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Adam Smith

Adam Smith, a brilliant eighteenth-century Scottish political economist, had the

advantage of judging the significance ol colonies by a rigorous examination

based on the colonial experience of 300 years. His overview has a built-in bias:

he strongly disapproved of excessive regulation of colonial trade by parent

countries. But his analysis is rich with insight and remarkably dispassionate in

its argument. Adam Smith recognized that the discovery of the New World not only

brought wealth and prosperity to the Old World, but that it also marked a divide

in the history of mankind. The passage that follows is the work of this economic

theorist who discusses problems in a language readily understandable by everyone.

Adam Smith had retired from a professorship at Glasgow University and Was living

in France in 1764-5 when he began his great work, The Wealth of Nations. The

book was being written all during the years of strife between Britain and her

colonies, but it was not published until 1776. In the passages which follow,

Smith points to the impossibility of monopolizing the benefits of colonies, and

pessimistically calculates the cost of empire, but the book appeared too late to

have any effect upon British policy. Because the Declaration of Independence and

The Wealth of Nations, the political and economic reliations of empire and

mercantilism, appeared in the same year, historians have often designated 1776

as one of the turning points in modern history. The text On the cost of Empire,

the eloquent exhortation to the rulers of Britain to awaken from their grandiose

dreams of empire, is the closing passage of Smith’s book.

Adam Smith was a Scottish political economist and philosopher. He has become

famous by his influential book The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith was the son

of the comptroller of the customs at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. The exact date

of his birth is unknown. However, 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 Glasgow university, studying

moral philosophy under “the never-to-be-forgotten” Francis Hutcheson (as Smith

called him). In 1740 he entered Balliol college, 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 Glasgow university,

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 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 political economy 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, Andr?Morellet, Helv?tius 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 painfull illness. He had

apparently devoted a considerable part of his income to numerous secret acts of


Shortly before his death Smith had nearly all his manuscripts destroyed. In his

last years he seems 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 has become so influential since it did so much to create

the subject of political economy and develop it into an autonomous systematic

discipline. In the western world, it is the most influential book on the subject

ever published. When the book, which has become a classic manifesto against

mercantalism, 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

(Tindall and Shi). However, controversial views have been expressed as to the

extent of Smith’s originality in The Wealth of Nations. Smith has been blamed

for relying too much on the ideas of great thinkers such as David Hume and

Montesquieu. Nevertheless, The Wealth of Nations was the first and remains the

most important book on the subject of political ecomomy until this present day.

It has never, I think, been the good fortune of any founder of a scientific

system to think out to the very end even the more important ideas that

constitute his system. The strength and lifetime of no single man are sufficient

for that. It is enough if some few of the ideas which have to play the chief

part in the system are put on a perfectly safe foundation, and analysed in all

their ramifications and complexities. It is a great deal if, over and above that,

an equal carefulness falls to the lot of a few other favoured members of the

system. But in all cases the most ambitious spirit must be content to build up a

great deal that is insecure, and to fit into his system, on cursory examination,

ideas which it was not permitted him to work out.

We must keep these considerations before us if we would rightly appreciate

Adam Smith’s attitude towards our problem.

Adam Smith has not overlooked the problem of interest; neither has he worked

it out. He deals with it as a great thinker may deal with an important subject

which he often comes across, but has not time or opportunity to go very deeply

into. He has adopted a certain proximate but still vague explanation. The more

indefinite this explanation is, the less does it bind him to strict conclusions;

and a many-sided mind like Adam Smith’s, seeing all the many different ways in

which the problem can be put, but lacking the control which the possession of a

distinct theory gives, could scarcely fail to fall into all sorts of wavering

and contradictory expressions. Thus we have the peculiar phenomenon that, while

Adam Smith has not laid down any distinct theory of interest, the germs of

almost all the later and conflicting theories are to be found, with more or less

distinctness, in his scattered observations. We find the same phenomenon in Adam

Smith as regards many other questions.

The line of thought which seems to commend itself principally to him as

explaining natural interest occurs in very similar language in the sixth and

eighth chapters of book i of the Wealth of Nations. It amounts to this, that

there must be a profit from capital, because otherwise the capitalist would have

no interest in spending his capital in the productive employment of


General expressions like these have of course no claim to stand for a

complete theory.(2*) There is no reasoned attempt in them to show what we are to

represent as the actual connecting links between the psychological motive of the

capitalist’s self-interest and the final fixing of market prices which leave a

difference between costs and proceeds that we call interest. But yet, if we take

those expressions in connection with a later passage,(3*) where Smith sharply

opposes the “future profit” that rewards the resolution of the capitalist to the

“present enjoyment” of immediate consumption, we may recognise the first germs

of that theory which Senior worked out later on under the name of the Abstinence


In the same way as Adam Smith asserts the necessity of interest, and leaves

it without going any deeper in the way of proof, so does he avoid making any

systematic investigation of the important question of the source of undertaker’s

profit. He contents himself with making a few passing observations on the

subject. Indeed in different places he gives two contradictory accounts of this

profit. According to one account, the profit of capital arises from the

circumstance, that, to meet the capitalist’s claim to profit, buyers have to

submit to pay something more for their goods than the value which these goods

would get from the labour expended on them. according to this explanation, the

source of interest is an increased value given to the product over that value

which labour creates; but no explanation of this increase in value is given.

According to the second account, interest is a deduction which the capitalist

makes in his own favour from the return to labour, so that the workers do not

receive the full value created by them, but are obliged to share it with the

capitalist. According to this account, profit is a part of the value created by

labour and kept back by capital.

Both accounts are to be found in a great number of passages; and these

passages, oddly enough, sometimes stand quite close to each other, as, e.g. in

the sixth chapter of the first book.

Adam Smith has been speaking in that chapter of a past time, — of course a

mythical time, — when the land was not yet appropriated, and when an

accumulation of capital had not yet begun, and has made the remark that, at that

time, the quantity of labour required for the production of goods would be the

sole determinant of their price. He continues: “As soon as stock has accumulated

in the hands of particular persons, some of them will naturally employ it in

setting to work industrious people, whom they will supply with materials and

subsistence, in order to make a profit by the sale of their work, or by what

their labour adds to the value of the materials. In exchanging the complete

manufacture either for money, for labour, or for other goods, over and above

what may be sufficient to pay the price of the materials and the wages of the

workmen, something must be given for the profits of the undertaker of the work,

who hazards his stock in this adventure.”

This sentence, when taken with the opposite remark of the previous paragraph

(that, in primitive conditions, labour is the sole determinant of price), very

clearly expresses the opinion that the capitalist’s claim of interest causes a

rise in the price of the product, and is met from this raised price. But Adam

Smith immediately goes on to say: “The value which the workman adds to the

material, therefore, resolves itself in this case into two parts, of which the

one pays the wages, the other the profits of the employer upon the whole stock

of materials and wages which he advanced.” Here again the price of the product

is looked upon as exclusively determined by the quantity of labour expended, and

the claim of interest is said to be met by a part of the return which the worker

has produced.

We meet the same contradiction, put even more strikingly, a page farther on.

“In this state of things,” says Adam Smith, “the whole produce of labour

does not always belong to the labourer. He must in most cases share it with the

owner of the stock which employs him.” This is an evident paraphrase of the

second account. But immediately after that come the words: “Neither is the

quantity of labour commonly employed in acquiring or producing any commodity,

the only circumstance which can regulate the quantity which it ought commonly to

purchase, command, or exchange for. An additional quantity, it is evident, must

be due for the profits of the stock which advanced the wages and furnished the

materials of that labour.” He could scarcely have said more plainly that the

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