Adam Smith Theories

Topics: Economics, Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations Pages: 5 (1755 words) Published: October 20, 2013
With The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith installed himself as the leading expositor of economic thought. Currents of Adam Smith run through the works published by David Ricardo and Karl Marx in the nineteenth century, and by John Maynard Keynes andMilton Friedman in the twentieth. Adam Smith was born in a small village in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where his widowed mother raised him. At age fourteen, as was the usual practice, he entered the University of Glasgow on scholarship. He later attended Balliol College at Oxford, graduating with an extensive knowledge of European literature and an enduring contempt for English schools. He returned home, and after delivering a series of well-received lectures was made first chair of logic (1751), then chair of moral philosophy (1752), at Glasgow University. He left academia in 1764 to tutor the young duke of Buccleuch. For more than two years they traveled throughout France and into Switzerland, an experience that brought Smith into contact with his contemporaries Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François Quesnay, and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. With the life pension he had earned in the service of the duke, Smith retired to his birthplace of Kirkcaldy to write The Wealth of Nations. It was published in 1776, the same year the American Declaration of Independence was signed and in which his close friend David Hume died. In 1778 he was appointed commissioner of customs. In this job he helped enforce laws against smuggling. In The Wealth of Nations, he had defended smuggling as a legitimate activity in the face of “unnatural” legislation. Adam Smith never married. He died in Edinburgh on July 19, 1790. Today Smith’s reputation rests on his explanation of how rational self-interest in a free-market economy leads to economic well-being. It may surprise those who would discount Smith as an advocate of ruthless individualism that his first major work concentrates on ethics and charity. In fact, while chair at the University of Glasgow, Smith’s lecture subjects, in order of preference, were natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and economics, according to John Millar, Smith’s pupil at the time. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote: “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.”1 At the same time, Smith had a benign view of self-interest, denying that self-love “was a principle which could never be virtuous in any degree.”2 Smith argued that life would be tough if our “affections, which, by the very nature of our being, ought frequently to influence our conduct, could upon no occasion appear virtuous, or deserve esteem and commendation from anybody.”3 Smith did not view sympathy and self-interest as antithetical; they were complementary. “Man has almost constantoccasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only,” he explained in The Wealth of Nations.4 Charity, while a virtuous act, cannot alone provide the essentials for living. Self-interest is the mechanism that can remedy this shortcoming. Said Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (ibid.). Someone earning money by his own labor benefits himself. Unknowingly, he also benefits society, because to earn income on his labor in a competitive market, he must produce something others value. In Adam Smith’s lasting imagery, “By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of 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.”5 The Wealth of Nations, published as a five-book series, sought to reveal the nature and cause of a nation’s...
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