Adam Smith Research Paper

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Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, in the County of Fife, and baptized on June 5, 1723 (the date of birth is unknown). He was the son of Adam Smith, Clerk to the Court-Martial, later Comptroller of Customs in the town, and of Margaret Douglas of Strathendry.

1. Early Years

Smith entered Glasgow University in 1737—at the not uncommon age of 14. He was fortunate in his mother’s choice of University and in the period of his attendance. The old, nonspecialised, system of ‘regenting’ had been replaced in the late 1720s by a new arrangement whereby individuals professed a single subject. There is little doubt that Smith benefited from the teaching of Alexander Dunlop (Greek) and of Robert Dick (Physics).

But two men in particular are worthy of note in view of Smith’s later interests. The first is Robert Simson (1687–1768) whom Smith later described as one of the ‘greatest mathematicians that I have ever had the honour to be known to, and I believe one of the two greatest that have lived in my time’ (TMS, III.2.20). Smith could well have acquired from Simson and Matthew Stewart (father of Dugald) his early and continuing interest in mathematics. Dugald Stewart recalled in his memoir (Stewart 1977) that Smith’s favorite pursuits while at university were mathematics and natural philosophy.

Campbell and Skinner noted that ‘Simson’s interests were shared generally in Scotland. From their stress on Greek geometry the Scots built up a reputation for their philosophical elucidation of Newtonian fluxions, notably in the Treatise on Fluxions (1724) by Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), another pupil of Simson’s who held chairs of mathematics in Aberdeen and Edinburgh (1982, p. 20).

But important as it undoubtedly was Simson’s influence upon Smith pales by comparison with that exerted by Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746). A student of Gerschom Carmichael, the first Professor of Moral Philosophy, Hutcheson succeeded him in 1729. A great stylist, Hutcheson lectured in English (rather than Latin) 3 days a week on classical sources and 5 days on Natural Religion, Morals, Jurisprudence, and Government. As Dugald Stewart was to observe, Hutcheson’s lectures contributed to diffuse, in Scotland, the taste for analytical discussion, and a spirit of liberal enquiry.

It is believed that Smith graduated from Glasgow in 1740 and known that he was elected to the Snell Exhibition (scholarship) in the same year. He matriculated in Balliol College on July 7, and did not return to Scotland until 1746—the year that ended the Jacobite Rebellion and saw the death of Hutcheson. The 6 years spent in Oxford were often unhappy. Smith had a retiring personality, his health was poor, and the College was pro-Jacobite and ‘anti-Scottish.’ Some members were also ‘unenlightened’; a fact confirmed by the confiscation by one tutor of David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature.

And yet Smith was to write to the Principal of Glasgow University (Archibald Davidson), on the occasion of his election as Lord Rector (letter 274, dated November 16, 1787):

No man can owe greater obligations than I do to the University of Glasgow. They educated me, they sent me to Oxford, soon after my return to Scotland they elected me one of their members, and afterwards preferred me to another office, to which the abilities and virtues of the never to be forgotten Dr Hutcheson had given a superior degree of illustration.

The reference to Oxford was no gilded memory. Balliol had one of the best libraries in Oxford.

Smith’s occasional ill-health may be explained by his enthusiastic pursuit of its riches. It has been assumed that Smith developed an interest in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres during this period, although it now seems likely, in view of his later career, that he also further developed longer standing interests in literature, science, ethics, and jurisprudence.

2. Professor In Glasgow

Smith returned to Kirkcaldy in 1746 without any fixed plan. But his wide-ranging interests must have been known to his friends, three of whom arranged a program of public lectures which were delivered in Edinburgh between 1748 and 1751. The three friends were Robert Craigie of Glendoick, James Oswald of Dunnikier, and Henry Home, Lord Kames.

The lectures were of an extramural nature and delivered to a ‘respectable auditory.’ They probably also included material on the history of science (astronomy), jurisprudence, and economics.

The success of Smith’s courses in Edinburgh no doubt led to his appointment to the Glasgow Chair of Logic and Rhetoric in 1751—where once again he enjoyed the support of Henry Home, Lord Kames. Evidence gathered from former pupils confirms that Smith did lecture on rhetoric but also that he continued to deploy a wide range of interests, leading to the conclusion that he continued to lecture on the history of philosophy and science in the Glasgow years (Mizuta 2000, p. 101).

