Skip to main content
Select Source:

Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam

Overview of writings

“The Theory of MoralSentiments”

“The Wealth of Nations”



Adam Smith (1723–1790) was born inKirkcaldy, Fifeshire, a fisheries and mining town near Edinburgh. Hewas the son, by a second marriage, of Adam Smith, comptroller of thecustoms at Kirkcaldy, who died early in 1723; his mother, MargaretDouglas, was the daughter of a substantial landowner in Fifeshire.Smith lived with his mother whenever he was in Scotland until herdeath in 1784; he was her only child, and he remained a bacheloruntil his death.

Smith received his elementary schooling inKirkcaldy and entered the University of Glasgow in 1737, graduatingwith an M.A. in 1740. He then went to Oxford University as a Snellfellow at Balliol College, where he stayed until 1746. Beyond thefact that at Glasgow he was a student of Francis Hutcheson, almostnothing is reliably known about his intellectual experiences eitherat Glasgow or at Oxford. From 1746 to 1748 he lived with his motherin Kirkcaldy, presumably continuing his studies and awaiting anopening for a career in some remunerative post. Between 1748 and1751, under the sponsorship of some of the leading intellectuals ofEdinburgh, he gave several successful series of public lectures, onrhetoric and belles-lettres, on jurisprudence, and perhaps onother subjects. On the strength of the reputation gained by theselectures, he was elected in 1751 to the professorship of logic at theUniversity of Glasgow. When the chair of moral philosophy becamevacant later in the same year, he was elected to that superior post,which he occupied until 1763. In 1759 he published his first book,The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Early in 1764 Smith went toFrance as tutor of the young duke of Buccleuch, stepson and ward of Charles Townshend. Smith remained in France from early in 1764 untillate in 1766, most of the time in Toulouse but for some months inParis, where he saw a good deal of the leading physiocrats and philosophes. He also visited Geneva, where he made the acquaintance of Voltaire. After his return to England in 1766, he was until earlyin 1767 an adviser to Charles Townshend, then chancellor of theexchequer and working on his fatal plan for taxing the American colonies; Smith’s contribution to this plan, if any,is unknown. Endowed with a generous pension for life from the duke of Buccleuch, Smith returned in 1767 to Kirkcaldy, where he remaineduntil early in 1773, working on The Wealth of Nations. From 1773until early in 1776 he was again in London, completing the book butalso advising the government occasionally on economic matters. OnMarch 9, 1776, The Wealth of Nations was finally published,and soon thereafter Smith returned once more to Kirkcaldy. Early in1778, he was appointed a commissioner of customs for Scotland andalso a commissioner of the salt duties. These were not sinecureposts, as has often been alleged, but required his presence inEdinburgh for the greater part of each week throughout the year. Forthe rest of his life, he held these posts and lived in Edinburgh,where he died on July 17, 1790.

Overview of writings

TheTheory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations were theonly full-length books that Smith wrote; however, he keptrevising both of them for successive editions, and the additions inthe sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which waspublished only a few weeks before his death, were substantial inextent and importance. He contributed three essays to periodicals in1755 and 1761, and a collection of essays on literary andphilosophical subjects was first published posthumously in 1795(“Essays on Philosophical Subjects” 1963). In 1896Edwin Cannan edited and published a recently found student’sreport of Smith’s economic lectures as given in 1763 at theUniversity of Glasgow (Lectures on Justice . . . 1964). In1963 John M. Lothian edited and published a student’s reporton Smith’s lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres atGlasgow in 1762/1763 (Lectures on Rhetoric . . . 1963), which he hadshortly before purchased at an auction sale in Scotland. W. S.Howell, in an as yet unpublished manuscript, describes these lecturesas “an important and original revolutionary document in animportant revolution in the history of rhetorical theory,” the“revolution” consisting of the substitution for the oldrhetoric stemming from Aristotle and Cicero of a new rhetoric basedon the new learning of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and others. At thesame auction Lothian also purchased a student’s report ofSmith’s economic lectures at Glasgow. This report, which isnow in the possession of the University of Glasgow, is substantiallyfuller and also, it has been stated, superior in quality to thatpublished by Cannan in 1896. Smith is said to have lectured also atthe University of Glasgow on nat-ural theology. Shortly beforehis death he supervised the burning of almost all of his manuscripts,some 16 folio volumes.

Smith clearly had a wide range ofinterests. The evidence available suggests that he reached his basicmethodological and philosophical principles early in his career andthat his destruction of manuscripts before his death was probablymotivated much more by dissatisfaction with their form or with theirincomplete state than by any fundamental change in his views.

Almost everything Smith wrote, in its methodological implicationsif not in its concrete subject matter, has some relevance for socialthought, but it is expedient here to concentrate on the two books hepublished during his lifetime. Many writers, including the presentauthor at an early stage of his study of Smith, have found these twoworks in some measure basically inconsistent. But in much of hiswriting Smith worked from what he called systems and what today wouldbe called models. He was aware that “systems” areincomplete in the factors they take into account. Had he been able tocomplete his total system, he would probably have demonstrated thatthe apparent inconsistencies were often not real ones, but weremerely the consequences of deliberate shifts from one partial modelto another.

In a letter of November 1, 1785, to a Frenchcorrespondent, Smith wrote that he had “. . . two other greatworks upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History ofall the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry andEloquence; the other is a sort of theory and History of Law andGovernment. . . . But the indolence of old age, tho’ Istruggle violently against it, I feel coming fast upon me, andwhether I shall ever be able to finish either is extremelyuncertain” ([1785] 1896, p. 166). The manuscripts of these two“great works” presumably were among those destroyedshortly before his death.

“The Theory of MoralSentiments”

The first thing to note about The Theory ofMoral Sentiments is its title. It is a “theory”or “system,” that is, it consciously and deliberatelyemploys some measure of patterned abstraction and thus does notprofess to account for all the relevant facts of the real world. Itsprimary concern is only with that part of human psychology which isinvolved in the interrelationships of men living in communities—the“moral sentiments,” that is, the passions,propensities, affections, feelings, whether of approbation or ofdisapproval, aroused by these interrelationships. These sentiments are intermediate, in degree of reflection or“reason” involved, between the basic instincts that manshares with the animals and the calculation or ratiocination ofsophisticated man as a reasoning being. When and how and in whatdegree these sentiments operate Smith discovered through observationof his neighbors, and presumably also, although he apparently neverexplicitly said so, through disciplined introspection exercised onthe assumption that men are substantially alike in their subrationalpsychology.

To show how the sentiments operate to socialize theindividual, to fashion him into a disciplined member of a harmonioussocial group, Smith introduced into his model the concept of“spectators,” distinguishing two main species. Thereis, first, the spectator external to yourself, the“real” spectator, who, by manifesting in some mannerhis sentiment of approval or disapproval of your behavior, exercisesan influence on you. There is, second, the internal spectator,yourself, operating on two distinct levels: first, your imaginationof what the reaction of a hypothetical external spectator would be toyour actual or contemplated behavior; second, your own moraljudgment, the judgment by your own conscience, by “the manwithin your breast,” by the “impartialspectator.” This whole complex mechanism of psychologicalresponse by men to their neighbors’ feelings of approval ordisapproval, which Smith called sympathy, he regarded as the majorfactor in creating and maintaining a socialized community. Itinvolves, according to Smith, not only the desire to win the praiseor approval of others but also the desire to be praiseworthy; whenthe two desires are in conflict, conscience decrees that the lattershall prevail.

Commentators have objected that Smith heredescribed a circular process, operating through sympathy like a setof “mirrors,” and that he failed to explain adequatelyeither what behavior is approved and what is disapproved or theorigin or genesis of the social passions. Yet, at least byimplication, Smith did offer such an explanation. He emphaticallyrejected human reason as the source of these sentiments. Also byimplication he denied that there is a natural evolutionary process inwhich groups with a pattern of sentiments that is predominantlyuseful survive, whereas those groups with a pattern of antisocialsentiments perish. Smith maintained that man is endowed by God withhis moral sentiments and that these sentiments bind men to each otherbecause the deity so made them in its concern for the happiness ofmankind. Smith ridiculed those who attributed to man’s wisdomwhat is really the wisdom of God,or of nature. Here Smith was, ofcourse, invoking “final causes,” or “theinvisible hand.”

It is hard for some people today tobelieve that Smith’s optimistic deism was completely sincere,and they tend to attribute his exposition of it to prudentialconsiderations or to concessions to a mode of speech called for bythe standards of propriety of the time. But in the“enlightened” Scottish circles of Smith’s timeoptimistic deism, sincerely held, was practically universal. Althoughorthodox Calvinists rejected its optimistic aspect as not religiousenough and David Hume rejected it as calling for too much religiousfaith, aside from Hume, no one among Smith’s teachers,colleagues, friends, or followers is identifiable as a critic ofoptimistic deism.

