Adam Smith FRSA (16 June [O.S. 5 June] 1723 – 17 July 1790) was a Scottish economist, philosopher and author as well as a moral philosopher, a pioneer of political economy and a key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment, also known as ”The Father of Economics” or ”The Father of Capitalism”. Smith wrote two classic works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). The latter, often abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. In his work, Adam Smith introduced his theory of absolute advantage.
Smith studied social philosophy at the University of Glasgow and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was one of the first students to benefit from scholarships set up by fellow Scot John Snell. After graduating, he delivered a successful series of public lectures at the University of Edinburgh,leading him to collaborate with David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith obtained a professorship at Glasgow, teaching moral philosophy and during this time, wrote and published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his later life, he took a tutoring position that allowed him to travel throughout Europe, where he met other intellectual leaders of his day.
Smith laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory. The Wealth of Nations was a precursor to the modern academic discipline of economics. In this and other works, he developed the concept of division of labour and expounded upon how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity. Smith was controversial in his own day and his general approach and writing style were often satirised by Torywriters such as Horace Walpole. In 2005, The Wealth of Nations was named among the 100 best Scottish books of all time.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments
In 1759, Smith published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, sold by co-publishers Andrew Millar of London and Alexander Kincaid of Edinburgh. Smith continued making extensive revisions to the book until his death.[d] Although The Wealth of Nations is widely regarded as Smith’s most influential work, Smith himself is believed to have considered The Theory of Moral Sentiments to be a superior work.
In the work, Smith critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from dynamic and interactive social relationships through which people seek “mutual sympathy of sentiments.” His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind’s ability to form moral judgement, given that people begin life with no moral sentiments at all. Smith proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others and seeing the judgements they form of both others and oneself makes people aware of themselves and how others perceive their behaviour. The feedback we receive from perceiving (or imagining) others’ judgements creates an incentive to achieve “mutual sympathy of sentiments” with them and leads people to develop habits, and then principles, of behaviour, which come to constitute one’s conscience.
Some scholars have perceived a conflict between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations; the former emphasises sympathy for others, while the latter focuses on the role of self-interest. In recent years, however, some scholars of Smith’s work have argued that no contradiction exists. They claim that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith develops a theory of psychology in which individuals seek the approval of the “impartial spectator” as a result of a natural desire to have outside observers sympathise with their sentiments. Rather than viewing The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as presenting incompatible views of human nature, some Smith scholars regard the works as emphasising different aspects of human nature that vary depending on the situation. Otteson argues that both books are Newtonian in their methodology and deploy a similar “market model” for explaining the creation and development of large-scale human social orders, including morality, economics, as well as language. Ekelund and Hebert offer a differing view, observing that self-interest is present in both works and that “in the former, sympathy is the moral faculty that holds self-interest in check, whereas in the latter, competition is the economic faculty that restrains self-interest.”
The Wealth of Nations
Disagreement exists between classical and neoclassical economists about the central message of Smith’s most influential work: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations(1776). Neoclassical economists emphasise Smith’s invisible hand, a concept mentioned in the middle of his work – Book IV, Chapter II – and classical economists believe that Smith stated his programme for promoting the “wealth of nations” in the first sentences, which attributes the growth of wealth and prosperity to the division of labour.
Smith used the term “the invisible hand” in “History of Astronomy” referring to “the invisible hand of Jupiter”, and once in each of his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). This last statement about “an invisible hand” has been interpreted in numerous ways.
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
Those who regard that statement as Smith’s central message also quote frequently Smith’s dictum:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
However, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he had a more sceptical approach to self-interest as driver of behaviour:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
Smith’s statement about the benefits of “an invisible hand” may be meant to answer Mandeville’s contention that “Private Vices … may be turned into Public Benefits”. It shows Smith’s belief that when an individual pursues his self-interest under conditions of justice, he unintentionally promotes the good of society. Self-interested competition in the free market, he argued, would tend to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low, while still building in an incentive for a wide variety of goods and services. Nevertheless, he was wary of businessmen and warned of their “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices”. Again and again, Smith warned of the collusive nature of business interests, which may form cabals or monopolies, fixing the highest price “which can be squeezed out of the buyers”. Smith also warned that a business-dominated political system would allow a conspiracy of businesses and industry against consumers, with the former scheming to influence politics and legislation. Smith states that the interest of manufacturers and merchants “in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public … The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.” Thus Smith’s chief worry seems to be when business is given special protections or privileges from government; by contrast, in the absence of such special political favours, he believed that business activities were generally beneficial to the whole society:
It is the great multiplication of the production of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of society. (The Wealth of Nations, I.i.10)
The neoclassical interest in Smith’s statement about “an invisible hand” originates in the possibility of seeing it as a precursor of neoclassical economics and its concept of general equilibrium – Samuelson’s “Economics” refers six times to Smith’s “invisible hand”. To emphasise this connection, Samuelson quotes Smith’s “invisible hand” statement substituting “general interest” for “public interest”. Samuelson concludes: “Smith was unable to prove the essence of his invisible-hand doctrine. Indeed, until the 1940s, no one knew how to prove, even to state properly, the kernel of truth in this proposition about perfectly competitive market.”