Smith attached a great deal of importance to his essay on the history of Astronomy (Corr, letter 137) the major part of which may well have been completed soon after leaving Oxford (Ross 1995, p. 101).

Adam Smith was translated to Hutcheson’s old chair of Moral Philosophy in 1752. As John Millar recalled to Dugald Stewart, the course was divided into four parts: natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and expediency (economics). Millar also confirmed that the substance of the course on ethics reappeared in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and that the last part of the course featured in the Wealth of Nations (1776). We know from Smith’s own words that he hoped to complete his wider plan by writing a ‘sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of literature, of philosophy poetry and eloquence’ together with ‘a sort of theory and history of law and government’ (Corr, letter 248).

Smith returned to this theme in the advertisement to the sixth and final edition of TMS in noting that TMS and WN were parts of a wider study. ‘What remains the theory of jurisprudence, which I have long projected, I have hitherto been hindered from executing, by the same occupations which had till now prevented me from revising the present work.’ But the outlines of the projected study are probably revealed by the content of LJ(A) and LJ(B), and by those passages in WN which can now be recognized as being derived from them (e.g., WN, III, and V.i.a.b).

The links between the parts of the great plan are many and various. The TMS, for example, may be regarded as an exercise in social philosophy, which was designed in part to show the way in which so self-regarding a creature as man, erects (by natural as distinct from artificial means) barriers against his own passions, thus explaining the observed fact that he is always found in ‘troops and companies.’ The argument places a good deal of emphasis on the importance of general rules of behaviour which are related to experience and which may thus vary in content, together with the need for some system of government as a precondition of social order.

The historical analysis, with its four socioeconomic stages, complements this argument by formally considering the origin of government and by explaining to some extent the forces which cause variations in accepted standards of behavior over time. Both are related in turn to Smith’s treatment of political economy.

The most polished accounts of the emergent economy and of the psychology of the ‘economic man’ are to be found, respectively, in the third book of WN and in Part VI of TMS that was added in 1790. Yet both areas of analysis are old and their substance would have been communicated to Smith’s students and understood by them to be what they possibly were: a preface to the treatment of political economy.

From an analytical point of view, Smith’s treatment of economics in the final part of LJ was not lacking in sophistication, which is hardly surprising in view of his debts to Francis Hutcheson, and through him, to Gerschom Carmichael, and thus to Pufendorf.

3. The French Connection

Despite his anxieties, the TMS proved to be successful (Corr, letter 31) and attracted the attention of Charles Townshend, the statesman, who set out to persuade Smith to become tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith eventually agreed, and left Glasgow with two young charges to begin a stay of almost 2 years in France. Smith resigned his Chair in February 1764 (Corr, letter 87). The party spent many months in Toulouse before visiting Avignon and Geneva (where Smith met the much-admired Voltaire) prior to reaching Paris to begin a stay of some 10 months.

From an intellectual point of view, the visit was a resounding success and arguably influential in the sense that Smith was able to meet, amongst many others, Francois Quesnay and A. R. J. Turgot. Quesnay’s economic model dates from the late 1750s but it is noteworthy that he was working on a new version of the Tableau, the Analyse, during the course of Smith’s visit. It is also known that Smith met Turgot at this time and that the latter was at work on the Reflections.

While Smith wrote a detailed commentary on Physiocratic teaching (WN IV.ix), his lectures on economics, as delivered in the closing months of 1763, did not include a model of the kind which he later associated with the French Economists—thus suggesting that he must have found a great deal to think about in the course of 1766. But there were more immediate concerns. The young Duke was seriously ill in the summer, leading Smith to call upon the professional services of Quesnay. Smith’s distress was further compounded by the illness and death of the younger brother, Hew Scott. The visit to Paris was ended abruptly. Smith spent the winter of 1766 in London and returned to Kirkcaldy in the following Spring to begin a stay of more than 6 years during which he worked upon successive drafts of the WN.