There may be genuine difficulty in reconcilingSmith’s deistic interpretation of the origin of the moralsentiments with other aspects of his social thought, including someof his specifically economic thought. Smith attributed to providencethe original endowment of mankind with a set of moral sentimentsconducive to the happiness of mankind. But unless he also assumedthat providence intervenes constantly or intermittently to makeappropriate adjustments in these sentiments as the physical or humanenvironment changes through time (for which belief there is noevidence in anything he wrote), Smith would seem to have beenpostulating a static social psychology, at least on the subrationallevel, in what he himself admitted to be in many relevant respects aconstantly changing and evolving world. Smith did recognize theimpact of the variability of custom and fashion on the mode ofoperation of the moral sentiments, but, in spite of this variability,he specifically recognized only one major historical affront to thesystem of moral sentiments—the prevalence of infant exposure in thelater period of ancient Greek civilization. He disposed of thisexception as a temporary aberration, outweighed by the manyoutstanding virtues of Greek civilization at the time. Nowhere did heattempt to explain how antisocial passions and aberrations inconflict with the “Author of Nature’s” designcame into existence. But in keeping with the notion then held by somescientists that there is in nature a self-equilibratingmechanism by which aberrations are prevented from prevailing, anotion having some analogy to the modern scientific notion of“homeostasis,” Smith held that there is an inherenttendency in the moral sentiments to overcome such aberrations.

Smith’s treatment of “justice” in The Theoryof Moral Sentiments is especially important for a properinterpretation of The Wealth of Nations. Smith always usedthe word to mean substantially what Aristotle and the Schoolmen meantby “commutative justice.” Justice is a negative virtue;it consists of refraining from injury to another person and fromtaking or withholding from another what belongs to him. It is thusdistinct from benevolence, friendship, or charity. Smith consideredjustice, so understood, to be the necessary foundation of a viablesociety. It is a moral sentiment and thus finds voluntary or naturalexpression. The natural or spontaneous sentiment of justice is not,however, strong enough in ordinary men to meet the needs of society.Consequently, men have been endowed with the propensity to formulaterules of justice on the basis of their experience and reason, andthey accept these rules for themselves and press them upon others.But even this is inadequate for the needs of society, and thereforegovernment is established, its chief function being the coerciveenforcement of justice on the individual members of the communitythrough law and the magistrates.

The moral sentiments operate atdifferent levels of intensity according to the nature and thestrength of the external stimuli impinging upon men. Smith’sdiscussion here closely parallels Hume’s discussion in ATreatise of Human Nature (1739–1740, book 2, part 2,especially sec. 4) and elsewhere: in describing the way in which thestrength of the “passions” between individuals varieswith the closeness of their relationship with respect to duration,space, kinship, nationality, occupation, rank, and so forth, Humerepeatedly used the term “distance” metaphorically tosignify any factors separating individuals from each other, a usagethat goes back at least to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. AlthoughSmith stressed distance in its primary spatial sense as an importantfactor in weakening the intensity of the moral sentiments—“Towhat purpose should we trouble ourselves about the world in the moon?All men, even those at the greatest distance, are no doubt entitledto our good wishes, and our good wishes we naturally give them. Butif, notwithstanding, they should be unfortunate, to give ourselvesany anxiety upon that account seems to be no part of our duty”([1759] 1966, p. 197)—he also used the same idea, if not the actualterm “distance,” for the absence not only of spatialproximity but also of membership in the same family, village, town,province, country, circle of friends, guild or company, church,social class, or some other psychologically unifying bond. In similarmanner he took it for granted that the participants in a large numberof the transactions which occur in the market are (in themetaphorical sense) at an extreme distance from each other; they are,in relation to each other, anonymous, or strangers, so that there islimited occasion for any moral sentiments other than justice to comeinto operation.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smithminimized the contribution that even the highly successful pursuit ofwealth or of higher social status makes to the happiness of anindividual. Both in this work and in The Wealth of NationsSmith treated increase in aggregate wealth as a highly worthyobjective for a country, but apparently in only one passage in eitherwork is increase in per capita wealth or income expressly mentionedas a reason for the advantage of an increase in aggregate wealth.Smith attached little importance to an increase above a quite modestlevel of per capita income, but he attributed great value to theincrease of population that an increase in aggregate wealth fostersand supports. With his optimistic view of the amount of happinessordinarily enjoyed even by the poor, Smith believed that growth ofpopulation is ordinarily conducive to growth in the aggregate amountof human happiness. He also found value in increase of aggregatewealth because it makes possible an increase in handsome buildingsand great avenues in the towns, the “magnificence” soextolled by the writers of classical antiquity and of theRenaissance, but he treated these as public rather than individualriches. Smith also included as an advantage of growth of aggregatewealth the progress of aesthetic and intellectual culture and of“civilization” in general, which he associated withcommunal enrichment.

“The Wealth of Nations”

The Wealth of Nations is of great importance for three mainreasons. First, it presents an impressive collection of economicdata, gathered together by Smith from wide reading in publicationsfrom the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to his own time andfrom acute observation of Britain and France in his own time. Smithused this material to illustrate and support his analysis ofcontemporary economic process, to provide a factual basis for hisfrequent ventures into the philosophy or theory of economicdevelopment, and at times to digress into narrative history presentedwithout any clear relationship to his theoretical endeavors. TheWealth of Nations was heavily drawn on as a reliable source bookfor factual data by several generations of writers on economicmatters, especially, of covrse, in the English-speakingcountries. It is still useful for this purpose.

Second, it wasthe most comprehensive and ambitious attempt up to Smith’stime to present in comprehensive, and at the same timecoordinated, fashion the nature of economic process in apredominantly “individualistic,” or“competitive,” or “market,” or“capitalistic” society, to use modern adjectives. For along time it largely determined the selection of issues and theinitial analytical approach of economists in many countries, evenwhen in their treatment of The Wealth of Nations they weremuch more critics than disciples.

Third, it was an evaluating andcrusading book, which sharply criticized existing society andgovernment and argued strongly for changes in national policy,especially in relation to the extent and nature of governmentintervention in economic matters—domestic, colonial, andinternational. Not immediately, but within a generation, it became apowerful influence on writers on economic policy. Later still, bothdirectly and indirectly through those influenced by it, it became asignificant factor in determining the course of national policy notonly in Britain but in other countries as well. This is much morethan any other economic work has ever achieved; and Smith probablyhas had much more influence than any other economist.

Economic development

Smith was deeply interested in the history, thecauses, and the natural and artificial limitations of what we nowcommonly call “economic development” and what hereferred to as “progress,” “improvement,”“progress of improvement,” and “progress ofopulence.” His treatment of economic development is scatteredthroughout almost the whole work. He put most stress on the followingfactors as favorable to economic development: abundance of naturalresources; technological progress as promoted by extension ofdivision of labor; freedom of private enterprise from its ownpropensity to monopolistic organization; freedom from such hurtfulartificial institutions as primogeniture; and freedom from officialpolicies and practices that act as brakes on individual initiative ormisdirect it. The basic source of economic progress, however, hefound in the striving of individuals to improve their economic statusor their rank in society— “. . . the desire of bettering ourcondition, a desire which . . . comes with us from the womb, andnever leaves us till we go into the grave” ([1776] 1950, p.323). He did not believe that this desire does or should operatewithout restraint. It is disciplined by the sentiment of justice andby governmental enforcement of justice. It has to compete,beneficially or otherwise, with “the passion for presentenjoyment,” which acts as a restraint on accumulation; withindolence; with the occasional “liberality” ofemployersto their workmen and of landlords to their tenants; and with“the pride of man [which] makes him love to domineer,”so that a plantation owner may prefer the service of slaves to thatof freemen even where the latter would be more profitable. All ofthese are factors that are present in a different degree in differentorders of society and in different circumstances. Smith, moreover,saw the desire for individual enrichment and the desire to preserveor improve one’s social status as occasionally coming intoconflict, as, for instance, when one’s rank calls for profuseexpenditure but the preservation or augmentation of one’sestate calls for frugality.

Smith placed great emphasis on thedivision of labor as a requisite of economic development; he alsostressed the interrelations of the division of labor with technologyand with commerce. He found a subrational or nonutilitarian originfor the resort to specialization (although not for itsintensification) in a “propensity to truck and barter”innate in mankind. Here, following certain predecessors, heidentified three contributions that the division of labor makes toproductivity: by permitting indefinite repetition of simple tasks, itpromotes dexterity; it eliminates the loss of working time involvedin changing from one task to another; it facilitates invention ofmachinery, both by the artisans on the job and by outside observers.Smith stated that extension of the division of labor makes morecapital necessary and therefore makes frugality and accumulationeconomic virtues. He always minimized the differences of innateability or aptitude between different persons and thus gave little orno weight to the advantage claimed for specialization by a continuouschain of writers from ancient Greece on—that it makes possible theassignment of workers to those tasks for which they have the greatestaptitude. Smith pointed out that the division of labor is limited bythe extent of the market and that growth of population bothconstitutes an extension of the market and is made possible by theincrease of aggregate production that results from an extension ofthe division of labor. Growth of population, growth of aggregatewealth and income, and extension of the division of labor are thusexplained as mutually dependent and mutually supporting factors.

