drawing on and engaging with their predecessors. Right?

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Dennis Rasmussen: So, a lot of the ideas that Hume has are not original to him. He's drawing on and engaging with Locke, or Francis Hutcheson, or others. So, I don't know that it's just Smith drawing on Hume or but that Hume is just this great original thinker. Of course, both are great and original in certain respects. But they are also engaging with their predecessors in certain respects. But I would also--yes, as you say, I think Hume was a great writer. The History of England is a really great read. And this is partly why it became so famous--I think it was much more famous in the 18th century than either of Smith's books or any of Hume's other works.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Dennis Rasmussen: So, yeah, it is just a matter of what came down to us. And the way the Wealth of Nations changed the world in a way that, say, Hume's History of England didn't, for all of its fame and all of its readership.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Fair enough.


Russ Roberts: One of the things I learned from your book which really fascinated me was the differences and similarities between Hume's and Smith's views of commercial life. And, if you'd asked me before I'd read your book--I'm not proud of this, but I'm being honest here--you know, 'What's Smith's view of commerce?' I would have said, 'Smith views commerce'--that is, by commerce, I mean what Wordsworth called 'getting and spending'; that is, earning money, buying stuff, being an employee, being a merchant--all these activities that we might commercial--that Smith saw those as leading to virtue, because they forced you to put yourself in the shoes of another person. You had to figure out to figure out what other people want, if you are selling them something. The whole idea of exchange. The human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange that Smith talks about--is, our natural interactions with the people around us. And that there's a humanizing influence there. And, you allude to that in your book. But, you say a lot more about Smith and Hume's view of commercial life generally. So, talk about what they believed, and the similarities and differences.

Dennis Rasmussen: So, Hume's view of commercial society, of commerce, the kind of moral, social, political effects of commerce is overwhelmingly positive. My students are always shocked to learn that his view is more overwhelmingly positive than Smith's is, given Smith's reputation as the founding father of capitalism [?]. In one of the essays, that I think is one of Hume's greatest essays--first published under the title "Of Luxury"; later republished under the title "Of Refinement in the Arts"--I think is one of the most forceful, comprehensive, and yet succinct defenses of the modern liberal commercial order ever written. He argues that commerce brings with it in its wake what he calls an 'indissoluble chain' of industry, knowledge, and humanity: it makes us more virtuous; it makes us more free. He sounds a couple of warning signs about colonialism, about mounting public debts and the like; but really, it's an overwhelmingly positive view of commerce. Smith, of course, too, sees commerce as in general a force for great good. But, he's much more willing, actually, I think than Hume is to acknowledge potential dangers, drawbacks, downsides of commercial society. And, this is something I've written on going all the way back to my first book which was on Adam Smith's response to Rousseau's critique of commercial society. So, if you [?]--and this is in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations--he expresses worries about, 'Well, yes we're going to be rich, but we're going to have all these inequalities.' 'Maybe the division of labor will render us feeble and ignorant'--you know, we spend our whole lives making the inking[?] part of a pen; we don't have time to exercise our minds. There are worries about our admiration for the rich corrupting our moral sentiments. And the one I've really stressed a lot in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is that the desire for wealth can lead us to, you know, submit ourselves to endless toil and endless anxiety in the pursuit of what are, after all, frivolous material goods, that will provide at best fleeting satisfaction. None of this is to say, of course, that Smith didn't support, didn't defend commercial society. Of course he did. He very much joined Hume in thinking that the benefits of commercial society, the liberty, security, prosperity and the rest outweigh the costs. That, he too found earlier forms of society as totally objectionable. They both see most of human history as a story of oppression and dependence and misery. So, it's definitely--I sometimes frame it in terms sort of cost/benefit analysis--that, the benefits of commercial society for Hume way outweigh the costs. But, I think he's more willing than Hume to say, 'Well, there are costs,' and how should we try to ameliorate these, through education and the like?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He was an economist. He was willing--he saw that there were tradeoffs. He decided that the benefits outweighed the costs, but, as you point out, that doesn't mean it's all rosy. I think one of the most shocking things about The Theory of Moral Sentiments that people who don't know anything about Smith other than his name and a little bit about him would be shocked--its what you just said: that, he really saw wealth and the pursuit of wealth as corrosive and unhealthy. It's fascinating that the so-called father of capitalism felt that way. I just really like that.


Russ Roberts: There's another aspect--

Dennis Rasmussen: Can I interrupt you?

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Dennis Rasmussen: So, I think as corrosive of happiness, in certain ways--the anxiety. He understands happiness mostly in terms of tranquility, and the way we undermine our tranquility by constantly grasping at more and more material goods. There's a famous passage about the ambitious poor man's son who wastes his whole life trying to attain what he thinks is the supreme happiness of the rich, and then later in life he looks back and says, 'I wasted my life trying to get these things that wouldn't have made me happy anyway.' I don't know that Smith thinks that activity of commerce is also corrosive of morality. I think, there, he does think that it plays a beneficial role in the--

Russ Roberts: Absolutely--

Dennis Rasmussen: way that you said a minute ago, where you do have to think about what other people want. You do--in commercial society you are constantly dealing with other people. You need--and so, your success rests on your reputation, among relative equals. And how do you gain a good reputation? By behaving admirably, on the whole. And so he does think, at least for the 'middling' classes, as he calls them, or the middling ranks, he does think--he says quite explicitly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, honesty really is the best policy for them. So, I think commerce does--it might not make us the most noble, benevolent people in the world, but it does prevent a lot of depravity, he thinks. So that commerce does, I think with regard to morality if not happiness, play in general a positive role, for Smith.

Russ Roberts: I think that's a good distinction to make. Right? There's a distinction between the act of making a living--which is an honorable and can be a very virtue-enhancing thing, depending on what you choose and how you choose to do it--and pursuing wealth for its own sake. Or, focusing on how much money you can make. Or, trying to become famous. Etc. And I think Smith said more than just what you said--I mean, you give a nice example of how it keeps you up at night, because you are worried your business might not make it, or whatever it is. But it's more than that, right? Smith also warned that it'll corrupt your morals if you pursue money or fame or power too aggressively: you'll find yourself doing things that you'll later regret. Not just that you've wasted your time pursuing money, but you'll do things that will be dishonorable. And I've always thought that part of that came from Smith's time. Entrepreneurship was quite limited. He could not have romanticized an entrepreneur much. There weren't--inventors, yes, maybe, but not what we would call an entrepreneur today. And a lot of the people that he saw grasping for fame and power and wealth were people in nobility, who were--I think he talks about them being engaged in intrigue and the court, to try to get their star advanced. And that, I think, he viewed with a lot of negativity.

Dennis Rasmussen: Yes. Absolutely. So, in that same chapter that I just referred to where he says that for the middling and inferior stations, that honesty really is the best policy. He goes on to say that unfortunately this isn't true for what he calls the 'superior stations'--the rich, the nobility. Why? Well, partly they are pretty much above the law. They can do whatever they want without having to worry about being punished for it. But, also, that they are just put in a position where they are admired on account of their wealth. People are dazzled, enchanted, by their riches. And so they don't have to act admirably to get people to admire them. And so--Smith sees this as a really illiberal part of our psychology, that this tendency to admire the rich, when the rich really, for him, don't tend to be very admirable people.