4. London 1773–76

Smith left Kirkcaldy in the spring of 1773 to begin a stay of some 3 years in London. David Hume assumed that publication of WN was imminent, but in fact, the book did not appear until March 1776. The reason may well be that Smith was engaged in systematic revision of a complex work. But he was also concerned with two sophisticated areas of analysis.

The first of these questions related to Smith’s interest in the optimal organization of public services, notably education, and features in a long letter addressed to William Cullen dated September 1774. The issue of public services was one of the topics that Smith addressed during his stay in London. Cullen had written to Smith seeking his opinion on proposals from the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. The petition suggested that doctors should be graduates, that they should have attended College for at least 2 years, and that their competence be confirmed by examination. Smith opposed this position, arguing that universities should not have a monopoly of provision and in particular that the performance of academic staff should be an important factor in determining salaries. In sum, an efficient system of higher education requires: a state of free competition between universities and private teachers; a capacity effectively to compete in the market for men of letters; freedom of choice for students as between teachers, courses, and colleges, together with the capacity to be sensitive to market forces, even if those forces were not always themselves sufficient to ensure the provision of the basic infrastructure. Smith also argued that education should be paid for through a combination of private and public funding (WN, V.i.i.5). Smith was arguing in favour of the doctrine of ‘induced efficiency’ and applied the principles involved to the whole range of public services (Skinner 1996, chap. 8).

At the same time, Smith also addressed another complex question, which was considered at great length in WN (Book IV, vii), namely the developing tensions with the American Colonies. Indeed, Hume believed that Smith’s growing preoccupation with the Colonial Question was the cause of the delay in the publication of the book (Corr, letter 139).

Smith’s long analysis of the issues involved provides the centerpiece of his critique of the ‘mercantile’ system of regulation (WN, IV, v.a.24). On Smith’s account the Regulating Acts of Trade and Navigation in effect confined the Colonies to the production of primary products, while the ‘mother country’ concentrated on more refined manufacturers—thus creating a system of complementary markets which benefited both parties. But it was Smith’s contention that the British economy could not sustain indefinitely the cost of colonial administration and that in the long run the rate of growth in America would come into conflict with restrictions currently imposed.

Smith, therefore, argued that Great Britain should dismantle the Acts voluntarily with a view to creating a single free trade area, in effect an Atlantic Economic Community, with a harmonized system of taxation, possessing all the advantages of a common language and culture.

Smith accepted the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. In this connection, he noted that:

In the course of little more than a century perhaps the produce of American might exceed that of British taxation. The seat of empire would then naturally remove itself to that part of the empire which contributed most to the general defence of the whole (WN IV, vii.c.79).

Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric in Edinburgh, objected to Smith’s inclusion of this material on the grounds that ‘it is too much like a publication for the present moment’ (Corr, 151). Others were more perceptive, recognizing that Smith was applying principles drawn from his wider system to the specific case of America (e.g., Thomas Pownall, Corr, ap.A). Pownall, a former Governor of Massachusetts, was an acute critic of Smith’s position (Skinner 1996, chap. 8) but recognized that Smith had sought to produce ‘an institute of the Principia of those laws of motion, by which the operations of the community are directed and regulated, and by which they should be examined’ (Corr p. 354).

5. The Wealth Of Nations

Dugald Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh, noted that: ‘It may be doubted, with respect to Mr Smith’s Inquiry, if there exists any book beyond the circle of the mathematical and physical sciences, which is at once so agreeable in its arrangement to the rules of a sound logic and so accessible to the examination of ordinary readers’ (Stewart 1977, IV22).

This is a complement which Smith would have appreciated, conscious as he was of the ‘beauty of a systematical arrangement of different observations connected by a few common principles’ (WN, V.i.f. 25).

But there are really two systems in WN. The first is a model of ‘conceptualised reality’ (Jensen 1984) which provides a description of a modern economy, which owed much to the Physiocrats. The second system is analytical and builds upon the first.