Smith recognized, under the influence of Rousseau, that thedivision of labor has a drawback from a humanitarian point of view:the worker as a person tends to be degraded by the monotony of hiswork and the enlistment of only a narrow range of his mentalfaculties. Smith thought, however, that this predicament could beremedied by education. This is one of the reasons that Smithaccepted as a desirable function of government the financing, atpublic expense, of elementary education for the children of the poor.Smith’s discussion was cited by Karl Marx in his presentationof the thesis that a degradation or “alienation” oflabor is a consequence of division of labor, but Marx was unaware ofthe prior treatment of the subject by Rousseau to which Smith wasindebted.

Smith’s belief that the tendency to aggregateimprovement is “natural,” i.e., essentially the productof man’s basic psychology, may have been a factor contributingto his skepticism about the possibility that government may makemajor positive contributions to economic development. While hecharged government in general with operating as a brake on economicprogress, Smith nevertheless remained an optimist. In man’szeal to better his condition, the “wisdom of nature”had provided a counterforce to mistaken government policies andpractices that was sufficiently powerful to make possible, in mostcases, a thriving and prospering economy.

Smith’s eclecticism

It is a common error to interpret The Wealth ofNations as an unqualified eulogy of private enterprise and thebusinessman. It was only private enterprise operating in a fullycompetitive manner that Smith praised. He depicted businessmen ingeneral as having a constant propensity to organize themselves intogroups capable of exercising “monopoly” power, groupsto which he undiscriminatingly attributed the capacity and, byimplication, the will to exact the highest price at which any salescan be made. He also charged businessmen with major responsibilityfor persuading or pressing government to establish special privilegesand legal monopolies for favored groups. Where monopoly isunavoidable, he preferred government to private operation. He hadonly deep and violently phrased scorn for the morals of businessmenorganized in groups either to operate as monopolists or to obtainspecial privileges from government. The Wealth of Nations doeslavish praise on the businessman, but only when he is on his goodbehavior.

Smith’s main merits as an“analytical” or “scientific” theorist, touse modern eulogistic terms for “pure” economic theory,lie in his eclectic spirit. While deliberately resorting toabstraction, he very much doubted that abstraction could provideeither understanding of the real world or, by itself, safe guidancefor the legislator or statesman. On specific points of economicanalysis some predecessors did better than Smith, and he failed toabsorb fully some of the genuinely valuable analyticalcontributionsof Hume, the physiocrats, and Tur-got. If“analytical” as a eulogistic term is to be interpretedstrictly in terms of degree of rigor, internal consistency, and closeanalogy to abstract mathematical operations, Schumpeter’sverdict that “the Wealth of Nations does not contain asingle analytic idea, principle, or method that was entirely new in1776” (Schumpeter 1954, p. 184) is difficult to challenge, andnot merely because valuable ideas that are “entirelynew” are hard to spot in any area of intellectual endeavor.

In both his major works Smith repeatedly amended his system,bringing into his discussion some hitherto neglected variable, somefresh observation of fact, some new objective. He has been rightlycharged by critics with resorting profusely to such qualifications as“perhaps,” “generally,” and “inmost cases,” with the consequence that his models are nottight or rigorous. It is arguable, however, by those who, if forcedto choose, prefer realism, or at least the pursuit of it, to rigorand elegance of analysis, that both of his major works are on thewhole made better by the qualifications he sprinkled in their pagesand that he would have made them still better, although stilluntidier, if he had used even more qualifying adjectives or phrases.He would at least have made it harder for later critics to use shortquotations, out of context or stripped of their qualifications, toshow his inability to avoid flagrant self-contradiction.

The question of the relation of relative labor input to exchangevalue is one instance where Smith appears repeatedly to have shiftedfrom one belief to another; however, it may be that actually he wasonly shifting from one abstraction to another, while decorating hisexposition (in a manner common then and not unknown now) withtraditional maxims exalting the role of labor—maxims whosefamiliarity alone made them seem to carry logical or empiricalweight. Smith can be quoted in support of all of the followingpropositions: that labor is the sole “source” of marketvalue; that labor is the sole regulator of exchange value; that laborhas, among the elements entering into production, a peculiar andperhaps even an exclusive value-creating power; that therelative values of different commodities are, or should be,proportional to their labor-time costs or to their wage costs;that all incomes are extracted from the product of labor. For someeconomists any one of these propositions suffices to label itsexponent a “labor theory of value” theorist. It seemssafer, nevertheless, not to attribute to Smith much more than thebelief that in commercial or capitalist economies relativelabor-time costs per unit of product have a large part in the determination of the exchange values of differentcommodities, and relative wage-costs even more.

Economic policy

The separation of normative fromnon-normative, or policy, economics was a late development inthe history of economics, and even today it is hard to fully executethis separation because many of the standard terms used in economicanalysis carry with them an almost automatic normative or evaluativeimplication: for example, “productive,”“utility,” “value,”“equilibrium.” Prior to Smith’s time it was rarefor any writer to attempt to distinguish between, on the one hand,the study of economics in the purely “scientific” senseof the pursuit of understanding for its own sake, and, on the otherhand, the use of economic analysis as an instrument for theformulation or evaluation of national economic policy. (RichardCantillon was one of the few who did make this distinction.)

WhenSmith wrote The Wealth of Nations the term “politicaleconomy” was already in wide use. It was used with someambiguity, but predominantly with emphasis on“political,” indicating reference to national policy.The term “economics” was rarely used by itself exceptin its original Greek meaning of household management. When Smithchose as the title of his book An Inquiry Into the Nature andCauses of The Wealth of Nations instead of something like“Principles of Political Economy,” it may be surmisedthat he did so because he thought of his book as including both anobjective study of processes and causes, such as would be the subjectmatter of a treatise on physics or physiology, and a discussion of“political economy” proper, or an evaluative orhortatory treatment of governmental economic policy. Smith used theterm “political economy” a dozen or so times, and everytime, except perhaps once, he meant the economic policy of a nation.Since Smith generally took a dim view of the benefits to be derivedfrom national economic policy, political economy must for him havebeen nearly synonymous with “economic poison.”

Smith, of course, was not an exponent of philosophical anarchism,which apparently had nowhere been systematically expounded beforeWilliam Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice(1793). If Smith had adopted the term“laissez-faire” as an appropriate label for hisown policy views, he undoubtedly would not have interpreted itliterally as a condemnation of all government interference with theactivities of private individuals. He was as emphatic as he could beon the vital need for government enforcement of justice,and there isevidence in The Wealth of Nations that he would have includedin this function not only the formulation of rules of justice and theprovision of machinery for the punishment of their infraction, butalso the prevention of certain infractions by such enactments asstandardization of weights and measures, requirements thatcommodities offered for sale be so stamped as to indicate theirquality, and the establishment of building standards that wouldhinder individuals from subjecting others to the risk of fire or toother hazards to their property or their personal safety. Smithassigned to government the care of the defense of the communityagainst foreign aggression or internal disorder and the levy of taxesto finance these activities. He also conceded to government theprovision of those services needed by the community which could notpractically be entrusted to private enterprise, because of the scaleon which they had to be carried out or for other special reasons. Onat least two issues—a “standing” or professionalarmy versus a militia and the autonomy of the East IndiaCompany—Smith expressed a strong preference for governmentalcontrol in addition to or instead of private management. In general,where monopoly was unavoidable, he much preferred that it be underpublic rather than private control.

Nevertheless, it is as anexponent of free enterprise; free trade; noninterference ofgovernment in the individual’s choice of occupation,residence, or investment; freedom for the individual to make hiseconomic decisions of all kinds in response to the price movements offree and fully competitive markets—in short, of“economic liberalism” or“laissez-faire,” as these terms were used in thenineteenth century—that Smith made his chief mark on thehistory of economics and on the economic and social history of theWestern world.

These economic freedoms were to Smith“natural rights,” essential constituents of the dignityof man. He also valued them from a utilitarian point of view, asgiving maximum scope for incentives to industry and to efficiency. Inthe international sphere he saw in them the most solid factorsworking to bring peace between nations. Modern economists findSmith’s arguments oversimplified and perhaps also tooemotional and one-sided. But many of them still acknowledge astrong influence of his writings on their system of values and gladlycontinue to do homage to his name.

Jacob Viner

[For the historical context of Smith’s work, seeEconomic thought, article onMERCANTILISTTHOUGHT; and the biographies ofCantillon;hume;Mandeville;for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeLaissez-faire;and the biographies ofBastiat; Lauderdale; Ricardo;Say.]


(1759) 1966 The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York:Kelley.

(1776) 1950 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. Edited by Edwin Cannan. London: Methuen.→ A two-volume paper back edition was published in 1963by Irwin.

(1785) 1896 [Letter to the Due de la Rochefoucauld.]Economic Journal 6:165–166.

Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Volume 5, pages 49— 399 in Adam Smith, The Worksof Adam Smith. Aalen (Netherlands): Zeller, 1963.

Lectureson Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms, Delivered in the University of Glasgow . . . Reported by a Student in 1763. Edited by EdwinCannan. New York: Kelley, 1964. → The Cannan edition was firstpublished in 1896.