Very differently, classical economists see in Smith’s first sentences his programme to promote “The Wealth of Nations”. Using the physiocratical concept of the economy as a circular process, to secure growth the inputs of Period 2 must exceed the inputs of Period 1. Therefore, those outputs of Period 1 which are not used or usable as inputs of Period 2 are regarded as unproductive labour, as they do not contribute to growth. This is what Smith had heard in France from, among others, François Quesnay, whose ideas Smith was so impressed by that he might have dedicated The Wealth of Nations to him had he not died beforehand. To this French insight that unproductive labour should be reduced to use labour more productively, Smith added his own proposal, that productive labour should be made even more productive by deepening the division of labour. Smith argued that deepening the division of labour under competition leads to greater productivity, which leads to lower prices and thus an increasing standard of living—”general plenty” and “universal opulence”—for all. Extended markets and increased production lead to the continuous reorganisation of production and the invention of new ways of producing, which in turn lead to further increased production, lower prices, and improved standards of living. Smith’s central message is, therefore, that under dynamic competition, a growth machine secures “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith’s argument predicted Britain’s evolution as the workshop of the world, underselling and outproducing all its competitors. The opening sentences of the “Wealth of Nations” summarise this policy:
The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes … . [T]his produce … bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it … .[B]ut this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances;
- first, by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and,
- secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed [emphasis added].
However, Smith added that the “abundance or scantiness of this supply too seems to depend more upon the former of those two circumstances than upon the latter.”
In economics and moral philosophy
The Wealth of Nations was a precursor to the modern academic discipline of economics. In this and other works, Smith expounded how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity. Smith was controversial in his own day and his general approach and writing style were often satirised by Torywriters in the moralising tradition of Hogarth and Swift, as a discussion at the University of Winchester suggests. In 2005, The Wealth of Nations was named among the 100 Best Scottish Books of all time.
In light of the arguments put forward by Smith and other economic theorists in Britain, academic belief in mercantilism began to decline in Britain in the late 18th century. During the Industrial Revolution, Britain embraced free trade and Smith’s laissez-faire economics, and via the British Empire, used its power to spread a broadly liberal economic model around the world, characterised by open markets, and relatively barrier-free domestic and international trade.
George Stigler attributes to Smith “the most important substantive proposition in all of economics”. It is that, under competition, owners of resources (for example labour, land, and capital) will use them most profitably, resulting in an equal rate of return in equilibrium for all uses, adjusted for apparent differences arising from such factors as training, trust, hardship, and unemployment.
Paul Samuelson finds in Smith’s pluralist use of supply and demand as applied to wages, rents, and profit a valid and valuable anticipation of the general equilibrium modelling of Walras a century later. Smith’s allowance for wage increases in the short and intermediate term from capital accumulation and invention contrasted with Malthus, Ricardo, and Karl Marx in their propounding a rigid subsistence–wage theory of labour supply.
Joseph Schumpeter criticised Smith for a lack of technical rigour, yet he argued that this enabled Smith’s writings to appeal to wider audiences: “His very limitation made for success. Had he been more brilliant, he would not have been taken so seriously. Had he dug more deeply, had he unearthed more recondite truth, had he used more difficult and ingenious methods, he would not have been understood. But he had no such ambitions; in fact he disliked whatever went beyond plain common sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers. He led them on gently, encouraging them by trivialities and homely observations, making them feel comfortable all along.”
Classical economists presented competing theories of those of Smith, termed the “labour theory of value“. Later Marxian economics descending from classical economics also use Smith’s labour theories, in part. The first volume of Karl Marx‘s major work, Das Kapital, was published in German in 1867. In it, Marx focused on the labour theory of value and what he considered to be the exploitation of labour by capital. The labour theory of value held that the value of a thing was determined by the labour that went into its production. This contrasts with the modern contention of neoclassical economics, that the value of a thing is determined by what one is willing to give up to obtain the thing.
