Adam Smith Research Paper

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Adam Smith, a famous eighteenth-century Enlightenment economist, is considered the father of modern economic theory and the principles of capitalism. The comprehensiveness of his book Wealth of Nations has ensured its continued importance in the field of economics.

Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1723 as the posthumous son of a customs comptroller. The only child of a widowed mother, he remained very close to her to the end of her life. Smith never married, but kept a steady company of friends, including the philosopher David Hume and the historian Edward Gibbon.

After spending his early years at home, he matriculated at Glasgow College in 1737 at the age of fourteen. After three fruitful years at Glasgow he went on to Oxford University, which was a disappointment. Like contemporary Scottish intellectuals, Smith found Oxford University to be anti-Scot, stagnant and uninspiring, and generally unfit to promote intellectual activity. However, he stayed at Oxford for six years, and was less critical of it than his contemporaries. His studies through the years covered mathematics, Greek, Latin, moral philosophy, and other topics. In 1746 he returned to Kirkcaldy and his mother, with whom he stayed, unemployed, for two years.

In 1748 Smith successfully started as a lecturer at Edinburgh University. In 1751 he obtained the Chair of Logic, and one year later the Chair of Moral Philosophy, a position he held for twelve years, during which he wrote his first significant work, Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759 to popular acclaim. The Theory was based on his university lectures and focused on morals for the common man, based on the concept of “fellow-feeling.” Crudely explained, fellow-feeling is our imagining the feelings of another person reacting to a situation, thus feeling a milder version of his feelings. That feeling gives rise to sympathy, and through that, to righteousness or its opposite. As an example Smith mentions our sympathy for a man whose son has been killed; we sympathize with, or fellow-feel the pain of his loss as we imagine our feelings if it was our son, and we naturally approve of his wish for justice and revenge. Right action in this case is seeking justice, which for Adam Smith includes revenge, in a manner approved by the general audience. It causes the feelings of righteousness in others because the sense of fellow-feeling makes them feel that there is a right response, in this case justice and revenge. If the man’s son instead died from an incurable illness, the general audience would sympathize with his loss as before, but it would give rise to general feelings of disapproval if the man wanted to see the doctor hanged, as the doctor had done nothing wrong. The feelings of righteousness thus depend on what appears to the general audience to be an appropriate response to a given situation. Right action is thus the action that naturally gives rise to general feelings of righteousness, while wrong actions are those that give rise to general disapproval.

In 1764 Smith gave up his position to become tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch on his two years’ tour of Europe, mainly France and Geneva. It gave Smith the opportunity to meet with famous French philosophes such as Tourgot, Rousseau, and Voltaire, and to participate in the famous salons led by the leading ladies of Paris (one of whom reputedly fell in love with him).

The beginning of the tour was less auspicious. During nine months in Touraine Smith found little intellectual stimulation and started to write a new book to fight boredom. It took ten years before it was published, but it became his lasting legacy, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, commonly known as Wealth of Nations. It is debated whether Smith’s Wealth of Nations was a truly original work, or simply a structured compilation of economic thoughts making their way round the Parisian salons. Certainly, France acquainted Smith with both defenders and attackers of the economic theories of physiocracy (economic theory, originally promoted by Quesay, court physician to Madame Pompadour, promoting the theory that land and agriculture is the only basis of real wealth) and mercantilism, and probably his own later attacks were at least inspired by the criticisms already prevalent.

In 1766, Smith returned to Britain, visiting London for six months, then on to Scotland. There he continued his work on the Wealth of Nations, wrote other minor works, and oversaw new editions of his Theory. During those years, Smith held no formal positions, although attempts were made to get him a new tutorship or a position with the East India Company.

The publication, in 1776, of Wealth of Nations, universally admired for its theories and the quality of its writing, brought Smith to the academic forefront. It is debatable whether Smith changed his concept of human nature from his Theory to the Wealth of Nations. In the latter he clearly states that self-interest is rightly the basic motivation of human action—especially economic action—while the former is more unclear as to whether self-interest alone is a basis for moral action. The discussion is of particular interest to those who argue that the ideas in the Wealth of Nations came from the French philosophes. Whether Smith is considered original or not, it must be conceded that his work gave the clearest organized presentation of those ideas and brought them from the specialized discussion forums to the general reader.

Smith focused on topics such as the division of labor, self-interest as the main principle of economics, national wealth as represented by production capacity rather than by stocks of gold (introducing in a rough form the concept of gross national product), free markets, a theory of real price, a theory of rent, and not least, the principles of the market forces. In short, he described the theoretical basis of the economic system known today as capitalism. Notably, his theory of the division of labor did not consider the new industrial revolution, but was entirely based on human labor. His most famous example is that of the pin makers. He explains how one man completing all the processes of making a pin by himself can produce a maximum of ten pins a day, while ten men cooperating and specializing in each part of the process can produce 48,000 pins a day. The advantage of specialization is made clear, but it is characteristic of Smith that he was aware of disadvantages as well, and pointed out that the workers in time became bored and lost the feeling of connection to their work, a problem that Karl Marx dealt with nearly a century later. While his theories on specialization, self-interest, national wealth, and market forces have generally been accepted, those on real price as determined by the labor it takes to produce or procure an item and rent based on use and reasonable profit are commonly considered confused, a fact that he admitted himself. In total, however, the Wealth of Nations must be considered the first detailed work of modern economic theory, and its comprehensiveness has ensured its continued importance in the field of economics.

In 1778 Smith was made commissioner of customs for Scotland, which allowed him a comfortable salary for life, added to a pension from his old student, the Duke of Buccleuch, giving Smith economic liberty. His remaining years were mainly spent making revisions to his earlier works, especially the Wealth of Nations, and participating in discussions with his contemporaries. In 1784, his mother, with whom he lived most of his life, died, leaving him desolate and in rapidly declining health. In 1790 he published his last work, a new edition of his Theory, which was shortly followed by his death and the burning of virtually all his unpublished papers in accordance with his own wish.


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  15. Werhane, P. H. (1991). Adam Smith and his legacy for modern capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

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