This Week in History

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This Week in History
09 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes “The Wealth of Nations”

  Sivasubramanian K

On 09 March 1776, Adam Smith, published the first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, more commonly known as The Wealth of Nations.

Adam Smith, a philosopher and economist, born in Scotland in 1723, introduced the concept that unrestricted trade would support and benefit individuals and society as a whole. His work, The Wealth of Nations, had a significant impact on economics research and explains how countries accumulate wealth.

Adam Smith argues that countries will develop when people are free to follow their interests in the free market without interference from the government. Despite belonging to a different era ( the book was first published before the Industrial Revolution) The Wealth of Nations continues to provide potent answers to the most complex economic issues. The book  demonstrates on how having the ability to work, trade, save, and invest fosters the prosperity without requiring a direction or the intervention of government.

Smith also argued in favour of the free market as a flexible and adaptive mechanism that can handle whatever comes its way in the future and survive the shock of the new. He stresses the basic idea that the division of labour and capital accumulation permits enable productive capability. Production can be greatly streamlined by dividing it up into numerous little jobs that are completed by specialised workers. Producers are left with excess, which they can trade or put towards purchasing new, even more effective labour-saving equipment.

Another recurring subject in The Wealth of Nations is the threat that monopolies, tax breaks, trade restrictions, and other benefits that producers obtain from the government pose to free trade and competition.

The accumulation of capital is the basis for a nation's future revenue, according to Smith's third theme. Future wealth creation will increase with the amount invested in more efficient production methods. However, individuals need to have faith that their capital will be safe from theft if they plan to accumulate it.

The nations that increase, prudently manage, and safeguard their capital are the ones that succeed. This system's automated nature is another recurring topic. When something is scarce, consumers are willing to shell out more for it because producing it yields a higher profit margin, which encourages producers to invest more money in its production. Producers move their capital and venture elsewhere when there is a glut, cheap prices, and profits. Thus, without a requirement for fundamental guidance, the industry continues to be focused on the most unyielding needs of the country.

Recent research on The Theory of Moral Sentiments has greatly increased Adam Smith’s significance as a moral philosopher. His other writings on science, the expressive arts, and the essence of justice are all seen as important contributions to Enlightenment ideas. Additionally, he is significantly more complex; as seen in his prior works, Smith was not content with advocating the virtues of free markets and the supremacy of human greed. His investigations and conclusions are significantly more nuanced, practical, and compassionate. He discovered economic rules as strong and long-lasting as Newton's laws governing the physical universe.

The multilateral trade system run by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will inevitably find its way back to the forefront of the institutional framework governing the global economy. Human prosperity has increased and spread most when economic freedom tempered by Smith's moral virtues of beneficence, fairness, prudence, and self-control is permitted to flourish. A large portion of the world benefited from the open trade phase of the 19th century, which also offered cheap goods and food to people. One billion people were lifted out of dollar-a-day deprivation as a result of the globalisation that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries, which included almost all countries in the global economic system. The theoretical and practical legacy of Adam Smith is undeniable. Whether or not governments around the world will ever cease frittering it away is the question.

For some, Smith appears to be a contradiction. He supports publicly supported education for all while opposing suffocating government intrusion. He also suggests a "business society," which is governed by each person's moral conscience, acknowledging their self-interest while also considering interdependence and relationality.

It was Smith who first emphasised the importance of economy in other disciplines including social, psychological, and political science. He was among the first to take a systemic approach to the structure of economies in business society and show how it could be examined as a phenomenon, despite the fact that Aristotle and Rousseau had written on the subject. Smith was among the first thinkers to position the economy at the centre of both social and societal processes, despite the fact that his ideas about the "best" type of society have been appropriated.

Smith is frequently cited as the founder of the free market and contemporary economics.


This Week in History is a new addition to our research publications, looking at the history, its importance, consequences/legacies, and relevance today. We hope this will add historic value to two of our flagship publications- Conflict Weekly and The World This Week. A shorter version of the above will be published in Conflict Weekly/The World This Week.

About the author

Dr Sivasubramanian K is an Assistant Professor, and the Coordinator of the Department of Economics, Kristu Jayanti College, Bengaluru.


In the series:
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow

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