Russ Roberts: And there's one other part of commercial life that we haven't talked about, that you talk about in the book, that was really the most startling for me, because I just had missed it in Smith; and it's in Hume as well. I'm going to read a quote from your book. You say the following:

If asked to nominate the single most important passage in The Wealth of Nations, a reasonable candidate would be the climactic claim of Book 3--and here you quote the Wealth of Nations--commerce and manufacturers gradually introduced order and good government. And with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours and of servile dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects.
That's the end of the quote from Smith, and from your book. Now, I would disagree with you. I don't think anyone would name that as the single most important passage in the Wealth of Nations. But, that's okay. You can defend that if you want. But, it was the single most illuminating passage you quote from the Wealth of Nations for me, as a casual Smith scholar. Because, I think, if you had asked me, or most people to think about Smith, liberty, and economics, they'd say: 'Well, Smith believed that it's important to have liberty so that you can have a good economy.' The government shouldn't intervene too much. Laissez faire, of course he's not an anarcho-capitalist. Smith had a--he's a classical liberal. He had a role for government. Limited. But definitely a role for government. And, so that's what I would have said. But what you are pointing out is that Smith actually argued something equally interesting and maybe much more profound. Which is, that the causation runs the other direction. That, the increase in commerce and standard of living and commercial life, in Europe in particular, led to liberty. Brought about the liberty that is cherished for its own sake. So, give us Smith's argument. And then talk about how Hume also said similar things and to what extent they disagree. And you can defend your claim if you want--that's it's the single-most, one of them more important passages, in the Wealth of Nations.

Dennis Rasmussen: No, I'll stick to my guns and say this is the single most important. The reason why I'll say that--I mean, Smith says it quite explicitly, there. He says, "This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all of commerce's effects." So, he is telling us in his life what is by far the most important effect of all the effects that commerce has had. And that it's--exactly what you just said. That it promotes liberty and security in a world that had seen very little of that--

Russ Roberts: So, how did that--what's the chain of causation? Because most people would say, 'Well, what does that mean? How could that be?'

Dennis Rasmussen: So, he's contrasting commercial society with the feudal era that had preceded it in Europe. And to some extent still existed in his own backyard with the Scottish Highlands. But really, with--throughout Europe, he thinks, during the kind of middle ages there's this feudal system where you have these great landowners who exercise basically complete authority over the peasants or serfs who work their land. The King's power isn't really strong enough to reach into their estates, so they can do whatever they want. So, Smith runs through--and just shows that the miserable condition of these serfs. They are unable to--they are kind of bought and sold with the land. They can't move freely. They have to work at whatever occupation their lord tells them to do. They have to get their lord's permission in order to get married, if to follow their lord into battle whenever they are told to do so. And, the story that Smith tells in Book III of the Wealth of Nations is about how these feudal lords ended up squandering their authority over their serfs for the sake of frivolous luxuries. So, the idea is: Once commerce started to pick up, once you have more manufactured goods, once you have more luxuries, the lords have something on which to spend their money other than maintaining all of these serfs--one that Smith said, that immediately adopt out of greed and vanity. So, he says that for something as frivolous as a pair of diamond buckles, they trade all of their, they spend all of their money; they can no longer afford to keep all these serfs. And they--it's a long, complicated story. The kings and the city-dwellers kind of gang up against the lords in order to bring them down a peg. But, basically it's commerce that plays this function--

Russ Roberts: Trade. Foreign trade, as well, right? as part of that commerce.

Dennis Rasmussen: Right, the importation of luxuries--does in the feudal system. So that once you get a commercial society, yes, an employee might want to please his or her employer in order to keep their job. But, you know, you are very unlikely to surrender your rights to your employer--follow them into battle whenever they want to do so. Right? So the kind of--the interdependence of the market allows this personal freedom, personal independence that you just didn't get in those previous eras of human history. So, this is his[?] story of life, the causal[?] runs that way--why it's commerce that led to liberty and security. With the advent of commercial society. Now, as I point out in the book--he tells this story at great length in Book III of the Wealth of Nations. It's--taken basically directly from Hume. Hume doesn't go into as much detail as Smith does about the story. Nor does he make it nearly as central, I think, in his thought as Smith does. But you find this very abbreviated in one of Hume's essays; and then in a couple of the different volumes of The History of England, Hume tells a similar story. So, in that passage that you read just a minute ago, immediately after saying--this introduction of liberty and security--"This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all of commerce's effects." He even goes on to say, 'Mr. Hume is the only writer who I know who has taken notice of this before.' This is a sort of odd claim, insofar as Locke and Montesquieu--there are lots of people arguing that commerce had gone hand-in-hand with liberty and security. He might be referring more to the specific mechanism, the way commerce leads to the downfall of the feudal lords, where, I think he is drawing from Hume. But it is striking that, in this passage--that, again, I'm still saying, is the most important one in the whole Wealth of Nations--he basically says: Hume got there first. Hume had this idea before I did.


Russ Roberts: And I want to--I want to stand up for Mr. Smith here just a bit. I don't want to overstate this point that a lot of--it's a fact that Hume influenced Smith. Smith, of course, had read Hume. And many ideas that are in Smith are in Hume. And many ideas from other--we wouldn't call them economists. They wouldn't think of themselves as economists. But there are other people writing--Mandeville and others who Smith obviously was influenced by. But I don't want to understate Smith's contribution, either. And so, I want to just--I'm going to make my own sort of summary of it, and then you can chime in or disagree if you'd like. But, I think, often, there's a temptation to see an author's contribution as--in the form of a tweet: 'Oh, yeah. Adam Smith. He understood that specialization was important.' Or, 'Adam Smith had this idea that some systems are self-regulating. What we call the invisible hand.' Or, Adam Smith thought free trade was really good and had a lot of good arguments in favor of it.' And, there's an enormous difference between the Twitter version of a great idea and the actual writing of a great idea. And, as you point out--you use the example from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as an example: Yes, the idea that morality comes from our selves. From human interaction. From sympathy. That was in Hume. So, that's not novel to Smith. But, Smith's treatment of it is very novel. Smith's treatment of it, an extension of it--his--we'll come back and talk about it a little bit more later, but there are other aspects of--it's a rich book. It's not like you'd read Hume and then, as you're reading Smith, go, 'Oh, I read all this. I knew all this already.' You still learn things from it. So, I always find it interesting when people will show disdain for a book that I particularly like, saying, 'Oh, well, I knew all that before I read it.' Now, I might respond, saying, 'Well, I knew it in the abstract.' Or, 'I knew it, sort of.' But the actual treatment of the author really enriched it for me in a way that shortened version, or the versions I'd read before didn't do. And I think that's extremely important. And it's easy to under-appreciate it.

Dennis Rasmussen: I agree completely. And I think that the Wealth of Nations is also a great example of this. So, I point out: A lot of the kind of key arguments in the Wealth of Nations are anticipated in Hume's Essays on Political Economy. So definitely not itself on the division of labor. Hume takes almost no notice of the division of labor. Which is of course really central in Smith. But, Hume is arguing for free trade decades before the Wealth of Nations appears, saying, 'What's the true source of a nation's wealth? It's not gold, it's not silver; it's not a positive balance of trade. It's a productive citizenry.' That, politicians' attempts to guide or control people's economic choices are going to be, um, either just futile or maybe even positively counterproductive. Free trade is to the benefit of all parties involved; you can't get rich by beggaring neighboring countries; and so on. So, Hume's one of the first thinkers to argue for free trade. And anticipates--I don't know that he sort of got his idea for free trade from Dugald Stewart's, his first biographer's really insistent that Smith always really wanted to assert his originality on this score, that he had had this idea long ago, starting with his [?] Lectures in the early 1750s, that it's even before Hume published his Essays on Political Economy. So, I'll say that Hume anticipated Smith even if he's not Smith's source for argument for free trade. But, as you say, putting it all together in one package, in the Wealth of Nations, this monumental argument against mercantilism, made it quite a bit more influential than Hume's scattered essays were, could have had.