5.1 A Model Of Conceptualized Reality

If the Theory of Moral Sentiment provides an account of the way in which people erect barriers against their own passions, thus meeting a basic precondition for economic activity, it also provided an account of the psychological judgments on which that activity depends. The historical argument on the other hand explains the origins and nature of the modern state and provides the reader with the means of understanding the essential nature of the exchange economy. For Smith: ‘the great commerce of every civilised society, is that carried on between the inhabitants of the town and those of the country … The gains of both are mutual and reciprocal, and the division of labour is in this, as in all other cases, advantageous to all the different persons employed in the various occupations into which it is subdivided’ (WN, III.i.1).

The concept of an economy involving a flow of goods and services, and the appreciation of the importance of intersectoral dependencies, were familiar in the eighteenth century. Such themes are dominant features of the work done, for example, by Sir James Steuart and David Hume. But what is distinctive about Smith’s work, at least as compared to his Scottish contemporaries, is the emphasis given to the importance of three distinct factors of production (land, labor, capital) and to the three categories of return (rent, wage, profit) which correspond to them. What is distinctive to the modern eye is the way in which Smith deployed these concepts in providing an account of the flow of goods and services between the sectors involved and between the different socioeconomic groups (proprietors of land, capitalists, and wage-labor). The approach is also of interest in that Smith, following the lead of the French Economists, worked in terms of period analysis— typically the year was chosen, so that the working of the economy is examined within a significant time dimension as well as over a series of time periods. Both versions of the argument emphasise the importance of capital, both fixed and circulating.

5.2 A Conceptual Analytical System

The ‘conceptual’ model which Smith had in mind when writing the Wealth of Nations is instructive and also helps to illustrate the series of separate, but interrelated problems, which economists must address if they are to attain the end which Smith proposed, namely an understanding of the full range of problems which have to be encountered. Smith, in fact, addressed a series of areas of analysis which began with the problem of value, before proceeding to the discussion of the determinants of price, the allocation of resources between competing uses, and, finally, an analysis of the forces which determine the distribution of income in any one time period and over time.

The analysis offered in the first book enabled Smith to proceed directly to the treatment of macroeconomic issues and especially to a theory of growth which provides one of the dominant features of the work as a whole (c.f. Skinner 1996, chap. 7). The idea of a single, all-embracing conceptual system, whose parts should be mutually consistent is not an ideal which is so easily attainable in an age where the division of labor has increased significantly the quantity of science through specialization. But Smith becomes even more informative when we map the content of the ‘conceptual (analytical) system’ against a model of the economy, which is essentially descriptive.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Smith’s vision of the ‘economic process,’ to use Blaug’s phrase, lies in the fact that it has a significant time dimension. For example, in dealing with the problems of value in exchange, Smith, following Hutcheson, made due allowance for the fact that the process involves judgments with regard to the utility of the commodities to be received, and the disutility involved in creating the commodities to be exchanged. In the manner of his predecessors, Smith was aware of the distinction between utility (and disutility) anticipated and realized, and, therefore, of the process of adjustment which would take place though time. Young (1997, p. 61) has emphasized that the process of exchange may itself be a source of pleasure (utility).

In an argument which bears upon the analysis of the TMS, Smith also noted that choices made by the ‘rational’ individual may be constrained by the reaction of the spectator of his conduct—a much more complex situation than that which more modern approaches may suggest. Smith makes much of the point in his discussion of Mandeville’s ‘licentious’ doctrine that private vices are public benefits, in suggesting that the gratification of desire is perfectly consistent with observance of the rules of propriety as defined by the ‘spectator,’ that is, by an external agency. In an interesting variant on this theme, Etzioni (1988, pp. 21–4) noted the need to recognize ‘at least two irreducible sources of valuation or utility; pleasure and morality.’ He added that modern utility theory ‘does not recognise the distinct standing of morality as a major, distinct, source of valuations’ and hence as an explanation of ‘behaviour’ before going on to suggest that his own ‘deontological multi-utility model’ is closer to Smith than other modern approaches.

Smith’s theory of price, which allows for a wide range of changes in taste, is also distinctive in that it allows for competition among and between buyers and sellers, while presenting the allocative mechanism as one which involves simultaneous and interrelated adjustments in both factor and commodity markets.

