[An updated version of this biography can be found at Adam Smith in the 2nd edition.]
Adam Smith was born in a small village in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. There his widowed mother raised him until he entered the University of Glasgow at age fourteen, as was the usual practice, 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 over two years they lived and traveled throughout France and into Switzerland, an experience that brought Smith into contact with 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. This job put him in the uncomfortable position of having to curb smuggling, which, in The Wealth of Nations, he had upheld 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 concentrated 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."
At the same time, Smith had a benign view of self-interest. He denied the view that self-love "was a principle which could never be virtuous in any degree." 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."
To Smith sympathy and self-interest were not antithetical; they were complementary. "Man has almost constant occasion 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.
Charity, while a virtuous act, could not alone provide the essentials for living. Self-interest was the mechanism that could 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."
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."
The five-book series of The Wealth of Nations sought to reveal the nature and cause of a nation's prosperity. The main cause of prosperity, argued Smith, was increasing division of labor. Smith gave the famous example of pins. He asserted that ten workers could produce 48,000 pins per day if each of eighteen specialized tasks was assigned to particular workers. Average productivity: 4,800 pins per worker per day. But absent the division of labor, a worker would be lucky to produce even one pin per day.
Just how individuals can best apply their own labor or any other resource is a central subject in the first book of the series. Smith claimed that an individual would invest a resource, for example, land or labor, so as to earn the highest possible return on it. Consequently, all uses of the resource must yield an equal rate of return (adjusted for the relative riskiness of each enterprise). Otherwise reallocation would result. This idea, wrote George Stigler, is the central proposition of economic theory. Not surprisingly, and consistent with another Stigler claim that the originator of an idea in economics almost never gets the credit, Smith's idea was not original. French economist Turgot had made the same point in 1766.
Smith used this insight on equality of returns to explain why wage rates differed. Wage rates would be higher, he argued, for trades that were more difficult to learn, because people would not be willing to learn them if they were not compensated by a higher wage. His thought gave rise to the modern notion of human capital (see Human Capital). Similarly, wage rates would also be higher for those who engaged in dirty or unsafe occupations (see Job Safety), such as coal mining and butchering, and for those, like the hangman, who performed odious jobs. In short, differences in work were compensated by differences in pay. Modern economists call Smith's insight the theory of compensating wage differentials.
Smith used numerate economics not just to explain production of pins or differences in pay between butchers and hangmen, but to address some of the most pressing political issues of the day. In the fourth book of The Wealth of Nations—published, remember, in 1776—Smith tells Great Britain that her American colonies are not worth the cost of keeping. His reasoning about the excessively high cost of British imperialism is worth repeating, both to show Smith at his numerate best, and to show that simple clear economics can lead to radical conclusions:
Smith vehemently opposed mercantilism—the practice of artificially maintaining a trade surplus on the erroneous belief that doing so increased wealth. The primary advantage of trade, he argued, was that it opened up new markets for surplus goods and also provided some commodities at less cost from abroad than at home. With that, Smith launched a succession of free trade economists and paved the way for David Ricardo's and John Stuart Mill's theories of comparative advantage a generation later.
Adam Smith has sometimes been caricatured as someone who saw no role for government in economic life. In fact, he believed that government had an important role to play. Like most modern believers in free markets, Smith believed that the government should enforce contracts and grant patents and copyrights to encourage inventions and new ideas. He also thought that the government should provide public works, such as roads and bridges, that, he assumed, would not be worthwhile for individuals to provide. Interestingly, though, he wanted the users of such public works to pay in proportion to their use. One definite difference between Smith and most modern believers in free markets is that Smith favored retaliatory tariffs.
Retaliation to bring down high tariff rates in other countries, he thought, would work. "The recovery of a great foreign market," he wrote "will generally more than compensate the transitory inconvenience of paying dearer during a short time for some sorts of goods."
Some of Smith's ideas are testimony to his breadth of imagination. Today, vouchers and school choice programs are touted as the latest reform in public education. But it was Adam Smith who addressed the issue more than two hundred years ago:
Smith's own student days at Oxford (1740-46), whose professors, he complained, had "given up altogether even the pretense of teaching," left Smith with lasting disdain for the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
Smith's writings were both an inquiry into the science of economics and a policy guide for realizing the wealth of nations. Smith believed that economic development was best fostered in an environment of free competition that operated in accordance with universal "natural laws." Because Smith's was the most systematic and comprehensive study of economics up until that time, his economic thinking became the basis for classical economics. And because more of his ideas have lasted than those of any other economist, Adam Smith truly is the alpha and the omega of economic science.
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan. 1976.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. 1976.
Related Material on Econlib:
"Economics and the Ordinary Person: Re-making Adam Smith," by Sam Fleischacker
Life of Adam Smith, by John Rae
"Richard Cantillon and the Nationality of Political Economy", by William Stanley Jevons
Mike Munger on the Division of Labor. Podcast on EconTalk.