Russ Roberts: And it's more than that. It's not just that Smith said, 'Free trade, good, mercantilism bad,' and people went, 'Oh, that's interesting.' He makes the case, in a way that's incredibly thought-provoking. One of the things that always bugs me is when people say, 'Well, Smith was in favor of x.' And, you go back and you read it in context, and he did mention--there's a sentence that can be taken out of context that says he was in favor of x. Say, public financing of education. So, Smith says, 'Yeah, this is justified because education leads to lots of benefits. And that's not a bad idea.' But then he goes on to say, 'But it's probably not. And here's why: because it's going to make people not work as hard; and it's not going to be as effective.' So, I just think it's incredibly important to think about nuance. And then, as you point out, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith, even though he draws a lot on Hume, has his own vision, that's quite compelling. And probably more intellectually appealing of where our sympathies come from.


Russ Roberts: Hume has the contagion idea; and Smith rejects it. Talk about that--that contagion argument of Hume's for where sympathies come from and how Smith viewed it.

Dennis Rasmussen: Sure. So, let me just start by saying--I've been sort of making a case here that Hume's writings on political economy have been unduly neglected in favor of Smith's. He's seen as a kind of minor predecessor of Smith when it comes to economic thinking, if he's taken notice of at all. I'm trying to make a case for his importance there. I make the reverse case when it comes to moral philosophy. So, among philosophers, Smith's moral theory has long been see as almost a series of footnotes to Hume's, and not all that important. It's starting to come around; philosophers are starting to pay attention to Smith. And I think they really should, because I think Smith's advances on Hume's moral theory are substantial and important; and I think, frankly, persuasive. So, the point that you asked me to discuss: Both of their moral theories rely on what they call 'sympathy.' But they have a very different view of what the nature of sympathy is. The way Hume describes sympathy, it's basically just a mechanism that transports emotions from one person to another. So, the idea is: I see you're really happy; you've just gotten a long-awaited promotion; you're really happy; and I see that, and it makes me happy. Or, you've just lost a loved one; you are very sad; I see that and it makes me sad. And, as you note, he sometimes calls this even an emotional contagion: it just transmits--sympathy just transmits feelings from one person to another. And, the whole first chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is arguing that that's not quite right. That, sympathy can't work in that straightforward fashion. So, Smith gives the example of anger. You don't become angry when you see an angry person. Maybe if you learn what made that person angry, maybe you would become angry. Maybe not. It depends on if their anger is warranted. And he says this is true even of the kinds of examples that Hume used of joy and sorrow: that you really don't feel much joy or much sorrow on somebody else's behalf until you've placed yourself imaginatively in their shoes. So, you can imagine two individuals who are exhibiting just identical signs of anguish. And then you learn that the first person, that all the anguish is provoked by a paper cut. And the second person, it is provoked by the death of a spouse or loved one. Right? You are obviously much more likely to sympathize with the second person than the first. But, on the Humean view, they are both exhibiting identical signs. Presumably we should be catching--you know, in this contagion-like way--catching their feelings in the same way. And Smith wants to say, 'No. It's by imaginatively projecting yourself into their situation that you really get a sense of, or you can really come to share--or maybe not share--their sentiments.' This is one of the other things Smith says, is: Because sympathy takes place in this more complicated way, we don't just catch people's feelings, whatever they happen to be. There's space for us to say whether their emotion is warranted. Right? The person with the paper cut, the great grief that they're feeling wasn't warranted in that case. And so there's more room for judgment of people's emotions in the Smithian understanding of sympathy.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, of course, Smith has some incredibly subtle things to say about our ability to sympathize with people's joy. And their sorrow. He says, sometimes your joy, I can't share in it, over a big thing. You know, and there's an enormous range of who I can share those things with. It might just encourage jealousy in certain situations. And certain types of sorrows, you don't share, because the people around you can't sympathize with them, either. And so, again, it's our quick thumbnail of yours or mine of how Smith viewed sympathy or whatever it is, is never going to capture the richness. Now, maybe it's in Hume, also. Right? We're also not capturing the richness of Hume's treatment. But, I just think it's interesting how people are quick to dismiss things like this, by saying, 'Oh, yeah; that was already done.' Well, maybe it was; but it was done in a different way, and a unique way, and a special way, and a way that helped you understand it better.


Russ Roberts: Talk about the so-called 'Adam Smith problem.' You know, I have my own take on this. I want to hear yours. Some people have argued it's weird that the Wealth of Nations is, I think, to paraphrase George Stigler: It's built on the bedrock of self-interest, was the way he put it--something like that--where, it's an edifice built on the bedrock of self-interest. Whereas, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is all about how I think about other people. There's very little of empathy in the Wealth of Nations and there's very little--there's some self-interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of course, but all the things we talked about in terms of the corrosive aspects of wealth pursuit kind of go mostly unmentioned in the Wealth of Nations. And yet, we know that Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments before the Wealth of Nations, and revised it many times after. So, how do you understand the connection between these to great works?

Dennis Rasmussen: I guess I--I'm never struck by the supposed incompatibility in the way other people are. I think--I mentioned a while ago the drawbacks, dangers, of commercial society, that Smith pointed to. A lot of those come from the Wealth of Nations--the worries about the division of labor, the worries about merchants, you know, ganging up and harming the public interest and so forth. There's quite a bit of worries about commercial society and trying to find ways to ameliorate them, even in the Wealth of Nations. It doesn't all come from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I guess, to be honest, I don't have anything that profound to say about this. They are just books on different topics. Right? One is a book on moral philosophy: How is it that moral standards arise? What does morality consist of? The other is on political economy: How should we organize economic life? What was the role of government in all of that? And so, of course the emphases are going to be different, because they are books on different topics. But, I've never seen the big, yawning gap between the two that many others seem to have seen.

Russ Roberts: Well, I think the question is, given that we are empathetic--we have limited ability to empathize but we do empathize--which is Smith's view of human nature in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it's interesting that it plays little or no role in the Wealth of Nations. But I think the reason is that, the Wealth of Nations is about trade, and trade writ large. Where I'm dealing mostly with strangers, and my ability to empathize is going to be relatively small. I think there are other interesting connections between the works, two works--I wrote a long essay on it. If I get it done in the near future I'll try to put a link up to this essay. But, I agree with you, fundamentally. It's not as big a puzzle as it's often made out to be.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk a little bit about religion. A good chunk of your book is about Hume's identity as the infidel--as you call him in the title--the heretic who is very, very critical, certainly in much of his writing and in his private, personal life as well, of organized religion and how the contributions of organized religion. Smith, on the other hand, is much more favorable--as is, ironically or not, Hayek, even though Hayek also was an atheist. Hayek saw religion as a force for good in the world. Smith concedes--unlike Hume--there are some good things about religion; but masks or cloaks his own religious views somewhat. For a variety of reasons. So, talk about the two personality differences and their careers on this issue, and where you think, where Smith, what his real beliefs were.