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres,Delivered in the University of Glasgow . . . Reported by aStudent in 1762–63. Edited by John M. Lothian. London and NewYork: Nelson, 1963.

The Works of Adam Smith. 5 vols. Aalen(Netherlands): Zeller, 1963.


Adam Smith, 1776–1926: Lectures. 1928 Univ. of Chicago Press.→ Contains lectures by John Maurice Clark and others tocommemorate the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Wealthof Nations.

Bittermann, Henry J. 1940 Adam Smith’sEmpiricism and the Law of Nature. Journal of Political Economy 48:487–520, 703–734.

Bonar, James (1894) 1932A Catalogue of the Library of Adam Smith. 2d ed. London:Macmillan.

Godwin, William (1793) 1946 Enquiry ConcerningPolitical Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. 3ded., rev. 3 vols. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Harvard University, Graduate School of Business Administration, Baker Library, Kresslibrary of Business and Economics 1939 The Vanderblue Memorial Collection of Smithiana. Boston, Mass.: The Library.

Hume, David (1739–1740) 1958 A Treatise of Human Nature.Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon. →Reprinted from the original edition and edited with an analyticalindex.

Macfie, A. L. 1959 Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments as Foundation for His Wealth of Nations. Oxford Economic PapersNew Series 11:209–228.

Macfie, A. L. 1961 AdamSmith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Scottish Journal ofPolitical Economy 8:12–27.

Rae, John (1895) 1965Life of Adam Smith. With an introduction and guide by Jacob Vlner. New York: Kelley.

Rosenberg, Nathan 1965 Adam Smith on the Division of Labour: Two Views or One? Economica New Series32:127–139.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1954) 1960 Historyof Economic Analysis. Edited by E. B. Schumpeter. New York:Oxford Univ. Press.

Scott, William R. 1937 Adam Smith asStudent and Professor. Glasgow: Jackson.

Spengler, Joseph J.1959 Adam Smith’s Theory of Economic Growth. SouthernEconomic Journal 25:397–415; 26:1–12.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam 1723-1790





The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith is widely acknowledged as both the father of modern economics and the apostle of free trade. His cornerstone work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), was popular in Smiths era (six editions were published before Smiths death in 1790) and figures prominently in modern discussions of economic theory.


Adam Smith was born on June 5, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, a posthumous child. His mother was in her early twenties, and she was widowed after less than three years of marriage. The bond between mother and son was very close, and as Smith never married, those who believe in psychoanalytic explanations have seen significance in this. Whenever it was feasible he lived with his mother, and a spinster cousin joined them in the 1760s.

Smith went to Glasgow University in 1737 at age fourteen. In 1740 he was sent to Balliol College, Oxford, where he stayed until 1746. Smith declined entering the church, a profession many thought advisable, and spent two unemployed years back at home in Scotland. Lord Kames and other friends then invited Smith to lecture on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in 1748, as a reigning Scottish fashion was to learn how to speak and write English like the English. Smith was considered a capital instructor for this purpose, and his lectures were well attended.

In 1751 Smith succeeded in being appointed to the professorship of moral philosophy at Glasgow. For the next twelve years his fame grew steadily, especially after the publication of his first book in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments ( TMS ). TMS not only gave Smith a European reputation, it also appears to have gained him the position of tutor to the Duke of Bucceluch. This was a lucrative appointment, and it guaranteed Smith financial independence. Scottish University students paid their individual professors, and Smith behaved admirably in repaying his students their fees.

Smith had provided distinguished and valuable services to the university, not only as a teacher but also as an administrator. Since Smiths absentmindedness and lack of address are undoubted, having been noted in a variety of historical sources, Smiths success as an administrator shows that he had the ability to concentrate fully on a given task and to persuade his colleagues to do the same. He was college quaestor (treasurer) for six years, an unusually long term, and at the end of his time at Glasgow he was dean of faculty, vice-rector, and chairman of a special committee on internal university affairs. On accepting Smiths resignation, the university minutes record sincere regret at the Removal of Dr. Smith, whose distinguished Probity and amiable qualities procured him the esteem and affection of his Colleagues (Campbell and Skinner 1982, p. 125).

The European tour with the Duke of Bucceluch took nearly three years, and from 1764 to 1767 Smith had the opportunity to meet most of the eminent European literati, including the school of French economists known as the physiocrats. The lectures Smith delivered at Glasgow had dealt, in part, with economic topics, but it was during his stay in France that Smith appears to have begun writing An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in earnest. Perhaps from 1764 onward, and certainly from 1767 to 1776, with very few interruptions, Smiths constant concern was the writing of his most prominent work.

Smiths appointment as commissioner of customs in 1777 was due to the influence of the Duke of Bucceluch with the prime minister, Lord North. A humorous consequence of his new position was Smiths realization that he had scarce a stock, a cravat, a pair of ruffles, or a pocket handkerchief which was not prohibited to be worn or used in Great Britain. In order to set an example he burnt them all (Smith 1987, p. 245). As Smiths duties involved the control of smuggling, scholars have wondered how Smith could wish to punish the smuggler, who was not really blamable according to the dictates of natural liberty set out in The Wealth of Nations ? The issues raised by Smiths acceptance of such a position have been most forcefully posed by the scholars Gary Anderson, William Shugart, and Robert Tollison: The author of the Wealth and Commissioner Adam Smith were one and the same person there is strong evidence that Smith sought the position and that it represented a reward not so much for intellectual accomplishment as for services he had rendered to the government (1985, p. 742).

Consciously assertive of his originality, as early as 1755 Smith read a lecture strongly defending his priority for the idea of a system of natural liberty. Smith believed that several of his contemporaries, all major figures of the Scottish enlightenment, had plagiarized some of his thoughts. Adam Fergusons (1723-1816) work on the division of labor and William Robertsons (1721-1793) economic interpretation of history provide two well-known examples of potentially plagiarized work while Hugh Blair (1718-1800) may have cooled relationships by his (acknowledged) use of Smiths lecture notes on the subject of rhetoric in Blairs Lectures on Rhetoric (1783). Smith had several eccentricities; among his personal habits, it was the absentminded consuming of sugar lumps, even in company; in conversation, he is said to have often taken opposite views of the same subject, according to his humor. Smith ended his days among admiring friends in Scotland, busy in his official duties and revising his publications, the last substantial revision being that of TMS. After ailing visibly for a while, Smith died on July 17, 1790.


Smiths first love was rhetoric and literature. Dugald Stewart, Smiths successor to the Edinburgh chair, records that the variety of poetical passages which he was not only accustomed to refer to occasionally, but which he was able to repeat with correctness, appeared surprising even to those whose attention had never been attracted to more important acquisitions (Rae 1965, p. 34). One of Smiths most pleasant and instructive writings is the Essay on the History of Astronomy, which was published by Smiths executors some five years after Smiths death. The most interesting feature of the essay is Smiths discussion of the principles that guide good philosophy and that hence serve to persuade readers. Smith asserts that philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature (Smith 1982, p. 45) and so good philosophy provides individuals connections from the familiar to the unfamiliar in such a natural manner that they are convinced of its truth. The essay considers the subject of astronomy from this perspective and concludes by praising the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) for providing the greatest and most admirable improvement that was ever made in philosophy (Smith 1982, p. 98). Smith was coy about the reality of the Newtonian system; his own principles suggest that all such systems are imaginary but he also wrote that the weight of evidence is such that one is forced to admit that the principles seem so natural, the arguments so well connected, and the evidence so overwhelming that one is insensibly led to speak of Newtonianism as real.

The most careful and sustained expositions of TMS, by twenty-first-century analysis the standard view, have been articulated by Alec Macfie, Roy H. Campbell, and David D. Raphael; the most interesting contrasts in the last two decades are those of Laurence Dickey and John Dwyer. Dickey argued forcefully that Smith changed his mind on the virtue of selfishness in the last edition of TMS (1986), while Dwyer showed how the circles Smith moved in were emphatic in asserting that the sympathetic passions were the most beneficial for society (1998).

Smith viewed moral philosophy as facing two main questions: What is the content of ethics and how does one come to accept ones ethical precepts? He was very perceptive on the second question but only marginally illuminated the first. In modern language, TMS is probably best appreciated as a book on the socialization of morality rather than on the nature of right and wrong, which also explains why sociologists have been more struck with TMS than philosophers of ethics. Even though Smith did not illuminate practical ethics, it is notable that he insisted upon virtue being instinctive and not based upon calculation, as well as upon the reality of benevolence.

In TMS, humankinds acceptance of moral rules is grounded upon the need for social approval. Individuals internalize morality by looking for the admiration of those who see them. This explanation serves well for children, or when adults are in company. Smith extended the application to adults who debate moral problems when alone by introducing the concept of an impartial spectator someone who examines ones moral quandaries with detachment and whose approval serves to sustain us when we suffer reverses of fortune.