As befits a writer who was concerned to address the problems of change and adjustment, Smith’s position was also distinctive in that he was not directly concerned with the problem of equilibrium. For him the ‘natural’ (supply) price was: ‘as it were, the central price, to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating … whatever may be the obstacles which hinder them from settling in this center of repose and continuance, they are constantly tending towards it’ (WN, I.vii.15).

The picture was further refined in the sense that Smith introduced into this discussion the doctrine of ‘net advantages’ (WN, I.x.a.1). This technical area is familiar to labor economists, but in Smith’s case it becomes even more interesting in the sense that it provides a further link with the TMS, and with the discussion of constrained choice. It was Smith’s contention that men would only be prepared to embark on professions that attracted the disapprobation of the spectator if they could be suitably compensated (Skinner 1996, p. 155) in terms of monetary reward.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the macroeconomic model is to be found in the way in which it was specified. As noted earlier, Smith argued that incomes are generated as a result of productive activity, thus making it possible for commodities to be withdrawn from the ‘circulating’ capital of society. As he pointed out, the consumption of goods withdrawn from the existing stock may be used up in the present period, or added to the stock reserved for immediate consumption, or used to replace more durable goods which had reached the end of their lives in the current period. In a similar manner, undertakers and merchants may add to their stock of materials, or to their holdings of fixed capital while replacing the plant which had reached the end of its operational life. It is equally obvious that undertakers and merchants may add to, or reduce, their inventories in ways that will reflect the changing patterns of demand for consumption and investment goods, and their past and current levels of production.

Smith’s emphasis upon the point that different ‘goods’ have different life-cycles means that the pattern of purchase and replacement may vary continuously as the economy moves through different time periods, and in ways which reflect the various age profiles of particular products as well as the pattern of demand for them. If Smith’s model of the ‘circular flow’ is to be seen as a spiral, rather than a circle, it soon becomes evident that this spiral is likely to expand (and contract) through time at variable rates.

It is perhaps this total vision of the complex working of the economy that led Mark Blaug to comment on Smith’s sophisticated grasp of the economic process and to distinguish this from his contribution to particular areas of economic analysis (c.f. Jensen 1984, Jeck 1994, Ranadive 1984).

What Smith had produced was a model of conceptualized reality, which is essentially descriptive, and which was further illuminated by an analytical system which was so organized as to meet the requirement of the Newtonian model (Skinner 1996, chap.7). Smith’s model(s) and the way in which they were specified confirmed his earlier claim that government’s ought not to interfere with the economy—a theme stated in the ‘manifesto of 1775’ (Stewart 1977, IV.25), repeated in LJ, confirmed by Turgot, and even more eloquently defended in WN (IV.ix.51).

Smith would no doubt be gratified that Hume had lived to see the publication of WN and pleased with the assessment that it has ‘Depth and Solidity and Acuteness’ (Corr, letter 150). Hume died in the summer of 1776. Two years later Smith was asked by a former pupil, Alexander Wedderburn, Solicitor- General in Lord North’s administration, to advise on the options open to the British Government in the aftermath of Bourgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. Smith returned to his old theme of Union, but recognized that the most likely outcome was military defeat (Corr, app B). In February of the same year, Smith was appointed Commissioner of Customs and of the Salt Duties that gave him an income of £600pa to be added to the £300 which he still received from the Duke.

Smith then moved to Edinburgh where he lived with his mother and a cousin. He died in 1790 after instructing his executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton, to burn the bulk of his papers. We may believe that the pieces which survived (which include the Astronomy) and which were later published in the Essays on Philosophical Subjects, were all specified by Smith.

6. Influence

Adam Smith’s influence upon his successors is a subject worthy of a book rather than a few concluding paragraphs. But there are some obvious points to be made even if the list can hardly be exhaustive.

If we look at the issues involved from the standpoint of economic theory and policy, the task becomes a little simpler.