Dennis Rasmussen: So, this is one of the running themes of the book, how much they diverged, at least with the public postures that they adopted with regard to religion. So, Hume, as you say--I think 'atheist' is too strong even for Hume. He would have called himself a skeptic--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, an agnostic--

Dennis Rasmussen: The term 'agnostic,' right. But he's relatively forthright about his lack of faith. Sometimes he'd sort of close this--you know, he'll put his arguments in the mouths of a character in a dialog or something. But he's really not that careful about hiding his skepticism with regard to religion. Whereas, Smith, constantly goes to great lengths in both his writings and his personal life to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs or lack thereof. And so, one of--as I say, one of the running themes is that these contrary postures lead to equally contrary reputations. Hume, as you say, is, you know, is this great infidel. He is, among other things, deemed unfit to teach the young. He twice applies for professorships, one at Edinburgh and one at Glasgow. But in both cases, he is turned down because of his irreligion. Whereas, Smith, who plays his cards much closer to the vest, becomes this widely respected professor of moral philosophy. And so as you say that's the contrast implicit in the title, The Infidel and the Professor. Now, Smith's religious views--this has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate and controversy. There's no settled view at all on what his religious views were. Some argue that he was a good, sincere, Christian believer. Others go so far as to say that he's a closet atheist. I wouldn't go to either of those extremes. But certainly, my reading is closer to kind of skeptical end of the spectrum. So, I end up calling him a skeptical deist. So, that is to say, more of a deist than Hume, but more of a skeptic than most people think. So, I think it's likely that he believed in some kind of distant, maybe benevolent higher power. But I think he's almost certainly not a believing Christian; that he was suspicious of most forms of religious belief in devotion. And I think this comes out in his works, in the things--in his correspondence; in other things we know about him in his life.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, well I didn't realize--I'm ashamed to say--that his letter to Strahan--which is famous among Smith scholars but not to the average listener--Strahan was Smith's publisher. So, at the time of Hume's death, Smith wrote a letter to Strahan that summarized his view of Hume, that was going to be appended to Hume's autobiography as sort of a post-mortem, literally. And it's one of the most beautiful things in the world. It's almost worth reading the entire thing out loud. I won't do that. But, at the end, it's a gorgeous, inspiring paean to friendship and to decency. And, a wonderful human being. Which is how he saw David Hume. I didn't realize till I read your book that that engendered a lot of controversy, because Smith, at the end--I think it's the last sentence, calls Hume, I think it's 'wise and virtuous.' And 'virtuous,' is, for many Christians, impossible without a belief in Christianity. And so, this got Smith tangled up in a lot of--well, he didn't get tangled up because he didn't respond. But, it stirred up a lot of controversy. So, talk about that.

Dennis Rasmussen: Yeah. So, this is a work that--it is actually the only work other than Smith's two books that he published under his name, under his own name during his lifetime. A number of essays were published posthumously by his literary executors--

Russ Roberts: [?] Yeah--

Dennis Rasmussen: Notes, student notes from classes. I'm always horrified by the idea. People took what I thought by what my students write down during class?! But, in any case, we have so little to go with from Smith. This is inevitable, I suppose. So, this is one of the three things he publishes in his lifetime. He kind of got Hume's permission to do this in advance. As Hume was dying he said, 'Hey, do you mind if I write a kind of addendum? Complete your story of your life by telling the story from where you leave off a couple of months before your death, up to your death?' And Hume immediately says, 'Yes, sure, whatever you want to do. I give you entire liberty on this score.' So, this is kind of the authorized version of Hume's death. Now, because of Hume's--entirely deserved--reputation for impiety, his death is a really highly scrutinized event. Everybody around Britain is asking, 'So, how is Hume going do die? Is he going to persist in his unbelief? Is he going to,' you know, 'recant his skepticism?' Is he going to die in a state of distress, or remorse, he has none of the usual consolations? How is he going to die?

Russ Roberts: Yeah; Christopher Hitchens is kind of the modern version of this. Right? People were wondering if his--

Dennis Rasmussen: Yes. And there were actually a number of parallels drawn between his and Hume, when Hitchens died. Actually, quite a lot of similarities. And Hume--so, Smith gets, sort of right because he's Hume's best friend--gets right effectively the authorized version. He knows--both Hume and Smith know--how much people are going to care about this and pay attention to the way Hume dies. And so, Smith gets to write this authorized version. It's published right alongside 'my own life book' as a separate pamphlet and then as the preface to the future editions of Hume's works. And, throughout the work, Smith never really calls attention to Hume's impiety in this letter, the way, for instance, James Boswell, the famous deathbed interview, with Hume, really Hume is brash about religion in that interview as he is anywhere, in anything, we have recorded from him. Smith doesn't--he records Smith--sorry, he records Hume, giving a little joke that seems irreligious. But he doesn't really flaunt--

Russ Roberts: And he sanitizes it a little bit, actually, as you point out.

Dennis Rasmussen: Yeah, a tiny, tiny bit. Right? That is, nevertheless: Hume is, everybody knows he is this notorious infidel. Everybody is paying attention to this. And so what Smith does flaunt is the cheerfulness, the equanimity, of Hume's final days: the way he's just living life the way he always had, he's hanging out with his friends, reading books. Hume isn't worried in the least. And then, yes, the concluding line which you alluded to, ended up being really one of the most fateful sentences Smith ever wrote. So, Smith says, in this concluding line that Hume--I'm going to just read a little sentence here, "Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." Right? So, this idea that his unbelieving friend, this avowed skeptic, is a paragon of wisdom and virtue generates just outrage among the devout. As one contemporary commented, it shocked every sober Christian. Smith later famously commented in one of the few letters that we have from him that this work, the letter to Strahan on Hume's death, 'brought on me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I've made on the whole commercial system of Great Britain.' This has become a relatively famous line, at least among Smith scholars, because at least of the very colorful reference to the Wealth of Nations: it's a very violent attack on the whole commercial system of Great Britain.

Russ Roberts: It's a great self-description of his work, yeah.

Dennis Rasmussen: Right. But even Smith scholars, I think very few know--they know he has suffered some abuse because of this line, 'the letter brought on me ten times more abuse.' But, the precise nature and really extent of the abuse that Smith suffered as a result of this tribute to Hume isn't widely known. And so I spend a whole chapter, Chapter 12, on this, documenting the often really quite vicious reactions to it. But, the leading critic was a guy named George Horn[?] who is a very prominent cleric at the time; but also people like Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke. And this isn't just, you know, a momentary thing that a month or two people are criticizing him and then it's gone. Decades later, even well into the 19th century people are still criticizing Smith for this letter.


Russ Roberts: I knew nothing of that, and I really enjoyed that Chapter and the whole idea of it. It also made me realize, though, that I had failed to see a connection, in that last sentence--I was going to read it out loud myself, so I'm glad you read it--to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is that, Smith says in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that 'man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely.' And, he says, to be lovely--excuse me, the easy way to be loved--that is, for people to pay attention to you, to think you are important--the easy path is fame, riches, power. And so, Smith says, that's the easy path; don't go that way. He says: What you want to choose--he goes, that's tempting but it's not good for you. He says: The real way to be loved is to be 'wise and virtuous'. And, I don't know if I ever really noticed that that's the exact way he describes Hume, as the ideal. Right? At least, I don't remember thinking that before, so I really appreciated that. Did you want to comment?

Dennis Rasmussen: Yeah. I just wanted to say, it is really striking. He writes this whole moral theory; there's all this debate about how integral is religion on this moral theory; what kind of role does it play? I say at one point in the book in formulation I'm particularly proud of that Smith sees religion not as a foundation or even a pillar but rather as a buttress: It supports morality from the outside. Which is to say, for most people it is--he thinks religion is a buttress, virtue; people are more likely to act morally if they think the general rules of morality that their society has formed come from God. He gives us more reason to hold these rules sacred. But, I don't think, in the structure of his moral theory that religion is a pre-condition--or, sorry, yes--that religion is a pre-condition for virtue. That you have to be religious in order to be virtuous. But I think the letter to Strahan really drives home how dispensable it is. 'The paragon of wisdom and virtue'; and it isn't Jesus or a Christian saint but the skeptic, Hume. And I think it's really telling.