The bicentennial anniversary of the publication of The Wealth of Nations was celebrated in 1976, resulting in increased interest for The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his other works throughout academia. After 1976, Smith was more likely to be represented as the author of both The Wealth of Nationsand The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and thereby as the founder of a moral philosophy and the science of economics. His homo economicus or “economic man” was also more often represented as a moral person. Additionally, economists David Levy and Sandra Peart in “The Secret History of the Dismal Science” point to his opposition to hierarchy and beliefs in inequality, including racial inequality, and provide additional support for those who point to Smith’s opposition to slavery, colonialism, and empire. They show the caricatures of Smith drawn by the opponents of views on hierarchy and inequality in this online article. Emphasised also are Smith’s statements of the need for high wages for the poor, and the efforts to keep wages low. In The “Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics”, Peart and Levy also cite Smith’s view that a common street porter was not intellectually inferior to a philosopher, and point to the need for greater appreciation of the public views in discussions of science and other subjects now considered to be technical. They also cite Smith’s opposition to the often expressed view that science is superior to common sense.
Smith also explained the relationship between growth of private property and civil government:
Men may live together in society with some tolerable degree of security, though there is no civil magistrate to protect them from the injustice of those passions. But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property, passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days’ labour, civil government is not so necessary. Civil government supposes a certain subordination. But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property. (…) Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth in the possession of their property, in order that men of superior wealth may combine to defend them in the possession of theirs. All the inferior shepherds and herdsmen feel that the security of their own herds and flocks depends upon the security of those of the great shepherd or herdsman; that the maintenance of their lesser authority depends upon that of his greater authority, and that upon their subordination to him depends his power of keeping their inferiors in subordination to them. They constitute a sort of little nobility, who feel themselves interested to defend the property and to support the authority of their own little sovereign in order that he may be able to defend their property and to support their authority. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all. (Source: The Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 2)
In British Imperial debates
Smith’s chapter on colonies, in turn, would help shape British imperial debates from the mid-19th century onward. The Wealth of Nations would become an ambiguous text regarding the imperial question. In his chapter on colonies, Smith pondered how to solve the crisis developing across the Atlantic among the empire’s 13 American colonies. He offered two different proposals for easing tensions. The first proposal called for giving the colonies their independence, and by thus parting on a friendly basis, Britain would be able to develop and maintain a free-trade relationship with them, and possibly even an informal military alliance. Smith’s second proposal called for a theoretical imperial federation that would bring the colonies and the metropole closer together through an imperial parliamentary system and imperial free trade.
Smith’s most prominent disciple in 19th-century Britain, peace advocate Richard Cobden, preferred the first proposal. Cobden would lead the Anti-Corn Law League in overturning the Corn Lawsin 1846, shifting Britain to a policy of free trade and empire “on the cheap” for decades to come. This hands-off approach toward the British Empire would become known as Cobdenism or the Manchester School. By the turn of the century, however, advocates of Smith’s second proposal such as Joseph Shield Nicholson would become ever more vocal in opposing Cobdenism, calling instead for imperial federation. As Marc-William Palen notes: “On the one hand, Adam Smith’s late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Cobdenite adherents used his theories to argue for gradual imperial devolution and empire ‘on the cheap’. On the other, various proponents of imperial federation throughout the British World sought to use Smith’s theories to overturn the predominant Cobdenite hands-off imperial approach and instead, with a firm grip, bring the empire closer than ever before.” Smith’s ideas thus played an important part in subsequent debates over the British Empire.
As a symbol of free-market economics
Alan Greenspan argues that, while Smith did not coin the term laissez-faire, “it was left to Adam Smith to identify the more-general set of principles that brought conceptual clarity to the seeming chaos of market transactions”. Greenspan continues that The Wealth of Nations was “one of the great achievements in human intellectual history”. P.J. O’Rourke describes Smith as the “founder of free market economics”.
Other writers have argued that Smith’s support for laissez-faire (which in French means leave alone) has been overstated. Herbert Stein wrote that the people who “wear an Adam Smith necktie” do it to “make a statement of their devotion to the idea of free markets and limited government“, and that this misrepresents Smith’s ideas. Stein writes that Smith “was not pure or doctrinaire about this idea. He viewed government intervention in the market with great skepticism…yet he was prepared to accept or propose qualifications to that policy in the specific cases where he judged that their net effect would be beneficial and would not undermine the basically free character of the system. He did not wear the Adam Smith necktie.” In Stein’s reading, The Wealth of Nations could justify the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, mandatory employer health benefits, environmentalism, and “discriminatory taxation to deter improper or luxurious behavior“.