The standard view argues that the sympathetic imagination of TMS leads to humankinds codes of ethics and of law, while self-interest is the basis of economic behavior; the conflict between TMS and The Wealth of Nations is only apparent because the two books deal with different levels of social reality. Posterity has accorded fame to The Wealth of Nations and only appreciation to TMS because the link between self-interest and economic phenomena can be satisfactorily indicated, while a link of similar clarity between sympathy and ethics still awaits us. A late twentieth-century trend to interpret Smiths economics through the lens of TMS faces the difficulty that only in the preface to the last edition of TMS, shortly before his death, did Smith make any public attempt to mention the two books together. Five editions of The Wealth of Nations (and of TMS ) came and went without Smith ever trying to soften The Wealth of Nations with TMS. Scholars argue that if Smith had wanted modern-day readers to qualify the selfishness of The Wealth of Nations with the stoicism of The Theory of Moral Sentiments he would have done so himself.


The manner of writing of The Wealth of Nations is modern in its frequent separation of theory from policy. In Books I through IV, Smith explained that free trade is the ideal policy for all nations. In Book V he explained the obvious practical requirement that governments must raise taxes to meet essential expenses. So the combined effect of all five books is to advocate a policy that imposes taxes for revenue but not for protection. This is the same policy that was supported in the popular literature of the 1740s in the pamphlets of William Richardson and Sir Matthew Decker. However, the separation of pure theory, which supports free trade, from practical policy, which recognizes the need for taxes, makes the ideas of The Wealth of Nations more attractive.

Much of the charm of Smiths work arises from the casual fluidity of his language. He expressed commonplace ideas forcefully and provided homely illustrations; Smiths arguments are axiomatic, but he interrupted his exposition with much ordinary illustration. These nuances in his writing have led modern-day scholars to frequent, and perhaps endless, discussion about whether he was really inductive or deductive. Perhaps the most effective use of everyday thought was the phrase invisible hand to describe the harmony of the market. Moral philosophers had consistently rejected the use of the market as socially beneficial because they could not fathom how the universal prevalence of selfishnessthe motivation of the marketcould lead to a harmonious society. It was one of several euphemisms used by contemporaries to refer to God as the beneficent controller of the universe. When Smith came to proving this difficult point, he found it convenient to finesse the argument by referring instead to the invisible hand as one that provides coherence through the market. Smith knew he could count on the subliminal persuasiveness of the invisible hand to quash any doubts readers might have about the goodness of the market. Ferguson and Robertson, while serving as army chaplains, had each used the phrase to exhort their soldiers in 1747. Whether Smith himself believed in a Christian God is beside the point; it is his rhetorical skill that needs to be appreciated.

The fairest treatment of Smiths contributions to economic theory would portray Smiths ideas along with those of his contemporaries. Space does not permit and readability perhaps does not require such discussion. With a brief glance at contemporary thought, the focus herein is on the internal logic of Smiths arguments, with the topics being chosen by their importance for modern economics. In considering Smiths contributions to economic theory it is useful to begin with microeconomics, then to macroeconomics, and finally to international trade.

Jacob Viner provided a penetrating assessment of Smiths contributions to micreconomics when he wrote, On every detail, taken by itself, Smith appears to have had predecessors in plenty. On a few details was Smith as penetrating as the best of his predecessors (1928, p. 118). The theoretical constructs of demand and supply, used by modern economists, had been widely and effectively used by economists for more than a century when Adam Smith wrote. A brief overview of Smiths microeconomic theory shows that Smiths attempted innovations were severely limited.

Smith distinguished between natural and market price, regarding the former as clearly the more fundamental of the two. What then determines natural price? Smith began by explaining to readers that in every society, at any given time, there exists an ordinary or average rate of wages, profits, and rent; these average rates for each factor of production Smith called the natural rate. He then defined the natural price as the sum of the natural rates of wages, profits, and rents. This price is distinguished from the market price, which is merely another name for whatever price reigns in the market at any given time. The demand of those individuals who are willing to pay the natural price of a commodity constitutes what is called the effectual demand, and market price is said to arise out of the interplay of the actual supply and the desires of the effectual demanders. The explicit theoretical construct thus consists of an awkward juxtaposition of a point supply and a point demand. If, however, one glosses over the location of equilibrium, that is, the natural price, and asks instead how Smith described what happens when the world is not in equilibrium, the treatment is excellent.

Since natural price is defined as the sum of natural wages, profits, and rents, this requires an explanation of the natural rates of wages, profits, and rents. The natural rates are naturally regulated by the structure of the economy and its growth, partly by the general circumstances of the society, their riches or poverty, their advancing, stationary, or declining condition; and partly by the particular nature of each employment (1976, I, 72, 159). The subsequent chapters, however, fail to show readers how to use structure and growth to find natural wages or profits in any particular situation.

Smith had claimed that product prices are to be explained by factor prices; this dichotomy between the forces determining product and factor prices was an innovation. He subsequently claimed that factor prices, and hence product prices, are to be explained by structural and growth factors. Somehow, microeconomics has disappeared. The procedure has led some rigorous critics such as Mark Blaug, to exclaim, To say that the normal price of an article is the price that just covers money costs is to explain prices by prices. In this sense, Adam Smith had no theory of value whatever (1985, p. 39).

How did Smith convince so many ordinary readers of the merits of the market? He does provide readers many convincing illustrations of opportunity cost and of the equalization of returns in different uses. Chapter X of Book I deals with the inequalities of wages and profits across different occupations. It is a beautiful exercise in tracing how differences in prestige or risk can account for such inequalities in money wages. While such explanations can be couched in the modern language of demand and supply, since Smith did not apply the modern apparatus, one has to ask if there are other, perhaps simpler, ways of getting to such results.

Suppose Smith began by assuming that any violation of natural liberty was both morally wrong and economically harmful; such a position could itself provide the grounds to condemn several institutions of Smiths day. Such politically based arguments are convenient in that they need to consider the absence of competition on only one side of the market. For example, in the case of the Law of Settlements, which hindered the mobility of workers, it was enough to condemn the Laws that the rights of workers were being violated. Second, if one assumes that a market reaches a stable equilibrium, then the belief in one-sided competition alone suffices to provide several analytical results. For example, in the usual version of Ricardian rent theory, the same final outcome is reached whether only farmers compete (for land) or only landlords compete (for farmers). This one-sided analytical procedure works best when there are constant returns to scale and the assumption of fixed proportions, used on several occasions by Smith, is perhaps a consequence of his analytical method.

Smiths contribution to microeconomics requires some care to elucidate: He did not advance scholars understanding of the equilibrium theory, involving demand and supply; he even confused matters by dichotomizing product and factor prices. But, from his very earliest lectures, Smith thoroughly appreciated the fundamental fact that liberty and competition lead to zero-profits. This observation was repeatedly and successfully applied to such fields as the choice of occupations, the preference for pasturage over tillage, and the determination of joint prices. It even sufficed to move analysts toward the natural price, wherever that might be. It is a form of argument that is attractive, easy to learn, and independent of the more intricate demand-supply apparatus, and accounts for Smiths hold on the general public.

There is no direct concern for macroeconomic problems in The Wealth of Nations. By omitting any systematic discussion of unemployment in The Wealth of Nations, Smith made macroeconomic concerns seem chimerical and succeeded in focusing attention on capital accumulation and upon long-run issues. So perhaps the most notable victory of The Wealth of Nations was a silent one. When Smith did touch upon unemployment, the primary concern for his contemporaries, he used three separate arguments to de-emphasize that concern. Smith provided readers with a model of the economy as a giant corn farm, which employs workers by keeping aside a portion of last years harvest in order to feed the workers until the next harvest. Smith called this the wages fund, and since it is predetermined by last years decision, one cannot increase the numbers to be employed since the model provides the food for only so many. A second argument claimed that the soldiers disbanded after the Seven Years War found new jobs within a short space of time, and Smith used this as proof that persistent unemployment is not a real possibility. Finally, Smith made the global assertion that what is annually saved is as regularly consumed as what is annually spent, and nearly in the same time too; but it is consumed by a different set of people (1976, I, 337-338). The implication that aggregate demand always equals aggregate supply, regardless of how much or little is saved, probably had great impact upon Smiths contemporaries. The cumulative impact of the several arguments was to suggest to readers that the market economy is globally stable, and if only it were left free, it would also be efficient.

An important idea, never quite explicitly stated yet pervading the entire book, is the superiority of commercial society over feudalism. This led Smith to the concepts of productive labor, which roughly correspond to economic activity that produces a measurable output, and to contrast it with unproductive labor or services. Without such a framework, one would be hard pressed to explain why a fully employed commercial society, making cloth and machines, is superior to a fully employed feudal one, making swords and monasteries. Much of the framework of modern national income accounting is set up at different points of The Wealth of Nations. To grasp the concept of national income one has to have all of a nations economic activity in ones mind. A very important by-product, appropriate to someone who believed in unintended consequences, was the image of the economy as a whole. This constantly recurring background to all parts of The Wealth of Nations, the image of the economy as a complex machine always working away, has led scholars, such as Samuel Hollander, to argue that Smith was an early general equilibrium theorist (1976).