Russ Roberts: Of course, it's only one data point. Which I think--Hume would point out: that Hume is only one data point. If you were going to look more generally.

Dennis Rasmussen: Fair enough.


Russ Roberts: The only footnote I put to that, which--and I noticed that you didn't bring this in--because it happens to be one of my favorite passages, maybe my favorite passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: I would make a distinction between Smith's view of religion and Smith's view of God. When you said he's more of a deist than Hume, I think for sure that's true. He certainly would invoke Providence or the author of nature. People have told me, 'Oh, he just did that to make people comfortable.' Who knows? I have no way of knowing that. But there's this really fascinating passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments I'm going to read. The reason it's one of my favorites, if not my real Number One favorite, is that, to me this is the best description of the invisible hand as we understand it in our time. Smith used the phrase 'invisible hand' three times that we have, right? Once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, once in the Wealth of Nations [corrected--Econlib Ed.], and once I think in his Lectures on Astronomy, that were, as you say, were published later. And yet--and in those usages he didn't use the term the way we use it. It's related, but it's not the same thing. Yet, he wrote about the invisible hand--he just didn't call it that. And I think he did it, ironically most eloquently, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he said the following: "The all-wise author of nature"--and by that he means God,

The all-wise Author of Nature has, in this manner, taught man to respect the sentiments and judgments of his brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of his conduct, and to be more or less hurt when they disapprove of it. He has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has, in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image, and appointed him his vicegerent upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren.
So, that's Smith saying there's this underlying--and of course, it could be genetics, not God; it could come from God through genetics; you can interpret it any way you want. But here's Smith invoking a natural order--he's talking about sympathy and norms and the desire to be lovely and loved--that there's this inherent part of our nature that wants to be approved by others and to avoid disapproval, and therefore we're sort of a self-regulating police force without the punishments of Hell and the rewards of heaven. So, I just thought that was a piece of Smith that, you didn't write about it, and I think is to be fair, whatever you want to call it, a deist part of Smith, it's certainly not organized religion per se. It is a part of Smith that appears to be believing.

Dennis Rasmussen: So, sure. And he does, throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he does, as you say, invoke this idea of a Providential Order, and he does generally at least describe the religious impulse in very sympathetic terms. He worries about fanaticism and the like. But far more than Hume, he definitely thinks that belief in God, belief in an afterlife, have important practical benefits: it provides consolation; as I said, it buttresses morality; and so on. On the other hand, I don't think any of his core arguments in the book really ultimately depend on religious premises. I think that--how does morality come about? It comes about through human sentiments, what an impartial spectator is, the arbiter of moral judgment--so that morality comes from us rather than from the word or will of God. I also think a lot of the passages--maybe not the one you just read--many of the passages that invoke a Providential Order, are, if you look closely, worded evasively or ambiguously or hedged with qualifications. So, he's constantly saying, 'Well, we suppose God thinks this,' or 'It seems that God does that.' And in many of these, he's focusing less on God than on our beliefs about God. So it's really--the book isn't about God, right? It's about moral theory. At bottom, it's a theory of human nature he's putting forward. It's a commentary on our emotional, our intellectual needs. I'd also say--there's good reason to believe that the book was crafted in large part from his lectures to his students on moral philosophy. And, it's just simply expected in 18th century Scotland that professors, especially professors of moral philosophy, would be sufficiently religious--again, that's why Hume wasn't able to become one. Smith, one of his first actions on arriving at Glasgow, was to ask to be freed from the customary duty of opening each day's class with a prayer; and this request was denied. So, he certainly couldn't have given overtly irreligious lectures to his students. I think similar pressures would have kept him from publishing an overtly irreligious book, at least while he remained a professor. On that note, it's worth also pointing out, that the book became less religious over time--

Russ Roberts: in later editions, yeah--

Dennis Rasmussen: that, a number of revisions he makes in the book--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I was going to point that out. Good point--

Dennis Rasmussen: Yeah. And I think it's telling that the first kind of softening or tempering of the religious undertones comes in the 3rd edition of 1767, which is the first one that's published after he leaves Glasgow, and the religious duties and expectations that came with it. And then, the final, 6th edition of 1790 is less religious, still. So, I think there's some evidence within and sort of surrounding The Theory of Moral Sentiments that--I don't know how to put this--that gives us reason to believe that Smith wasn't quite as committed or ardent a believer as he's often thought to have been. I also, I can talk about this if you want--I think there are other reasons: the main reason for thinking he was skeptical of most forms of religious belief and religious devotion come from his other works and other things we know about him. Basically, all of the evidence we have about what Smith thought beyond this book points to him being a bit more skeptical than you might think just based on The Theory of Moral Sentiments.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't know--I don't have a horse in the race. I just think--when I would read that passage to my students, the Christian ones don't like it. There's nothing Christian about it. And certainly he lived in a Christian time, a Christian society, where organized religion was much more important, certainly among the intellectual class, than it is today. And, I just find it fascinating to think about his friendship with Hume--which is what much of your book is about: the overtness of Hume's skepticism and the cloaked version of Smith's. But, no matter how you want to put it, it's clear that Smith was not an advocate for organized religion in any intellectual way, although he saw some of its benefits, and of course its costs.

Dennis Rasmussen: Sure. And that of course raises the question of why. If Smith's views--again, I don't think he was an outright skeptic like Hume; he was--I call him a skeptical deist. But, why was he so much more reticent on these issues than Hume was? And, there's no way to answer this with any certainty a couple of centuries later. It's easy, I think, to imagine a number of possibilities. So, maybe it's just a matter of temperament--that his temperament, he's predisposed to be more circumspect. Maybe he has more concern for his reputation, career, professional success. Maybe he sees religion as just a less important phenomenon than Hume, or a less dangerous phenomenon than Hume. Maybe he thinks that the dangers of religion would be better combated through quiet neglect than open confrontation. I think it's quite likely that he wanted to avoid offending his mother: his mother was a quite pious Presbyterian; he was very close to her, lived with her almost his whole life. And maybe it's just he saw what happened to Hume: He learned a lesson from Hume's relative outspokenness. And these, of course, aren't mutually exclusive. I think many of these are likely true.


Russ Roberts: Let's close with the issue that you don't talk about explicitly but it emerges from the book, very appropriately that it emerges rather than making it explicit. I'm reading the book, and we have, if I'm correct, we have many more of Hume's letters to Smith than we have of Smith's letters to Hume. Is that correct?

Dennis Rasmussen: Yes, 41 from Hume to Smith, 15 from Smith to Hume.

Russ Roberts: So, sometimes we have to infer from the Hume response what Smith might have said. And you use that idea in the book a number of times. But, what I was struck by--and you can't dispute the fact that they were great friends and you can't dispute the fact that they had an incredible amount of respect for each other--but, one of the themes that emerges in Hume's letters is, he's constantly begging Smith to move to Edinburgh. When Smith's in Glasgow, in his professorship; or Smith might be in London; or Smith might be in Europe--and they overlap in France a little bit, and they overlap in Scotland and London. I think they overlap in London--is that right?

Dennis Rasmussen: Yes, real briefly.

Russ Roberts: But, it crossed my mind that--I'm not sure how much time they actually spent together.

Dennis Rasmussen: Right. Yeah [?] not much.