Similarly, Vivienne Brown stated in The Economic Journal that in the 20th-century United States, Reaganomics supporters, the Wall Street Journal, and other similar sources have spread among the general public a partial and misleading vision of Smith, portraying him as an “extreme dogmatic defender of laissez-fairecapitalism and supply-side economics“. In fact, The Wealth of Nations includes the following statement on the payment of taxes:
The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.
Some commentators have argued that Smith’s works show support for a progressive, not flat, income tax and that he specifically named taxes that he thought should be required by the state, among them luxury-goods taxes and tax on rent. Yet Smith argued for the “impossibility of taxing the people, in proportion to their economic revenue, by any capitation” (The Wealth of Nations, V.ii.k.1). Smith argued that taxes should principally go toward protecting “justice” and “certain publick institutions” that were necessary for the benefit of all of society, but that could not be provided by private enterprise (The Wealth of Nations, IV.ix.51).
Additionally, Smith outlined the proper expenses of the government in The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Ch. I. Included in his requirements of a government is to enforce contracts and provide justice system, grant patents and copy rights, provide public goods such as infrastructure, provide national defence, and regulate banking. The role of the government was to provide goods “of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual” such as roads, bridges, canals, and harbours. He also encouraged invention and new ideas through his patent enforcement and support of infant industry monopolies. He supported partial public subsidies for elementary education, and he believed that competition among religious institutions would provide general benefit to the society. In such cases, however, Smith argued for local rather than centralised control: “Even those publick works which are of such a nature that they cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves … are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local and provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state” (Wealth of Nations, V.i.d.18). Finally, he outlined how the government should support the dignity of the monarch or chief magistrate, such that they are equal or above the public in fashion. He even states that monarchs should be provided for in a greater fashion than magistrates of a republic because “we naturally expect more splendor in the court of a king than in the mansion-house of a doge“. In addition, he allowed that in some specific circumstances, retaliatory tariffs may be beneficial:
The recovery of a great foreign market will generally more than compensate the transitory inconvenience of paying dearer during a short time for some sorts of goods.
However, he added that in general, a retaliatory tariff “seems a bad method of compensating the injury done to certain classes of our people, to do another injury ourselves, not only to those classes, but to almost all the other classes of them” (The Wealth of Nations, IV.ii.39).
Economic historians such as Jacob Viner regard Smith as a strong advocate of free markets and limited government (what Smith called “natural liberty”), but not as a dogmatic supporter of laissez-faire.
Economist Daniel Klein believes using the term “free-market economics” or “free-market economist” to identify the ideas of Smith is too general and slightly misleading. Klein offers six characteristics central to the identity of Smith’s economic thought and argues that a new name is needed to give a more accurate depiction of the “Smithian” identity. Economist David Ricardo set straight some of the misunderstandings about Smith’s thoughts on free market. Most people still fall victim to the thinking that Smith was a free-market economist without exception, though he was not. Ricardo pointed out that Smith was in support of helping infant industries. Smith believed that the government should subsidise newly formed industry, but he did fear that when the infant industry grew into adulthood, it would be unwilling to surrender the government help. Smith also supported tariffs on imported goods to counteract an internal tax on the same good. Smith also fell to pressure in supporting some tariffs in support for national defence.
The price of labour, it must be observed, cannot be ascertained very accurately anywhere, different prices being often paid at the same place and for the same sort of labour, not only according to the different abilities of the workmen, but according to the easiness or hardness of the masters. Where wages are not regulated by law, all that we can pretend to determine is what are the most usual; and experience seems to show that law can never regulate them properly, though it has often pretended to do so. (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 8)
A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate.
Alfred Marshall criticised Smith’s definition of the economy on several points. He argued that man should be equally important as money, services are as important as goods, and that there must be an emphasis on human welfare, instead of just wealth. The “invisible hand” only works well when both production and consumption operates in free markets, with small (“atomistic”) producers and consumers allowing supply and demand to fluctuate and equilibrate. In conditions of monopoly and oligopoly, the “invisible hand” fails.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz says, on the topic of one of Smith’s better-known ideas: “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”