The effort to conceive of the economy as a whole and represent it by some number had a second potent conclusion. Since bundles of apples and oranges cannot be compared physically but only as economic values, the numerical concept led to a focus upon monetary values. In turn, this enabled Smith to conclude that growth is not based upon acquiring a surplus of some physical balance, as with mercantilism and bullion or with physiocracy and agriculture, but rather a value surplusthat of income over expenditure. In this sense, it has been well said that Smiths novelty lay in the cumulative shifts of focus in The Wealth of Nations (Winch 1996, p. 22).

The issue that bridges macroeconomics and trade is monetary policy. Smith broke cleanly with the past and argued that the market was sufficient to provide whatever amount of circulating medium was necessary. Mercantilist arguments in favor of an influx of metals as a wartime buffer or for providing ample liquidity to the markets were all specious. Just as one does not try to regulate trade in pots and pans but trusts the market to provide them as needed, so too could the market suffice for money.

To attempt to increase the wealth of any country [by interfering with the trade in gold and silver] is as absurd as it would be to increase the good cheer of private families, by obliging them to keep an unnecessary number of kitchen utensils (Smith 1976, IV, pp. 439-440).

From the time of publication of The Wealth of Nations until the middle of the twentieth century, Smith was viewed primarily as the source of laissez-faire ideas. According to Wesley Mitchell in his Types of Economic Theory (1967), the benefits of economic freedom can be argued on the basis of three axioms:

  1. Individuals desire to maximize their wealth.
  2. Individuals know better than governments how to maximize their own wealth.
  3. National wealth is the sum of individual wealth (1967, pp. 61-64).

Axioms 1 and 2, in conjunction, prove that individual wealth is maximized when government leaves individuals alone. Axiom 3 then says that maximizing individual wealth suffices to maximize national wealth. If one describes the axioms loosely as greed, knowledge, and additivity, then greedy and knowledgeable individuals surely do not need government in order to maximize their wealth, and additivity suffices to assure one that, since the aggregate is the simple sum of the individuals, the aggregate also does not need government to maximize economic growth. Modern readers, familiar with externalities in the form of, say, pollution, will probably be most curious about the validity of axiom 3, but in most developing economies axioms 1 and 2 are also worth questioning.

The two most important policy measures of Smiths time were bounties for infant industries in foreign trade and preventing speculation in food markets in domestic trade. Smith firmly rejected both bounties for infant industries and interference in food markets. He argued the case against bounties as follows: He noted that no one argues against natural advantages, and he went on to illustrate this with his famous example of growing grapes in hothouses in Scotland. Then he transferred the argument without any further reasoning to cases where there is no suggestion of natural advantage. Whether the advantages which one country has over another, be natural or acquired, is in this respect of no consequence (1976, IV, p. 458). One could ask how others acquired such an advantage and why anyone might not acquire it as well? This is just what all economists who urged catch-up to their countries did argue. Smith could have said that choosing which infant industries have promise requires too much knowledge and discrimination or that such infants have a persistent tendency not to want to grow up. He did neither. So strong was his feeling on the matter that he simply bypassed the argument.

If one wonders about the incongruity of the putative father of economics providing so many examples of indifferent economic analysis, one should remember that a critic found many proofs in Euclids Elements to be more complicated than older versions essential axioms of order and separation are entirely overlooked, the postulates inadequate to prove even the first theorem (Goodstein 1951, p. 3). Modern-day scholars seem to remember historical figures as much for their intentions as for their achievements. Smith wrote at a time when his liberal cosmopolitanism won him many converts, especially outside Britain; the support of elite politicians probably mattered, especially when Smith could be used in support of conservative economic policies during scarcities; and the benefits to Britain of appealing to free trade when Britain was the leader in manufacturing meant that economic truth was supported by self-interest. How far Smiths superior fame was due to these noneconomic factors is a question that only bias can solve.

It is appropriate to close by continuing with the words of Jacob Viner who wrote of Smith that he was only applying to society forms of reasoning that had long been utilized by theologians and philosophers to general phenomena and that only on a few details was Smiths analysis superior: But Smith made an original forward step when he seriously applied himself to the task of analyzing the whole range of economic process with the purpose of discovering the nature of the order which underlay its surface chaos (1928, p. 118). It was not so much any refinement in analysis but Smiths ambitious undertaking and his faith in the overall harmony of free trade that constitute his principal legacy.



Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. Andrew S. Skinner and R. H. Campbell. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, Adam. 1982. Essays on Philosophical Subjects, eds. William P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.

Smith, Adam. 1987. The Correspondence of Adam Smith, eds. Ernest C. Mossner and Ian S. Ross. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.


Anderson, Gary, Robert Tollison, and William F. Shugart III. 1985. Adam Smith in the Customshouse. Journal of Political Economy 93 (4): 740-759.

Blaug, Mark. 1985. Economic Theory in Retrospect. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, R. H., and Andrew Skinner. 1982. Adam Smith. New York: St. Martins Press.

Dickey, Laurence. 1986. Historicizing the Adam Smith Problem: Conceptual Historiographical, and Textual Issues. The Journal of Modern History 58 (3).

Dwyer, John. 1998. The Age of the Passions: An Interpretation of Adam Smith and Scottish Enlightenment Culture. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press.

Eden, F. M. 1928. The State of the Poor, ed. A. G. L. Rogers. London: Routledge.

Goodstein, R. L. 1951. The Foundations of Mathematics. Leicester, U.K.: University College of Leicester.

Hollander, Samuel. 1976. The Economics of Adam Smith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mitchell, Wesley. 1967. Types of Economic Theory. New York: Kelley.

Rae, John.1965. Life of Adam Smith. New York: Augustus M. Kelley. (Orig. pub. 1895).

Viner, Jacob. 1928. Adam Smith and Laisse-Faire. In Adam Smith 1776-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winch, Donald. 1996. Riches and Poverty. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Salim Rashid

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam (1723–1790)

SMITH, ADAM (17231790)

SMITH, ADAM (17231790), Scottish economist. Along with figures like his teacher Francis Hutcheson (16941746) and his best friend David Hume (17111776), Smith was one of the principals of a period of astonishing learning that has become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. He is the author of two books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). His first book brought him considerable acclaim during his lifetime and was quickly considered one of the great works of moral theoryimpressing, for example, such people as Immanuel Kant (17241804), who called Smith his Liebling, or 'favorite', and Charles Darwin (18091882), who in his Descent of Man (1871) adopted some of Smith's argument and called his moral thought "striking." The book went through fully six revised editions during Smith's lifetime. Since the nineteenth century, however, Smith's fame has largely rested on his second book, which must be considered one of the most influential works of the past millennium.

Smith matriculated at the University of Glasgow at the age of fourteen in 1737. He considered his instruction at Glasgow, which was heavy in the classics, quite good; the influence of Hutchesonwhom Smith later referred to as "the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson"was pronounced. After Glasgow, Smith studied at Balliol College, Oxford, with whose level of instruction Smith was not so impressed: "In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching" (Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund edition, p. 761). Smith made good use of the libraries at Oxford, however, studying widely in English, French, Greek, and Latin literature. He left Oxford and returned to Kirkcaldy in 1746.

In Edinburgh (1748) Smith began giving "Lectures on Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres, " as Kames's biographer Alexander Tytler reports, focusing on literary criticism and the arts of speaking and writing well. It was during this time that Smith met and befriended Hume, who was to become Smith's closest confidant and greatest philosophical influence. Smith left Edinburgh to become professor of logic at the University of Glasgow in 1751 and then professor of moral philosophy in 1752. The lectures he gave there eventually crystallized into The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argues that human beings naturally desire a "mutual sympathy of sentiments" with their fellows, which means that they long to see their own judgments and sentiments echoed in others. Because we all seek out this "sympathy" or harmony, much of social life is a give-and-take whereby people alternately try to moderate their own sentiments so that others can "enter into them" and try to arouse others' sentiments so that they match their own. This market-like negotiation results in the gradual development of shared habits, and then rules, of judgment about moral matters ranging from etiquette to moral duty. This process also gives rise, Smith argues, to an ultimate standard of moral judgment, the "impartial spectator," whose perspective we routinely seek out in judging both our own and others' conduct. When we use it to judge our own, it is what constitutes our conscience. We consult the impartial spectator simply by asking ourselves what a fully informed but disinterested person would think about our conduct. If such a person would approve, then we may proceed; if he would disapprove, then we should desist.

Morality on Smith's account is thus an earthly, grounded affair. Although he makes frequent reference to God and the "Author of Nature," scholars disagree over to what extent such references do any real work in his theoryand thus to what extent Smith's theory of moral sentiments is a relativistic account, eschewing reliance on transcendent, objective rules of morality.

In 1763, Smith resigned his post at Glasgow to become the personal tutor of Henry Scott, the third duke of Buccleuch, whom Smith accompanied on an eighteen-month tour of France and Switzerland. It was during his travels with the duke that Smith met François Quesnay (16941774), Jacques Turgot (17271781), and others in France called Physiocrats, who were publicists arguing for a relaxation of trade barriers and for laissez-faire economic policies. Although Smith had long been developing his own, similar ideas, frequent conversations with the Physiocrats no doubt helped him refine and sharpen his ideas. In 1767, Smith returned to Kirkcaldy to continue work on what would become his Wealth of Nations.