Russ Roberts: They had a sort of modern friendship through--they didn't have the Internet; they had the mail; they had letters. But, they kind of sustained this friendship and its intensity at a distance through most of their life. Which is--we think of that as a modern phenomenon. You know, you go to college; you go off somewhere, and it's hard to stay in touch with your buddies, but some do and some don't. But you can do it through email now, Facebook. And yet, here they were with their primitive, carriage-delivered letters, sustaining a friendship with only a limited amount of face-to-face time. Do we have any idea--do you have a rough estimate of how much time they actually saw each other on a regular, ongoing basis?

Dennis Rasmussen: I've never added it up. And it's also partly hard to tell, because we don't know--the evidence we have of Smith's day-to-day life is really quite limited. He's a terrible correspondent; he arranged to have all of his papers burned before he died, or almost all of them. So, what Smith was doing on a day-to-day basis we don't really know. And so, one of the questions that I speculate about in the book but that we don't have hard evidence about is, when Hume is in Edinburgh and Smith is in Glasgow, which I true for, I don't know, a good decade--quite a long time--how much do they see each other? And I think it was probably more that Smith came to Hume rather than vice versa: there's just a lot more going on in Edinburgh at the time. So, how often did Smith make the trip? We know that he made the trip periodically to go to various clubs that they were part of, almost sort of debating societies. There are various stories about, 'Oh, you could get Smith over here at a moment's notice.' But it did take, early in Smith's time in Glasgow, it would take a full day to travel. They improved the road and it took more like a half day by the end of his time in Glasgow. But, you know, it's really unclear how often he would make that trip, how often they were together. Similarly, when Smith kind of retires--after going to France he retires to Kirkcaldy to work on the Wealth of Nations and Hume is in Edinburgh, they would have had to sail across the Firth of Forth, [?] you want to know how often did they do that? We don't really know. So, in terms of them living in the same city, it's really not much. It might add up to a year or two. In terms of how often do they see each other when they were in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kirkcaldy--you know, kind of in lower Scotland there--it's hard to say. But it is--it's a good question. I didn't comment on it in the book, so, I wasn't sure what to make of it.

Russ Roberts: Can't know the answer.

Dennis Rasmussen: Right. How the friendship became that deep and that lasting--even at the very beginning of the friendship, they lived on opposite sides of Scotland. They, I think, first met when Smith was giving lectures at Edinburgh, so that there's a few months there. But it really wasn't long after they met until--I think it was--well, it might have been a year or two before Smith moved to Glasgow to start teaching there. But, you're right: Hume is constantly concocting schemes to try to get Smith--he says, 'I'll find an apartment for you. You could move here,' or, 'There's nobody in Edinburgh. You could come teach here,' and so forth. And then when, Hume, after he goes to France--he's lionized in Paris beyond belief and he's trying to decide where to settle; and Hume came to Smith, 'Well, I'm thinking of settling in Paris,' and Smith says, 'No, please, please God don't do that. I don't want to stay in Paris. We can both settle in London; we can go visit together our friends in Scotland; we'll go visit together our friends in France; but let's live in London.' And it just never happened. They were constantly trying to figure out ways to live together but they never did.

Russ Roberts: I think some of it is--it's personality. I think, from your portraits, Hume was a much more social animal. And Smith was a much more--absent-minded; he's famous for being absent-minded. Tyler Cowen I think has hinted that he might have been autistic. I think he did that on EconTalk a long time ago. So, it could be he was a little uncomfortable with that level of social--he didn't want to go out for dinner every night with his friend. Maybe he wanted to be alone more. I don't know. Maybe he had loyalty to his mom. Who knows? But it's just striking that Hume is always the aggressor and Smith--he's not easily caught. The other thought I had is, you can be friends with someone intellectually like that because through their ideas, right? Someone can influence you in a way, way beyond the dinnertime and conversational experience, through the conversation you have through their books. I always--I use this motif in my book on Adam Smith--the motif: Adam Smith is really kind of my friend. Certainly George Stigler, who was a big Smith fan, saw Smith as in some dimension as his friend, in some sense. I say that because I know that--I'm going to tell a--this is a strange anecdote; I think I've never told it. But, Stigler would say that he once had a contest at the U. of Chicago, and one of the questions was: Who was Adam Smith's best friend? And, of course, the answer is David Hume. And yet he would tell with delight that when he asked his, I think his grandchild, granddaughter, who was Smith's best friend, she said, 'You are.' Which is very sweet. But, what I was going to suggest is that in this modern time we're living in where politics are getting not so attractive, and I sometimes find myself wanting to retreat to the 18th century and hang out with Mr. Smith, and I wondered if you have any thoughts, having written a book--you've written a lot on Smith and Hume and Rousseau and others--do you have that feeling? What are your thoughts on that?

Dennis Rasmussen: Well, I--I'd love to have conversations with them. I'm not sure I'd like the standard of living. As Smith would be quick to point out. We have it quite a bit better than they did in lots of respects. Hume, too. But, no, absolutely: The breadth of their thinking, the influence of their thinking--it would be fascinating.

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Nonlin_org writes:

1. We should all be skeptical for sure. But how skeptical are atheists about their own religion? About Darwinist evolution? About the incompatibility of materialism with consciousness? About the wound-up toy view of the universe? Etc. etc.? Not at all.

2. Who cares about dead people A. Smith and D. Hume? Ideas on the other hand are a different story - let's separate ideas from the defective vessels carrying them - be them dead or temporarily alive.

3. Moral sentiment comes from God, not from "us". Is this clear enough for the "skeptics" too?

4. Once again religion is a central point of the discussion. Can we all agree this is proof that without religion there's no science, no morals, no economy, no philosophy, intelligence, history, culture, etc. etc.?

5. Worshiping people (dead or alive) is a very bad idea. Remember Lenin, the museum piece? Hitler, Stalin?

Greg G writes:


>-----" Can we all agree this is proof that without religion there's no science, no morals, no economy, no philosophy, intelligence, history, culture, etc. etc.?"

Nope, we can't all agree on that. And according to this podcast, two of the people who don't agree on that are David Hume and Adam Smith who just happen to be two of the most brilliant thinkers who ever lived.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@28:20 Dennis Rasmussen said, "This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all of commerces effects, that it promotes liberty and security."

This argument, regardless of who made it, cannot be true. Liberty and Justice are required to make trades that guarantee an increase in standard of living from those trades. Stating trades have already occurred as a matter of commerce tells nothing about the change to society caused by those trades. Better, worse, and neutral changes to society are all possible because causality does not flow in that direction. Liberty and Justice are not the result of wealth or commerce in a general sense. Wealth is the predictable outcome of trades made in a setting of Justice and Liberty.

On a separate point, I second Greg G above.

Dr Golabki writes:

Great podcast.

I love Hume and agree that he's "quite simply the greatest philosopher ever to write in English". He's so good that when I first read him it was a bit soul crushing because I realized someone had already nailed down a lot of big questions.

Wish Russ and Denis had gotten a bit more into where Smith and Hume disagreed. Maybe next time Denis writes a book!

Dr Golabki writes:


1. We should all be skeptical for sure. But how skeptical are atheists about their own religion? About Darwinist evolution? About the incompatibility of materialism with consciousness? About the wound-up toy view of the universe? Etc. etc.? Not at all.
I agree that, in general, people are too certain of their ideas, including scientists being overconfident in their science. I'm an atheist, but I'm agnostic about god in the the same way I'm agnostic about being in the matrix. I can acknowledge it's possible, but still believe it is almost certainly not the case based on existing evidence.

Dr Golabki writes:


I'm not sure where your disagreement is.

I think the point Smith was making is that commerce creates wealth that is independent from the government and difficult for the government to control. This wealth creates power that balances the power of the government and can be used to reduce the power of a government/dictator. I would say the most important separation of powers in the US isn't executive v. judicial v. legislative... its government v. private sector.

