Cover image for The wealth of nations
Title:
The wealth of nations
Author:
Smith, Adam, 1723-1790.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations
Publication Information:
New York : Modern Library, [2000]

©2000
Physical Description:
xxvi, 1154 pages ; 20 cm
General Note:
Originally published: An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations / Adam Smith ; edited ... by Edwin Cannan. 1994. With new introd. by Robert Reich.
Language:
English
Reading Level:
1500 Lexile.
Subject Term:
ISBN:
9780679783367
Format :
Book

Available:*

Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library HB161 .S65 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Central Library HB161 .S65 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

Adam Smith's masterpiece, first published in 1776, is the foundation of modern economic thought and remains the single most important account of the rise of, and the principles behind, modern capitalism. Written in clear and incisive prose, The Wealth of Nations articulates the concepts indispensable to an understanding of contemporary society; and Robert Reich's Introduction both clarifies Smith's analyses and illuminates his overall relevance to the world in which we live. As Reich writes, "Smith's mind ranged over issues as fresh and topical today as they were in the late eighteenth century--jobs, wages, politics, government, trade, education, business, and ethics."

Introduction by Robert Reich * Commentary by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner * Includes a Modern Library Reading Group Guide


Author Notes

Adam Smith was one of the foremost philosophers and personalities of the eighteenth century. As a moral philosopher, Smith was concerned with the observation and rationalization of behavior. His encyclopedic description and insightful analysis of life and commerce in English society established him as an economist at a time when economics was not a recognized discipline. Today he is recognized as the father of the classical school of economics that included Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. Smith's major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), was the single most important economics treatise to appear up to that time. Although significant works on economics preceded it, it was truly the first of its kind.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland. He enrolled at Glasgow University a the age of 14. After graduating from Glasgow in 1740, he traveled 400 miles on horseback to study at Oxford University. Oxford at that time was not the citadel of learning that it became in later years. As a result, Smith provided much of his own instruction while enjoying the vast resources of Oxford's library. Such independent work was not without peril; he was almost expelled when school officials found a copy of David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature in his possession. Aside from the lack of instruction, Smith was unhappy on a personal level. He was unpopular with the English students, as were all Scots at the time, and he suffered varying degrees of harassment. He also developed a nervous tic, a shaking of the head, that remained with him for the rest of his life. Oxford did little for Smith while he was there, and it ignored him long after he became famous. When Smith received an honorary doctorate in 1762, it was from Glasgow University. In 1746 Smith returned to Scotland and proceeded to give a series of public lectures in Edinburgh. These were followed by an appointment at Glasgow University. Smith was a popular teacher at Glasgow, despite his notorious absentmindedness and idiosyncratic behavior. He never could remember to wear a hat or a coat or carry an umbrella, and he was often observed walking about waving his cane while talking animatedly with himself.

His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a treatise on the formation of moral judgments by men who acted primarily in their own self-interest, became an immediate success. Five years after it was published, he left Glasgow to take a well-paid position as tutor to a young English duke who was about to take the customary grand tour of Europe. During his travels, he met and shared ideas with the philosopher Voltaire, the French economist Francois Quesnay, and the American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin. While on tour, Smith began work on a manuscript on political economy. This work appeared some years later as The Wealth of Nations. A tour de force, the book argued that the wealth of a country was the sum of the goods produced and consumed by its people, not the monetary wealth, gold, and treasures owned by the nobility. It also argued that society was guided as if an "invisible hand" directed the selfish interests of individuals toward actions that were in the collective interest of everyone. This process tended to be self-regulating. Competition and the profit motive combined to force producers to offer better products at lower prices and to allocate the factors of production to those activities favored by consumers. The Wealth of Nations addressed numerous other issues as well, including the division of labor, the determinants of price, the origins of value, the benefits of international trade, and even economic growth. Oddly enough, The Wealth of Nations was not well received at first. In time, however, it found an audience, especially among the merchant and manufacturing classes who found in it a moral justification for the enormous energies that society was devoting to commerce and trade.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Excerpts