On the subject of policy, Teichgraeber has noted that Smith’s advocacy of free trade or economic liberalism did not ‘register any significant victories during his life-time’ (1987, p. 338). Indeed, Tribe has argued that ‘until the final decade of the eighteenth century, Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry was better known than Smith’s The Wealth of Nations’ (1988, p. 133). The reason is that Steuart’s extensive and unique knowledge of conditions in Europe, gained as a result of exile, made him acutely aware of problems of immediate relevance; problems such as unemployment, regional imbalance, underdeveloped economies and the difficulties which were presented in international trade as a result of variations in rates of growth (Skinner 1996, chap. 11). In view of later events, it is ironic to note that Alexander Hamilton considered Steuart’s policy of protection for infant industries to be more relevant to the interests of the young American Republic than the ‘fuzzy philosophy of Smith’ (Stevens 1975, pp. 215–7).

But the situation was soon to change. In the course of a review of the way in which WN had been received, Black noted that:

On the side of policy, the general impression left by the historical evidence is that by 1826 not only the economists but a great many other influential public men were prepared to give assent and support to the system of natural liberty and the consequent doctrine of free trade set out by Adam Smith’ (1976, p. 47).

Black recorded that the system of natural liberty attracted attention on the occasion of every anniversary. But a cautionary note was struck by Viner (1928). Having reviewed Smith’s treatment of the function of the state in Adam Smith and Laisser-Faire, a seminal article, Viner concluded:

Adam Smith was not a doctrinaire advocate of laisser-faire. He saw a wide and elastic range of activity for government, and was prepared to extend it even further if government, by improving its standards of competence, honesty and public spirit, showed itself entitled to wider responsibilities’ (Wood 1984, i.164).

But this sophisticated view, which is now quite general, does not qualify Robbins’ point that Smith developed an important argument to the effect that economic freedom ‘rested on a two fold basis: belief in the desirability of freedom of choice for the consumer and belief in the effectiveness, in meeting this choice, of freedom on the part of the producers’ (Robbins 1953, p. 12). Smith added a dynamic dimension to this theme in his discussion of the Corn Laws (WN, IV.v.b). The thesis has proved to be enduringly attractive.

Analytically, the situation is also intriguing. Teichgraeber’s research revealed that there ‘is no evidence to show that many people exploited his arguments with great care before the first two decades of the nineteenth century (1987, p. 339). He concluded: ‘It would seem at the time of his death that Smith was widely known and admired as the author of the Wealth of Nations. Yet it should be noted too that only a handful of his contemporaries had come to see his book as uniquely influential’ (1987, p. 363).

Black has suggested that for Smith’s early nineteenth-century successors, the WN was ‘not so much a classical monument to be inspected, but as a structure to be examined and improved where necessary’ (1984, p. 44). There were ambiguities in Smith’s treatment of value, interest, rent, and population theory. These ambiguities were reduced by the work of Ricardo, Malthus, James Mill, and J. B. Say, making it possible to think of a classical system dominated by short-run self-equilibrating mechanisms and a longrun theory of growth.

But there was one result of which Smith would not have approved in that the classical orthodoxy made it possible to think of economics as quite separate from ethics and history. In a telling passage reflecting upon the order in which Smith developed his argument (ethics, history, economics), Hutchison concluded that Smith was unwittingly led, as if by an Invisible Hand, to promote an end which was no part of his intention, that ‘of establishing political economy as a separate autonomous discipline’ (1988, p. 355).

But the economic content of WN did, after all, provide the basis of classical economics in the form of a coherent, all-embracing account of ‘general interconnexions’ (Robbins 1953, p. 172). As Viner had earlier pointed out, the source of Smith’s originality lies in his ‘detailed and elaborate application to the wilderness of economic phenomena of the unifying concept of a co-ordinated and mutually interdependent system of cause and effect relationships which philosophers and theologians had already applied to the world in general’ (Wood 1984, i.143).

Down the years it is the idea of system which has attracted sustained attention perhaps because it is now virtually impossible to duplicate a style of thinking which becomes more informative the further we are removed from it. No one who is familiar with the Smithian edifice can fail to notice that he thought mathematically and in a manner which reflects his early interest in related disciplines, including the life sciences—all mechanistic, evolutionary, static, and dynamic, which so profoundly affected the shape assumed by his System of Social Science.


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  16. Teichgraeber R 1987 Less abused than I had reason to expect: The reception of the Wealth of Nations in Britain 1776–1790. Historical Journal 80: 337–66
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