Smith supports this with an empirical claim about the history of England, which I can't really judge myself, but it's a common idea in the modern world (e.g. resource curse).

Vincent Passanisi writes:

I was fortunate enough to read Prof. Rasmussen's book before listening to this podcast, and I can't recommend it enough. I've already sent several copies to friends. It is delightful.

Worth reading for the wonderful anecdotes alone. From Richard Hurd's quip that Hume wrote his history backwards--the same way that witches say their prayers; to Hume's teasing letters to his friends, as when he responds to one plea not to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion with "So you won't mind, then, if I dedicate it to you?"

I was introduced to Hume twenty years ago in a graduate seminar with Adam Potkay, where we read Hume and Samuel Johnson as a debate on the nature of happiness. So it was with great interest that I picked up Prof. Rasmussen's book. I was not disappointed--thoroughly entertaining and informative. Theirs was an intellectual friendship for the ages. It made me think of other such friendships that have challenged the status quo--I recently read Michael Lewis's Undoing Project and so Tversky and Kahneman were first in my mind, but certainly others here could provide countless examples. No doubt a fascinating book could be written on the nature and impact of friendships in intellectual history.

I'm about halfway through the podcast and I look forward to finishing it this afternoon.

Eric writes:

A very informative, revealing, and appreciated episode. I find Rasmussen persuasive that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith provided a better insight than Hume (e.g. regarding sympathy).

However, even though The Theory of Moral Sentiments provides insight into how a culture promotes it's preferred sense of morality, there is still this problematic observation made in an earlier episode.

Matt Ridley on The Theory of Moral Sentiments (my bold added): "He describes what I think really is rather a good feedback loop: he talks about how the impartial spectator sort of stands for your and my discovery of how behavior is responded to by other people. In other words, as I grow up, I calibrate my behavior according to what other people consider to be good or bad. I find out that killing someone is disapproved of in society, and I therefore try not to do that. To put it at its bluntest. And of course what's so revolutionary about Adam Smith saying this--I'm porting[?] all this from you, actually--is that he's saying, actually we're not getting this stuff from priests. Priests are just reflecting back to us what we've agreed are the rules of moral behavior in society. We're getting this from literally the reactions of other people to how we behave. And in one society, people can react by saying, 'Good for you. You killed that man who looked at your wife. That's an honorable thing to do; that's a very moral thing to do.' And you learn that that's what morality is. And in other societies you learn that, 'No, however badly someone has behaved towards you, you never kill them.' And in fact you are an outcast if you do go that way. So, Smith is talking about a feedback loop into the way we respond to behavior that produces moral codes."

Ridley oversteps when he assumes all religious leaders always "are just reflecting back". But leave that to the side for the moment.

To see that this process doesn't depend on religion (and for additional diversity of killing-is-good examples), we could add the non-religious examples of atheistic revolutions and regimes who have repeatedly embraced the killing of vast numbers of civilians as good for the sake of the long term good of building a better society (French Reign of Terror, Soviet communism, Chinese communism, North Korean communism, and the Cambodian Killing Fields). Or consider, for example, when children learn to turn in their wayward parents and elders for the sake of the cause of society and the principles of the revolution.

Three lessons:

1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not need any religious basis to operate. Even in non-religious societies, someone can still "calibrate my behavior according to what other people consider to be good or bad."

2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments can reinforce radically different ideas about what is good or bad.

3. Therefore, The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not, indeed cannot, provide any basis on which to assess whether any culture's moral expectations are morally superior to any other set of moral expectations. As atheist Ridley pointed out, the very same process reinforces each of the competing cultural expectations.

In short, the process described by The Theory of Moral Sentiments helps people realize what most of the people they care about prefer and sheds no light whatsoever on whether that preference is truly morally better or worse than the distinct preferences of any other group.

It seems it largely encourages conformity to the expectations of a culture, even if those expectations are considered evil by the competing standards of other groups.

[Quote is from Matt Ridley on the Evolution of Everything --Econlib Ed.]

Greg G writes:


>----"In short, the process described by The Theory of Moral Sentiments helps people realize what most of the people they care about prefer and sheds no light whatsoever on whether that preference is truly morally better or worse than the distinct preferences of any other group."

Smith addresses himself to the fact that, regardless of which religion people prefer - and even if they prefer no religion at all - almost everyone is furnished with what we refer to as a conscience. That is to say, even when they perform an act they know no one else knows about, they may feel good about having done so or they may feel guilty about having done so. They "prefer" feeling good about it.

Individual preferences certainly do hold a large and decisive role in determining what values people choose. But the options available to these preferences are not limitless. It is genetic variation, not selection, that is random in Natural Selection. Selection is always for whatever makes a difference favoring the survival and reproduction of the species. In a world where actions favoring that can vary wildly it is not surprising that we see wide variety of behaviors and value systems. But not a limitless variety. The options are anchored in the realities of the biological limits of human nature.

One thing that people most consistently "prefer" is not to be ostracized by the communities they grow up in. And that is exactly what you would expect Natural Selection to favor.

Christianity has offered a quite spectacular variety of value systems for people to select from according to their preferences. For most of its history, murder and torture were considered appropriate punishments for heresy and religious differences were one of the major causes of war. Even today the menu of choices is impressively large from the Westboro Baptist Church to whichever of the countless sects are preferred by individual commenters.

George writes:

Terrific podcast. I wanted to add a couple of links to the comments:

1) Another Hume connection, this time with Eastern Philosophy (see Econtalk guest Robert Wright on Buddhism) is described by Prof. Alison Gopnik in her very funny "How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis"

2) For those who want to read Smith and Hume directly, but don't enjoy wading through their archaic version of English, please check out Early Modern Texts. On this site, the works of these and other important authors are "updated" to today's common English with helpful notes provided by scholars.

Dylan Wiliam writes:

Kirkcaldy is pronounced (at least in Scotland) as "cur-coddy."

Eric writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

David McGrogan writes:

A very enjoyable and thought-provoking podcast. It is genuinely surreal hearing Scottish place names pronounced with American accents - and I'm glad I'm not the only one who smiled ruefully at the pronunciation of Kircaldy!

David McGrogan writes:

Postscript: My last comment is ringing proof of the old internet adage that if you make a post discussing spelling, grammar or pronunciation you will inevitably mistype something.... "Kircaldy - dear, oh dear.

h writes:
2) For those who want to read Smith and Hume directly, but don't enjoy wading through their archaic version of English, please check out Early Modern Texts. On this site, the works of these and other important authors are "updated" to today's common English with helpful notes provided by scholars.
Thanks! That looks to be an amazing resource . . . It took me two years to read Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This should accelerate things.
Nonlin_org writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Nonlin_org writes:

@Greg G

You obviously disregard the fact that whatever their views, religion (in a broad sense) was an essential part of A. Smith and D. Hume's lives, and more importantly their ideas. You also disregard that this podcast episode was at least 50% about religion. Furthermore, shouldn't you be skeptical about your own beliefs (religion) first and foremost?

A lot of philosophers, Hume including, have done great damage to mankind. As far as A. Smith, he just formalized what others have done. The Greeks, Romans, Venetians and many others did not need to consult him at all as the economy goes forward with or without A. Smith. Sorry Russ, but Smith is only relevant in some soon to be forgotten economic courses.

@Dr Golabki

In fact, the 'existing evidence' does not support belief in "something from nothing and for no reason at all". Religious views need not be tied to a god in any way as proven by the many Eastern atheistic religions. It's all explained here.

