An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations, is the magnum opus of the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith. First published in 1776, the book offers one of the world’s first collected descriptions of what builds nations’ wealth, and is today a fundamental work in classical economics. By reflecting upon the economics at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the book touches upon such broad topics as the division of labour, productivity, and free markets.
An important theme that persists throughout the work is the idea that the economic system is automatic, and, when left with substantial freedom, able to regulate itself. This is often referred to as the “invisible hand.” The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is limited by externalities, monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others.
The invisible hand is a term used by Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits of individual self-interested actions. The phrase was employed by Smith with respect to income distribution (1759) and production (1776). The exact phrase is used just three times in Smith’s writings, but has come to capture his notion that individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interest may frequently benefit society more than if their actions were directly intending to benefit society.
The Wealth of Nations was published 9 March 1776, during the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Agricultural Revolution. It influenced a number of authors and economists, as well as governments and organizations. For example, Alexander Hamilton was influenced in part by The Wealth of Nations to write his Report on Manufactures, in which he argued against many of Smith’s policies. Interestingly, Hamilton based much of this report on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and it was, in part, Colbert’s ideas that Smith responded to with The Wealth of Nations.
The Wealth of Nations was the product of seventeen years of notes, an observation of conversation among economists of the time concerning economic and societal conditions during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and took Smith ten years to produce. The result, An Inquiry to the Wealth of Nations, was a treatise which sought to offer a practical application for reformed economic theory to replace the mercantilist and physiocratic economic theories that were becoming less relevant in the time of industrial progress and innovation. It provided the foundation for new economists, politicians, mathematicians, biologists, and thinkers of all fields to build upon.
Irrespective of historical influence, The Wealth of Nations represented a clear shift in the field of economics, comparable to Sir Isaac Newton‘s Principia Mathematica for physics, Antoine Lavoisier‘s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for chemistry, or Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species for biology.
James Madison, in a speech given in Congress on 2 February 1791, cited The Wealth of Nations in opposing a national bank: “The principal disadvantages consisted in, 1st. banishing the precious metals, by substituting another medium to perform their office: This effect was inevitable. It was admitted by the most enlightened patrons of banks, particularly by Smith on the Wealth of Nations”. Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Norvell on 14 June 1807, claimed that on “the subjects of money & commerce, Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read, unless Say’s Political Economy can be had, which treats the same subject on the same principles, but in a shorter compass & more lucid manner”
George Stigler attributes to Smith “the most important substantive proposition in all of economics” and foundation of resource-allocation theory. It is that, under competition, owners of resources (labour, land, and capital) will use them most profitably, resulting in an equal rate of return in equilibrium for all uses (adjusted for apparent differences arising from such factors as training, trust, hardship, and unemployment). He also describes Smith’s theorem that “the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market” as the “core of a theory of the functions of firm and industry” and a “fundamental principle of economic organisation.”
Paul Samuelson finds in Smith’s pluralist use of supply and demand – as applied to wages, rents, and profit – a valid and valuable anticipation of the general equilibrium modelling of Walras a century later. Moreover, Smith’s allowance for wage increases in the short and intermediate term from capital accumulation and invention added a realism missed later by Malthus, Ricardo, and Marx in their propounding a rigid subsistence-wage theory of labour supply.
In noting the last words of the Wealth of Nations,
- If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.
Ronald Coase suggests that if Smith’s earlier proposal of granting colonies representation in the British parliament proportional to their contributions to public revenues had been followed, “there would have been no 1776, … America would now be ruling England, and we [in America] would be today celebrating Adam Smith not simply as the author of the Wealth of Nations, but hailing him as a founding father.”
Mark Blaug argues that it was Smith’s achievement to shift the burden of proof against those maintaining that the pursuit of self-interest does not achieve social good. But he notes Smith’s relevant attention to definite institutional arrangements and process as disciplining self-interest to widen the scope of the market, accumulate capital, and grow income.
Economic anthropologist David Graeber argues that throughout antiquity, one can identify many different systems of credit and later monetary exchange, drawing evidence for his argument from historical and also ethnographical records, that the traditional explanation for the origins of monetary economies from primitive bartering systems, as laid out by Adam Smith, doesn’t find empirical support. The author argues that credit systems developed as means of account long before the advent of coinage around 600 BCE, and can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. The idea of barter, on the other hand, seems only to apply to limited exchanges between societies that had infrequent contact and often in a context of ritualized warfare, rendering its conceptualization among economists as a myth.
As an alternative explanation for the creation of economic life, the author suggests that it originally related to social currencies, closely related to non-market quotidian interactions among a community and based on the “everyday communism” that is based on mutual expectations and responsibilities among individuals. This type of economy is, then, contrasted with the moral foundations of exchange based on formal equality and reciprocity (but not necessarily leading to market relations) and hierarchy, based on clear inequalities that tend to crystallize in customs and castes.