In The Wealth of Nations Smith argues against the mercantilists that wealth is not mere pieces of metal: it is rather the ability to satisfy one's needs and desires. Since each person wishes to "better his own condition," the argument of The Wealth of Nations is that those policies should be adopted that best allow each of us to do so. It turns out, Smith argues, that markets in which the division of labor is allowed to progress, in which trade is free, and in which taxes and regulations are light are the most conducive to this end. Smith argues that in market-oriented economies based on private property, each person working to better his own condition will increase the supply, and thus lower the price, of whatever good he is producing; this means that others will be in a better position to afford his goods. Thus each person serving his own ends is led, in Smith's famous phrase, "by an invisible hand" simultaneously to serve everyone else's ends as well. Much of The Wealth of Nations 's 1000-plus-page bulk is concerned with providing historical evidence supporting this theoretical argument.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, The Wealth of Nations was regularly cited in the British Parliamentfor example, in the Corn Law debatesand its recommendations of free markets and free trade went on to have great influence in the subsequent political and economic developments not only of the British Isles, but also of most of the Western and even parts of the Eastern world. Smith's influence on the founding of the United States was also great. Among his readers were Benjamin Franklin (17061790), George Washington (17321799), Thomas Paine (17371809), and Thomas Jefferson (17431826). When compiling a "course of reading" in 1799, Jefferson included The Wealth of Nations along with John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690) and Marie-Jean Caritat de Condorcet's Equisse d'un table historique des progrès de l'esprit humaine (1793; Sketch of the progress of the human spirit) as the essential books. The English historian Henry Thomas Buckle (18211862) wrote that The Wealth of Nations "is probably the most important book that has ever been written," including the Bible. Today most countries in the world either rely on some version of Smithian market-based economies or are in the process of creating them.

Smith remained in Kirkcaldy until 1777, when he left to become commissioner of customs in Edinburgh. During this time he visited regularly with friendsincluding Edmund Burke (17291797), the chemist Joseph Black (17281799), the geologist James Hutton (17261797), the younger William Pitt (17591806), and Lord North (17321792)and he took active roles in learned organizations like the Poker Club and the Oyster Club. He also extensively revised his two books for new editions, while additionally working on a "theory and history of law and government." The latter work was never published, however. One week before he died, Smith summoned Black and Hutton to his quarters and asked that they burn his unpublished manuscripts, a request they had been resisting for several months. This time Smith insisted. They reluctantly complied, destroying sixteen volumes of manuscripts. It is probable that Smith's theory and history of law and government were among the works that perished in that tragic loss.

Smith was a true polymath: he was master of several languages and their literatures, a historian of the ancient and modern worlds, a philosopher in his own right, and a brilliant observer of human society and behavior. Although he is known today principally as the father of the discipline now known as economics, given the scope and breadth of his work, he is probably better considered the father of sociology.

See also Capitalism ; Enlightenment ; Hume, David ; Liberalism, Economic ; Physiocrats and Physiocracy ; Scotland .


Primary Source

Smith, Adam. The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. 6 vols. Oxford, 19761977. The definitive edition of Smith's collected works, including student notes on his lectures on jurisprudence, his smaller essays, and his letters. Also published in paperback by the Liberty Fund, Inc. (Indianapolis, 19811987).

Secondary Sources

Campbell, R. H., and A. S. Skinner. Adam Smith. New York, 1982.

Campbell, T. D. Adam Smith's Science of Morals. London, 1971.

Griswold, Charles L., Jr. Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Haakonssen, Knud. The Science of a Legislator: The Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1981.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. 7th ed. New York, 1999. See chapter 3, "The Wonderful World of Adam Smith."

Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society. New York and Toronto, 1993.

Otteson, James R. Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Rae, John. Life of Adam Smith. London and New York, 1895.

Raphael, D. D. Adam Smith. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Ross, Ian Simpson. The Life of Adam Smith. Oxford and New York, 1995.

Skousen, Mark. The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and Ideas of the Great Thinkers. Armonk, N.Y., 2001.

Winch, Donald. Adam Smith's Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1978.

James R. Otteson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam (1723–1790)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam (1723–1790)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam (1723–1790)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

The Scotch economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) believed that in a laissez-faire economy the impulse of self-interest would work toward the public welfare.

Adam Smith was born on June 5, 1723, at Kirkcaldy. His father had died 2 months before his birth, and a strong and lifelong attachment developed between him and his mother. As an infant, Smith was kidnaped, but he was soon rescued. At the age of 14 he enrolled in the University of Glasgow, where he remained for 3 years. The lectures of Francis Hutcheson exerted a strong influence on him. In 1740 he transferred to Balliol College, Oxford, where he remained for almost 7 years, receiving the bachelor of arts degree in 1744. Returning then to Kirkcaldy, he devoted himself to his studies and gave a series of lectures on English literature. In 1748 he moved to Edinburgh, where he became a friend of David Hume, whose skepticism he did not share.

Theory of Moral Sentiments

In 1751 Smith became professor of logic at the University of Glasgow and the following year professor of moral philosophy. Eight years later he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith's central notion in this work is that moral principles have social feeling or sympathy as their basis. Sympathy is a common or analogous feeling that an individual may have with the affections or feelings of another person. The source of this fellow feeling is not so much one's observation of the expressed emotion of another person as one's thought of the situation that the other person confronts. Sympathy usually requires knowledge of the cause of the emotion to be shared. If one approves of another's passions as suitable to their objects, he thereby sympathizes with that person.

Sympathy is the basis for one's judging of the appropriateness and merit of the feelings and actions issuing from these feelings. If the affections of the person involved in a situation are analogous to the emotions of the spectator, then those affections are appropriate. The merit of a feeling or an action flowing from a feeling is its worthiness of reward. If a feeling or an action is worthy of reward, it has moral merit. One's awareness of merit derives from one's sympathy with the gratitude of the person benefited by the action. One's sense of merit, then, is a derivative of the feeling of gratitude which is manifested in the situation by the person who has been helped.

Smith warns that each person must exercise impartiality of judgment in relation to his own feelings and behavior. Well aware of the human tendency to overlook one's own moral failings and the self-deceit in which individuals often engage, Smith argues that each person must scrutinize his own feelings and behavior with the same strictness he employs when considering those of others. Such an impartial appraisal is possible because a person's conscience enables him to compare his own feelings with those of others. Conscience and sympathy, then, working together provide moral guidance for man so that the individual can control his own feelings and have a sensibility for the affections of others.

The Wealth of Nations

In 1764 Smith resigned his professorship to take up duties as a traveling tutor for the young Duke of Buccleuch and his brother. Carrying out this responsibility, he spent 2 years on the Continent. In Toulouse he began writing his best-known work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While in Paris he met Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Baron Paul d'Holbach, François Quesnay, A.R.J. Turgot, and Jacques Necker. These thinkers doubtless had some influence on him. His life abroad came to an abrupt end when one of his charges was killed.

Smith then settled in Kirkcaldy with his mother. He continued to work on The Wealth of Nations, which was finally published in 1776. His mother died at the age of 90, and Smith was grief-stricken. In 1778 he was made customs commissioner, and in 1784 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Smith apparently spent some time in London, where he became a friend of Benjamin Franklin. On his deathbed he demanded that most of his manuscript writings be destroyed. He died on July 17, 1790.

The Wealth of Nations, easily the best known of Smith's writings, is a mixture of descriptions, historical accounts, and recommendations. The wealth of a nation, Smith insists, is to be gauged by the number and variety of consumable goods it can command. Free trade is essential for the maximum development of wealth for any nation because through such trade a variety of goods becomes possible.

Smith assumes that if each person pursues his own interest the general welfare of all will be fostered. He objects to governmental control, although he acknowledges that some restrictions are required. The capitalist invariably produces and sells consumable goods in order to meet the greatest needs of the people. In so fulfilling his own interest, the capitalist automatically promotes the general welfare. In the economic sphere, says Smith, the individual acts in terms of his own interest rather than in terms of sympathy. Thus, Smith made no attempt to bring into harmony his economic and moral theories.

Further Reading

John Rae, Life of Adam Smith (1895), is still useful and was reprinted (1965) with an introductory essay by Jacob Viner which details the recent scholarship on Smith. William R. Scott, Adam Smith as Student and Professor (1937), focuses on Smith's personality. Other biographies include Eli Ginzberg, The House of Adam Smith (1934); Sir Alexander Gray, Adam Smith (1948); and the not entirely successful work of E.G. West, Adam Smith (1969). Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953; 3d ed. 1967), has a vivid profile of Smith and his times. Smith's place in the history of economics is assessed in Charles Gide and Charles Rist, A History of Economic Doctrines from the Time of the Physiocrats to the Present Day (trans., 2d ed. 1948), and Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (1954). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adam Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Adam Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 17, 2017).

"Adam Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam (1723–90) An eminent Scottish philosopher and social theorist, Professor of Logic then Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, whose influential publications include The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795).