Eric writes:

A question for any who have read Smith or Hume.
I'd like to know if you can think of anything written by either of them to address a particular shortcoming of their positions as discussed in this episode.

It is clear that a foundation for Adam Smith (and in some sense also Hume) was the idea of wanting the approval of an "impartial spectator".

Dennis Rasmussen: ... And so, Hume says we need to correct for our personal biases, for misinformation, and so forth, by adopting what he calls, you know, the general point of view or the common point of view. We need to look at actions, look at character traits, from the standpoint of sort of an outside observer. And this is exactly what Smith would come to call the 'impartial spectator,' I think; but Smith's impartial spectator plays the exact kind of parallel role to the general point of view does in Hume's. So, both argue that morality relies on disinterested sentiments. That is, what we feel when we adopt a position--when we have full information and when we are disinterested or impartial, we are kind of 3rd party perspective.

It's clear that humans naturally tend to want the approval of others, particularly those others in one's own culture or group. But what do these writers have to say about the implications of what happens when someone changes their identification and changes their sense of the "impartial spectator"? To make the problem clearer, consider the following contrasting cultures.

1) Humans ought to protect honor. So honor killing is sometimes the right choice.

2) Humans ought to be loyal to the State, which will outlast them. An anti-religious State is quite justified in killing however many citizens that it deems necessary (even millions) in order to achieve the future good of a religion-free utopian society.

3) Humans ought to treat other humans just as animals have always behaved according to the principle of Nature described by Darwin (i.e. "the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"). So it is right for superior races to exploit or even exterminate inferior races as well as to eliminate the defective and the useless.

4) Every human life has inherent significance that does not depend on the measure of his or her usefulness to others. Instead of hate, humans ought to learn how to love others, including even enemies.

The tendency to want the approval of the "spectator" works in each of these groups (cf. Matt Ridley quote above). Suppose that someone formerly with viewpoint X changes their mind and moves to viewpoint Y. Others in Y will think, "You have it right now. You have made moral progress." But those in other groups think the change is wrong and those still in group X will think "Your morals have been corrupted."

So did either Smith or Hume ever see or realize the problem with their systems? What did they have to say about the fact that their systems of moral sentiments apparently have no truly impartial way to morally evaluate any group's imagined "spectator" as morally better or worse than any other group's imagined "spectator"?

Dr. Golabki writes:


I think it's fair to say Hume was aware of this problem. In fact, he might be the intellectual father of the idea (if you aren't aware of "Hume's law" you should google it because you post similar ideas a LOT).

I'm not sure exactly how Hume would have answered your questions because he was somewhat ambiguous on the point of culture relativism... but I think he has a way out if he wants.

Hume thought morally "good" and "bad" judgements were subjective (perceived by the subject), but our other senses, like sight, are subjective as well. It doesn't follow from the fact that I see "red" subjectively that there is no objective truth about the nature of red. Everyone expieriences everything subjectively... that's life.

Hume also thought there were two types of morals: natural (I like a word "instinctual") and artificial (or learned).

For natural or instinctual morals I think there's a good case that these can be judged cross culturally because of our shared human nature, and in fact you can see similar "morals" even in apes.

For artificial or learned morals I think there are two tacts. (1) would be to collapse these on to the natural morals, or (2) since artificial morals are created to help us live together in large groups you can judge them in the way you would judge any human creation, "is it good at doing it's job?" Which in this case is helping humans live together happily and productive.

Dr. Golabki writes:


Religion has certainly been an important force in shaping human history and it was clearly important to Smith and Hume in the sense that they lived in a place and time where the church had an enormous amount of power. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. Particularly since the church was willing to wield that power against Hume because of his ideas.

the 'existing evidence' does not support belief in "something from nothing and for no reason at all". Religious views need not be tied to a god in any way as proven by the many Eastern atheistic religions.
Most atheist believe in causality so I'm not going to defend the position, "something from nothing and for no reason at all". I think the rational point of view is that any specific religious/spiritual claim may be possible, but is sufficiently unlikely that it's not worth thinking about (the same way it's possible there is a murderer behind me right now as I type type this, about to strike, but I'm not worried about it). You can make spiritual/religious sounding claims that are sufficiently vague where I'd buy in. For example "I believe there's a power or essence that runs through all of creation and binds us together"... sure... but I can't tell if we are talking about something like a Christian God, or something like gravity, or something else entirely.
Eric writes:

Dr. Golabki,

Yes, I do write about the "Is–ought problem" (or Hume's law, or Hume's guillotine) when it is relevant to the topic because it is so often the case that those with a secular worldview assume that the problem is not a problem (even though they cannot provide a way out of the problem). For example, some (wink) have appeared to suggest that one can get to "ought" based on math & science + logic/reason, etc., though such methods can only provide "is" statements, never "ought".

Dr. Golabki: For artificial or learned morals I think there are two tacts. (1) would be to collapse these on to the natural morals, or (2) since artificial morals are created to help us live together in large groups you can judge them in the way you would judge any human creation, "is it good at doing it's job?" Which in this case is helping humans live together happily and productive.

So which of these two conflicting tacts ought one to take? And on what basis?

You've provided a shorter statement of the problem without bringing Smith or Hume any closer to a way out. On closer inspection, that approach defeats itself.

Some would go for your first tact and say we ought to go the way of Nature (cf. my #3 above). Why shouldn't the strong and superior races seek their own happiness at the expense of the inferior? Others would say that is wrong and learned morals are good, i.e. "No, we ought to do what will help 'humans live together happily and productive'" (cf. my #4). But which learned morals? Others could say, "Our happiness depends on removing those who bring shame" (cf. my #1). Still others might claim, "To 'live together happily and productive' in the long run, it is necessary in the short run to exterminate religion" (cf. my #2).

The problem I asked about is whether Smith or Hume saw the problem and offered any real way out of the fact that the primary foundation is wobbly. They don't have any truly "impartial spectator" by which to judge between the various answers.

Your response suggests that they still don't have that.

If a truly "impartial spectator" exists, that would be fulfilled by a non-contingent uncreated Creator with an inherent moral nature. But Smith and Hume are trying to avoid depending on that foundation.

Robert Swan writes:

Both participants clearly knew their stuff and the conversation flowed naturally. Enjoyed the amicable disagreement over the "most important passage" in The Wealth of Nations. I side with Russ on that point. While Smith emphasises that individual liberty is by far the most important effect of the rise of commerce, that doesn't make that observation the most important insight in Smith's book.

Russ seems to have mellowed in his attitude to atheism, which is good to see, and I'm glad not too much time was spent speculating on whether Smith (or Hume) was truly a theist, a deist, a closet agnostic or an atheist. About the only reason that sort of thing is ever done is to recruit a historical figure to some cause.

To commenter Nonlin_org's questions, I don't think we have the same notion of what an atheist is. I've mentioned here before that whenever I hear that "God" created this, or ordained that, or whatever, I find it helpful to substitute "we don't know what" for "God" and I can usually agree with the statement. I would characterise atheism as this willingness to say "I don't know"; the claim of certainty is the mark of a religion.

Commenter Eric appears to have a better grasp of this. However when he says, in essence, "You unbelievers have no solid ground to stand on whereas I have this platform prepared for me by our `uncreated creator'". He's right about us unbelievers. The problem is that we accept neither his preparer nor the platform; he is on the very same shaky ground as we are.

Smith held that religious values could be beneficial, acting as a buttress for values he held to be right. I'm less optimistic. I have no beef with any of the mainstream religions as they are today, but history has shown that religious values change over time. Intolerance is on the rise from several quarters at the moment. Will tomorrow's religious thinking be as benign as today's?


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