Excerpts

moFrom the introduction by Robert Reich Adam Smith's ideas fit perfectly with this new democratic, individualistic idea. To him, the "wealth" of a nation wasn't determined by the size of its monarch's treasure or the amount of gold and silver in its vaults, nor by the spiritual worthiness of its people in the eyes of the Church. A nation's wealth was to be judged by the total value of all the goods its people produced for all its people to consume. To a reader at the start of the twenty-first century, this assertion may seem obvious. At the time he argued it, it was a revolutionary democratic vision. Smith was born in 1723, in the small Scottish port of Kirkcaldy, which sits across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. His father was a collector of customs--a job that literally embodied the old mercantilist philosophy that Smith would later argue against. He was educated at the University of Glasgow, whose professors passionately debated the new concepts of individualism and ethics (one of his teachers, Francis Hutcheson, was prosecuted by the Scottish Presbyterian church for spreading the "false and dangerous" doctrines that moral goodness could be obtained by promoting happiness in others and that it was possible to know good and evil without knowing God), and then at Oxford, whose professors didn't debate or teach much of anything. In fact, the lassitude of Oxford's dons prompted Smith to suggest, in The Wealth of Nations, that professors be paid according to the number of students they attract, thereby motivating them to take a more lively interest in teaching--one of Smith's few suggestions with which today's tenured professors of economics generally disagree. In 1748 Smith returned to the University of Glasgow, first as a professor of logic and then of moral philosophy, filling Francis Hutcheson's chair. There he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, which brought him instant fame. In it, Smith asked how a normal self-interested person is capable of making moral judgments, when the essence of morality is selflessness. It was a question that troubled many of the new thinkers of the eighteenth century, who had liberated themselves from both theology and codes of aristocratic or chilvaric virtue. Smith's answer foreshadowed Sigmund Freud's superego: People possess within themselves an "impartial spectator" who advises them about moral behavior. Smith resigned his professorship in 1764 to become tutor to the son of the late Duke of Buccleuch. The boy's mother, Countess of Dalkeith, had just remarried Charles Townshend, one of Smith's many admirers, who later became Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, and was responsible for imposing the taxes on the American colonies that prompted some Bostonians to throw large quantities of tea into Boston Harbor. For the next two years, Smith traveled throughout the Continent, beginning work on the book that was to become The Wealth of Nations. He visited Voltaire in Geneva, and in Paris met François Quesnay, a physician in the court of Louis XV who had devised a chart of the economy--a "tableau economique" he called it--showing the circulation of products and money in an economy analogous to the flow of blood through a body. Quesnay and his fellow Physiocrats believed that wealth came from a nation's production that enlarged the flow rather than from its accumulation of gold and silver, as the prevailing mercantilists believed, and that governments should therefore remove all impediments to the flow of money and goods in order to increase production. Smith took these notions to heart, although he didn't agree with everything the Physiocrats propounded (such as their view that agricultural production was the only true source of wealth). Returning to Glasgow in 1766, he spent the better part of the following decade working out his theories. Occasionally he'd travel to London to discuss them with luminaries such as the philosopher Edmund Burke, historian Edward Gibbon, Benjamin Franklin (visiting from America), and the remarkable personalities Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Smith's book finally appeared on March 9, 1776, in two volumes, and went through several subsequent editions. It was well received, although not an immediate sensation. Smith spent his remaining years back in Edinburgh as commissioner of customs, the same kind of mercantilist sinecure his father had held, and died in July 1790, at the age of sixty-seven. The Wealth of Nations is resolutely about human beings--their capacities and incentives to be productive, their overall well-being, and the connection between productivity and well-being. In the very first sentence of his Introduction, Smith takes aim at the mercantilists and declares, "The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life. . . ." And two paragraphs later he states that a nation's wealth grows because of "the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied. . . ." Smith's concern about all of a nation's working people is evident. In a wealthy nation "a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire." In the rest of the book he explains why this is so. While The Theory of Moral Sentiments showed how normal, self-interested people could make moral judgments by consulting an internal "impartial spectator," in The Wealth of Nations Smith explains how such people will automatically contribute to the well-being of others even absent such consultations, simply by pursuing their own ends. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner," writes Smith, in one of the most frequently cited passages in the history of economic thought, "but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love. . . ." With several strokes of his pen, Smith thereby provided a moral justification for motives that had been morally suspect in Western thought for thousands of years. How can self-interested behavior--the "private interests and passions" of men Smith calls them--lead to the good of the whole? By means, he says, of an "invisible hand"--perhaps the most famous, or infamous, bodily metaphor in all of social science. By an "invisible hand" Smith does not mean a mystical force; he is referring to an unfettered market propelled both by competition among self-interested sellers and by buyers seeking the best possible deals for themselves. If sellers produce too little of something to meet buyers' demands, for example, the price of the product will rise until other sellers step in to fill the gap. If some sellers charge too high a price to begin with, others will step in and charge a lower one. Unimpeded, the invisible hand will allocate goods efficiently. But the key to wealth creation, for Smith, comes in the division of labor--by which individuals specialize in doing or producing a particular thing. Smith famously illustrates this principle by reference to the making of pins within the kind of small factory that characterized the early years of the Industrial Revolution. "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations . . . ," he explains. "I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed . . . [who] could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins a day." He contrasts this with the likely output of individuals who tried to make the entire pins themselves. "[I]f they had all wrought separately and independently . . . they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day. . . ." Specialization improves productivity because it allows workers to become more skilled in their specific tasks, motivates them to discover more efficient means of doing them, and saves them the time of changing over to different tasks. Here, Smith noticed something that modern managers often overlook: Innovation often begins with the workers closest to the things being worked upon. "A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it." In order to reap the full benefits of specialization, the market must be sufficiently large. After all, there's little point in creating forty-eight thousand pins if there aren't enough people to buy them. The larger the market, the greater the opportunities for specialization. It follows that barriers to trade, within a nation or between nations--regulations, licenses, tariffs, quotas, and other market protections--reduce potential wealth. At the extreme, the necessity of self-sufficiency causes hardship, as in "the lone houses and very small villages which are scattered about in so desert a country as the Highlands of Scotland, [where] every farmer must be butcher, baker, and brewer for his own family." Excerpted from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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