- This article is about the economist. For the American politician, see Adam Smith (politician).
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Smith was the son of the comptroller of the customs at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized at Kirkcaldy on June 5, 1723, his father having died some six months previously.
At the age of about fifteen, Smith proceeded to the University of Glasgow, studying moral philosophy under "the never-to-be-forgotten" (as Smith called him) Francis Hutcheson. In 1740 he entered the Balliol College of the University of Oxford, but as William Robert Scott has said, "the Oxford of his time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework," and he relinquished his exhibition in 1746. In 1748 he began delivering public lectures in Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames. Some of these dealt with rhetoric and belles-lettres, but later he took up the subject of "the progress of opulence," and it was then, in his middle or late 20s, that he first expounded the economic philosophy of "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty" which he was later to proclaim to the world in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. About 1750 he met David Hume, who became one of the closest of his many friends.
In 1751 Smith was appointed professor of logic at the University of Glasgow, transferring in 1752 to the chair of moral philosophy. His lectures covered the field of ethics, rhetoric, jurisprudence and political economy, or "police and revenue." In 1759 he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, embodying some of his Glasgow lectures. This work, which established Smith's reputation in his own day, is concerned with the explanation of moral approval and disapproval. His capacity for fluent, persuasive, if rather rhetorical argument is much in evidence. He bases his explanation, not as the third Lord Shaftesbury and Hutcheson had done, on a special "moral sense", nor (like Hume) to any decisive extent on utility, but on sympathy. There has been considerable controversy as how far there is contradiction or contrast between Smith's emphasis in the Moral Sentiments on sympathy as a fundamental human motive, and, on the other hand, the key role of self-interest in The Wealth of Nations. In the former he seems to put more emphasis on the general harmony of human motives and activities under a beneficent Providence, while in the latter, in spite of the general theme of "the invisible hand" promoting the harmony of interests, Smith finds many more occasions for pointing out cases of conflict and of the narrow selfishness of human motives.
Smith now began to give more attention to jurisprudence and economics in his lecture and less to his theories of morals. An impression can be obtained as to the development of his ideas on political economy from the notes of his lectures taken down by a student in about 1763 which were later edited by E. Cannan (Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms, 1896), and from what Scott, its discoverer and publisher, describes as "An Early Draft of Part of The Wealth of Nations", which he dates about 1763.
At the end of 1763 Smith obtained a lucrative post as tutor to the young duke of Buccleuch and resigned his professorship. From 1764-66 he traveled with his pupil, mostly in France, where he came to know such intellectual leaders as Turgot, D'Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and, in particular, Francois Quesnay, the head of the Physiocratic school whose work he much respected. On returning home to Kirkcaldy he devoted much of the next ten years to his magnum opus, which appeared in 1776. In 1778 he was appointed to a comfortable post as commissioner of customs in Scotland and went to live with his mother in Edinburgh. He died there on July 17, 1790, after a painful illness. He had apparently devoted a considerable part of his income to numerous secret acts of charity.
Shortly before his death Smith had nearly all his manuscripts destroyed. In his last years he seemed to have been planning two major treatises, one on the theory and history of law and one on the sciences and arts. The posthumously published Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795) probably contain parts of what would have been the latter treatise.
The Wealth of Nations was influential since it did so much to create the field of economics and develop it into an autonomous systematic discipline. In the western world, it is arguably the most influential book on the subject ever published. When the book, which has become a classic manifesto against mercantilism, appeared in 1776, there was a strong sentiment for free trade in both Britain and America. This new feeling had been born out of the economic hardships and poverty caused by the war. However, at the time of publication, not everybody was convinced of the advantages of free trade right away: the British public and Parliament still clung to mercantilism for many years to come.
The Wealth of Nations, and to a lesser extent The Theory of Moral Sentiments, have become the starting point for any defence or critique of forms of capitalism, most influentially in the writings of Karl Marx and Humanist economists. Because laissez-faire capitalism is so often associated with unbridled selfishness, there is a recent movement to emphasize the sentimentalist moral philosophy of Smith, with its focus on sympathy with one's fellows.
There has been some controversy over the extent of Smith's originality in The Wealth of Nations; some argue that the work added little to the already established ideas of thinkers such as David Hume and Montesquieu. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most influential and important books in the field today.
See also: History of Economic Thought
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“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,” -Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
"But what all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures gradually brought about. These gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them." -Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
"The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder." - Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
"The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfils, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing." - Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could before himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own." - Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
"What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom." - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
"As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it." - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
"What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it." - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it." - Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
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