Smith is best known as an economist—although even The Wealth of Nations is much more than simply a treatise on economic affairs. A total philosophy of society, rather than a narrowly economic perspective on social action, is suggested by passages such as the following: ‘Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had lived before almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile dependency upon their superiors.’

Smith's exposition of the division of labour (which precedes his analysis of prices, resources, and distribution) is concerned to show that it is by dividing the labour process into increasingly specialized roles that industry advances and nations become rich. The first three chapters of The Wealth of Nations locate the origins of the division of labour in the propensity peculiar to human nature ‘to barter, to truck and to exchange’; explain how this is limited by the extent of markets; and observe its effects in massively increased production, as in the celebrated example of the manufacture of pins, such that ten people prepared to break this process down into its constituent eighteen parts will produce 48,000 pins in a day, whereas each working on their own could hope only to make a fraction of this total. In Smith's view, the division of labour increased production by increasing the dexterity of the worker, who was able to concentrate on fewer processes; by saving time, in making the concentration of the worker task-specific; and by encouraging the invention of labour-saving devices.

However, Smith was not blind to the deleterious effects of the division of labour, and accepted that, where individuals were confined to performing only one or two limited and repetitive operations, this could render them ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human character to become’. He advocated the expansion of education as a means by which governments could combat the atomization and alienation implicit in the advanced division of labour. Unlike later classical economists, he also envisages the state taking an active and wide-ranging part in the organization of social affairs, going beyond the mere provision of justice, defence, and public works. There is, therefore, an ambivalence in his writings that has tended to be overlooked by free-market economists (but see E. G. West , ‘Adam Smith's Two Views of the Division of Labour’, Economics, 1964)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam

Adam Smith, 1723–90, Scottish economist, educated at Glasgow and Oxford. He became professor of moral philosophy at the Univ. of Glasgow in 1752, and while teaching there wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which gave him the beginnings of an international reputation. He traveled on the Continent from 1764 to 1766 as tutor to the duke of Buccleuch and while in France met some of the physiocrats and began to write An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, finally published in 1776.

In that work, Smith postulated the theory of the division of labor and emphasized that value arises from the labor expended in the process of production. He was led by the rationalist current of the century, as well as by the more direct influence of Hume and others, to believe that in a laissez-faire economy the impulse of self-interest would bring about the public welfare; at the same time he was capable of appreciating that private groups such as manufacturers might at times oppose the public interest. Smith was opposed to monopolies and the concepts of mercantilism in general but admitted restrictions to free trade, such as the Navigation Acts, as sometimes necessary national economic weapons in the existing state of the world. He also accepted government intervention in the economy that reduced poverty and government regulation in support of workers.

Smith wrote before the Industrial Revolution was fully developed, and some of his theories were voided by its development, but as an analyst of institutions and an influence on later economists he has never been surpassed. His pragmatism, as well as the leaven of ethical content and social insight in his thought, differentiates him from the rigidity of David Ricardo and the school of early 19th-century utilitarianism. In 1778, Smith was appointed commissioner of customs for Scotland. His Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795) appeared posthumously.

See biographies by J. Rae (1895, repr. 1965), I. S. Ross (1995), J. Buchan (2006), and N. Phillipson (2010); studies by E. Ginzberg (1934, repr. 1964), T. D. Campbell (1971), S. Hollander (1973), and E. Rothschild (2001).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam (1723–90). Famous son of Kirkcaldy (Fife) and educated at Glasgow University, Smith graduated at the age of 14. After six years at Balliol College, Oxford, he became professor of logic, then moral philosophy, at Glasgow University. In 1764–6 he was tutor to the duke of Buccleuch, followed by advisory work for Charles Townshend; in 1778 he was appointed commissioner of customs for Scotland in which role he remained until his death. Although his reputation was founded on The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), his magnum opus was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). This book was the foundation of the classical school in Britain. It analysed the operation of free market economies where the key players were motivated by self-interest and profit maximization. Out of it economists saw an ‘invisible hand’ at work and the division of labour, which was eventually responsible for the wealth of nations. Most interpretations have labelled Adam Smith a parent of laissez-faire economics, but he was much more interventionist than this. Nevertheless, he was an advocate of an economy based primarily upon free trade, private enterprise, and ‘perfect’ competition wherever possible.

John R. Presley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam (1723–90) Scottish philosopher, regarded as the founder of modern economics. His book The Wealth of Nations (1776) was enormously influential in the development of Western capitalism. It outlined the theory of the division of labour. In place of mercantilism, Smith proposed the doctrine of laissez-faire: that governments should not interfere in economic affairs and that free trade increases wealth.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." World Encyclopedia. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." World Encyclopedia. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Smith, Adam


Adam Smith (17231790), a philosopher and lecturer at the University of Glasgow, taught Natural Theologythe search for design and order in the confusion of the cosmosin eighteenth century Scotland. Smith became intrigued with economic theory, seeing economics as a largely ignored subject of philosophy. In 1776 he published an enormous book, a "living picture" of the economic circumstances of England, known as The Wealth of Nations, without promoting any social class, or advocating any ideology. The book had been called the "bible of capitalism," but that was misleading. The Wealth of Nations was a profound effort to describe a "system of perfect liberty," which was the way Smith referred to the small-business commercial capitalism of his era. His book, involving issues of personal self-interest, and competition, has become a classic economics text, and Smith was regarded as the seminal organizer of thoughts and ideas about the economics of capitalism.

Adam Smith was born in June 1723, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father died prior to his birth, and Smith was raised by his mother, in comfortable circumstances in a home near Edinburgh. Smith's close relationship with his mother was life-long. She died at age 90, when Smith was in his 40s. He lived most of his life quietly in Scotland, reading, writing, and teaching. He was highly regarded as a teacher, and was considered to be a genius who was eccentric and absent-minded in most practical matters. Smith's education included three years at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and seven years at Balliol College at Oxford University, England.

In 1751, not yet age 28, Smith was offered the Chair of Logic at the University of Glasgow, and shortly thereafter was given the Chair of Moral Philosophy. He gained considerable reputation and prestige in 1759, publishing a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work examining moral approval and disapproval.

In 1764, Smith went to France for 18 months. To relieve periods of boredom he felt there, Smith began work on a treatise of political economy, which formed the beginnings of his book, The Wealth of Nations. It was in France, working on his treatise, that he hit on one of his greatest insights: labor, not nature, was the source of what we call "value". He spent much time in his book elaborating this theme: labor as a source for all value. The book was published in 1776, a 900-page outpouring of a whole epoch. Smith had borrowed his ideas from many other philosophersThe Wealth of Nations mentions over 100 names specifically in his treatise. It is a brilliant synthesis of economic and philosophical thinking.

The Wealth of Nations was indeed a revolutionary book. Smith had no particular ideology and apologized for no particular class of people. He was concerned with the flow of goods and services consumed by everyone, constituting the ultimate aim and end of economic life. Smith's primary interest was in laying bare the mechanism by which society hangs together. He constructed a formulation of the laws of the marketplace, discovering what he called in Nature "the invisible hand," whereby private interests and the passions of men are led in the direction most agreeable to the whole society.

Smith's laws of the market were simple. The drive of individual self-interest in a community of similarly motivated people results in competition. If left untampered by any deceitful means, competition among people will result in the provision of goods that society wants, in the amount society desires, at the price society is willing to pay.

Smith's explanation of free-market commerce was an excellent explanation for its era prior to the Industrial Revolution. Large problems arose when restraints of any kind came into play to eliminate Nature's "invisible hand" in matters of the economy. Adam Smith did not anticipate the intervention of governments with their regulations of commerce. In fact, he viewed such intervention as harmful to a free market economy. He did not, as well, anticipate huge industrial monopolies that owned entire areas of the economy, artificially rigged prices, and lowered worker wages. Since the eighteenth century, when Smith woke the world with his great explanation of general economics, the marketplace has changed vastly. Self-interest still plays the major hand, but it is more difficult to compete, since a variety of interests block much competition.

Despite the idea that Smith wrote largely as an apologist for capitalists and businessmen, nothing could be further from the truth. Smith wrote: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy if which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable," hardly the words of a corporate apologist. Yet, a capitalist class rising in the nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution ignored much of Smith's work, and focused on his one remark"let the market alone." Smith's bias, if he had one, was neither anti-labor nor anti-capital. Instead, he described a sensible economic analysis that, at bottom, favored the consumer. He said: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production."

Adam Smith was a scholar and analyst of pre-industrial capitalism. The Wealth of Nations became a masterwork of political economy. More so, it was a rational classic guide to understanding the forces of competition and self-interest as the major conception of the human adventure in the Western world. Adam Smith died in 1790, but his economic theories have endured throughout the twentieth century.

See also: Capitalism


Heilbroner, Robert. The Essential Adam Smith. New York: W.H. Norton Co., 1986.

Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.

Nutter, G. Warren. Adam Smith and the American Revolution. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1976.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Werhane, Patricia H. Adam Smith and His Legacy for Modern Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Adam." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Smith, Adam." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . (December 17, 2017).

"Smith, Adam." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from