Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The Wealth of Nations was a critique of the existing organization of state controls referred to by social philosopher Adam Smith as mercantilism. Although rudimentary forms of capitalism existed as far back as ancient times, modern capitalism began to unfold in the late Middle Ages with the development of a merchant class. Continued exploration during the next few centuries and the formation of joint-stock companies allowed the development of mercantilism, a state-dominated commercial system that primarily endeavored to use commerce to strengthen state power. Factors such the Protestant Reformation, which supported a more positive view of wealth, the rise of scientific reasoning, and corresponding population increases influenced the desire for new economic systems. Drawing on Enlightenment thought—individual human beings came to replace God at the center of things—humans, with their rational minds, could improve themselves and society through systematic and rational action.
In the late seventeenth century, philosopher John Locke proposed that the state had a responsibility for maintaining people’s rights—one right, in particular, the right to own property. Smith’s economic theories met the desire for economic change that would benefit the individual. However, mercantilism, which stimulated economic nationalism and encouraged government intervention in every aspect of trade, was the major economic system in the still primarily...
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Economic Systems and the State (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In his immensely popular and wide-ranging The Wealth of Nations, Smith provides an elaborate analysis of how economic systems function and develop over time, outlining the four main revolutionary economic stages that motivate society: the original “rude” state of hunters, a second stage of nomadic agronomy, a third period of feudal “farming,” and a fourth and final stage of business interdependence. During the hunter stage, a legal system remains unnecessary because “there is scarce any property . . . so there is seldom any established magistrate or any regular administration of justice.” However, as society becomes more complex and people begin to enclose flocks of animals, an legal system becomes paramount. Although Smith frowned on government controls, he clearly recognized the need for law enforcement for “the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Feudalism, the next stage in economic evolution, Smith describes primarily as a transition period leading from a guild-determined to a market-driven economy. The final phase, commercial capitalism, Smith referred to as a self-correcting system of “perfect liberty.”
The crux of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher’s argument was that economics and politics should remain separate and independent. A proponent of efficiency, Smith argued that state intervention not only reduces freedom to trade but also is...
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Competition and Society (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In addition, competition promoted the best interests of society. Monopolies, private or state-controlled were evil, Smith believed. The natural trend of economic development is upward, and a framework of an “obvious and simple system of liberty,” or perfect competition, is vital to this movement. Competition in the marketplace, he stated, would automatically result in the availability of goods that consumers desired. More firms producing the same product would result in increased efficiency and ultimately lower costs to the consumer: in other words, spur economic growth.
Economic growth depended upon the accumulation of capital, distinguished by Smith from land and labor, the two other major factors of production. His primary concern focused on a system of “natural liberty” that would result in “maximizing general welfare.” He emphasized that it was not nature but human effort that produced commodities and strongly suggested that people possessed a desire to advance socially: “a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave.” To advance upward, people needed to accumulate capital by saving and investing for the future. This innate desire at “self-betterment,” Smith viewed as a direct outcome of people’s natural competitive nature.
Taking the idea of innate competition one step further, Smith argued that this constant internalized competitive struggle not only forced the prices of...
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Smith’s Considerable Influence (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The Wealth of Nations has to be considered one of the most influential studies of Western civilization. It provides a comprehensive view of political and social evolution. Indeed, economists and historians maintain that Smith’s theory of a laissez-faire or free-market economy transformed society. Certainly Smith, often called the founder of modern economics, played a major role in the development of the Industrial Revolution first in Britain, France, and Germany and later in the United States. As a result of a free-market economy, large corporations and industrial cities developed. Such business innovations as the ability of the public to purchase stocks and bonds enabled corporations to accumulate wealth. Under the watchful eyes of stockholders anxious for profitable returns on investments, more qualified managers and workers were hired. Naturally, attacks on capitalism ensued, particularly the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which ultimately acted as the foundation of socialism and communism.
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Bibliography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Brown, Vivienne. Adam Smith’s Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce and Conscience. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1994. Discusses the attack on mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations and reveals problems with Smith’s theories. Examines those theories from political, moral, and economic viewpoints. Discusses inconsistency between The Wealth of Nations and Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Brown, Maurice. Adam Smith’s Economics: Its Place in the Development of Economic Thought. London: Routledge, 1992. Scholarly but approachable work sets forth the economic and historical contexts of Smith’s theories.
Campbell, R. Hutchinson, and Andrew S. Skinner. Adam Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. This volume not only provides biographical information on the philosopher but also furnishes facts on eighteenth century Scotland and Smith’s well-known circle of acquaintances, which included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin.
Fay, Charles R. Adam Smith and the Scotland of His Day. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1956. A loosely linked collection of essays that places Smith in the larger context of his time and place.
Fay, Charles R. The World of Adam Smith. New York:...
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