Saturday, July 18, 2015
Individual ambition serves the common good
Posted by David Smith at 03:30 PM
Category: Thoughts and responses

My remarks on being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Nottingham, at a ceremony on Friday July 17.


Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, parents, family members, academic staff and fellow graduands. If Iíve missed anybody out, I apologise. It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be here. My sincere thanks to Professor Kevin Lee for his magnificent oration. It is a strange and rather wonderful experience to have such an oration, at least when youíre still around to hear it. My great thanks too to the university for conferring on me the enormous privilege of this honorary doctorate. I donít have words to describe what an honour this is for me.

Listening to Professor David Greenaway, your vice-chancellor, on the importance of attending your graduation ceremony, for yourself and for your family, struck a chord. Like him, I didnít, and have regretted it ever since. A second degree a little later partly filled the gap. But it wasnít the same. So well done all of you for attending this ceremony. And most of all congratulations of your degrees, and the hard work you put in to receive them.

Fellow graduands, you have, I think, all studied economics, so let me say how I think a particular version of the law of comparative advantage applies to you.

Firstly, you have studied at one of the greatest universities in the world. Nottingham isnít the oldest but it is one of the very best, and carries that excellence to its campuses in Malaysia and China, both of which I have visited.

Secondly, as befits a great university, youíve benefited from a superb teaching staff, some of whom are here today.

And thirdly, you have studied economics, which of course is the best subject you could have chosen. Some of you will work as economists, or teach the subject yourself. Many of you will move away from pure economics in your careers and other endeavours. But I can assure you the economics you have learned will stand you in good stead. Economics makes you think in a particular way, a logical way, a problem-solving way and an imaginative way. You have the comparative advantage of having studied economics.

Youíll know, as you move through life Ė and perhaps you would expect me to say this Ė that thereís no such thing as a free lunch. You will also know that there is a limit to how much you can plan your career: what youíll be doing in 20 yearsí time may be something that does not currently exist. And it wonít all be plain sailing. I have spent quite a lot of time recently thinking about the British economy over many decades. It has had plenty of ups and downs, booms and busts, and life is a bit like that. There will be times when everything is going fantastically well and times when life disappoints. But throughout all those ups and downs, the trend is upwards, as Iím sure it will be for you.

I wanted to leave you with the thoughts of two of our great economists, Keynes and Adam Smith. Keynes, on discovering he was good at economics, wrote to fellow Bloomsbury group member Lytton Strachey, and said: ďI find Economics increasingly satisfactory, and I think I am rather good at it. I want to manage a railway or organise a Trust, or at least swindle the investing public.Ē

Maybe not such a good life lesson. Certainly nobody here will be swindling the investing public, though somebody might one day run a railway, perhaps HS2.

I think I prefer this from Adam Smith, who said simply: ďIndividual ambition serves the common good.Ē It does. Your ambition helps you, but it also helps others. And without ambition we are nowhere.

So I would urge you be ambitious, not just about making money but about creating new ways of doing things, new ways of changing lives, new ventures, new ideas. Donít be put off by people who say it canít be done. As has been said, it is the things you donít do that you regret. So be bold. Build on that comparative advantage you have. You wonít regret it.

Thank you very much.