A Very Brief Introduction to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

The Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WoN hereafter) was published on 9th March, 1776. It was advertised in the concluding paragraph of Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). This blog post is a very brief introduction to Adam Smith’s theory of political economy as presented in the WoN. According to John Rae, the biographer of Smith, the WoN ‘took twelve years to write, and was in contemplation for probably twelve years before that.’ Smith never engaged in any commercial activity unlike his predecessor, Richard Cantillon or his successor, David Ricardo, yet his insights into the working of the competitive economy is intellectually deep and of enduring relevance. His intellectual acquaintances include David Hume, Francois Quesnay, Jacques Turgot and Voltaire.

WoN is divided into 5 books: Book I presents a detailed examination of how labour becomes productive, and contains a theory of supply (of output). On what factors does the annual supply of commodities depend? Book II builds on this and contains a theory of accumulation (of capital stock). The growth policies undertaken by various nations form the content of Book III. The existing theories of political economy are critically appraised in Book IV; this book also includes the policy effects of these theories. Finally, in Book V, a theory of public finance – the theory of the revenue, expenditure and borrowing of the government – is outlined. Given the recurring themes of economic growth and development in this blog, the title of books I and II deserve to be quoted in full.

Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People

Book II: Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock

In other words, the first book contains a theory of income distribution and the second contains a theory of economic growth. Recent research has noted the similarities between Smith’s theory of economic growth and neoclassical ‘new economic growth theory’ of Romer; in fact, Smith’s theory clearly emerges as a superior one.

The ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’, according to Smith, are produced by labour. That is, labour produces the annual aggregate supply of commodities and services. The nation is considered better supplied if the proportion between the annual aggregate supply and annual population is high. To expand this definition and adopting modern terminology, we can say that this idea of Smith corresponds to that of output per capita (for example, a high GDP per capita is favoured over a low GDP per capita). Further, Smith asks: what determines the output per capita? According to Smith, there are two factors which determine this proportion. (1) The productivity of labour, and (2) the ratio of workers employed in physical and human capital generation to other workers. Smith uses a different terminology: the ratio of productive to unproductive labour. The number of workers employed in physical and human capital formation is necessarily in proportion to the capital advanced in these sectors. And, labour productivity depends on the capital advanced. But, what is there in Smith’s theory of economic growth which ensures that the growth in aggregate supply is validated by an equivalent growth in aggregate demand?

Smith’s WoN, particularly the first 2 books, is of much contemporary relevance in understanding the socio-cultural idea of ‘subsistence wage’. Also, it contains a rich exposition of productivity unlike the ‘blackbox’ of productivity commonly found in the Solow-type growth theory. Smith’s WoN contains both logical rigour as well as rich prose, and together they vastly enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.

On Economics and Ethics

Ever since political economy became economics, the role of ethics has continually diminished in the learning of economics. This is because economists want(ed) their discipline to be scientific. To serve this purpose, economics has been divided into normative economic and positive economics. Normative economics deals with questions such as “what ought to be the price configuration” whereas positive economics deals with questions such as “what is the configuration of process”. In other words, there is no room for debate in positive economics; at least, that is the impression one gets from reading the mainstream textbooks. Amartya Sen tried to remedy this situation by strengthening the area of welfare economics; however, methodologically, it still adopts a ‘positive economics’ framework. In any case, this development motivated economists to ask humane and ethical questions. This post raises some issues concerning the role of ethics in economics.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, did not only write Wealth of Nations; being a moral philosopher and an acute observer of society also published a book titled Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book talks of sympathy, passion, ambition, justice, duty, utility, custom, virtue, self-command, etc. Often, proponents who favour utility maximization cite Adam Smith as the first one to do so effectively. As much as one glance at the table of contents of Theory of Moral Sentiments will say otherwise.

This brings us to the following pertinent, yet very difficult questions. What is the objective of economic policies or economic engineering? What role does economic theory play in policy making? Does economic theory provide tools, methods and concepts that aid policy formulation? The final objectives of economic policy invariably happen to be poverty elimination, reduction of unemployment, inflation control and provision of a good standard of living to all the inhabitants. Hence, various kinds of policies are undertaken to achieve these broad objectives. Very often, economic theory aids such policy making exercise in a significant manner. Now, we come to a very startling observation. Economic theory (which is positive in nature) has no room for conflicts, ethics or values. Instead, the major criterion which dominates most economic theorization is that of economic efficiency – free markets achieve efficiency. So what? The goals of economic policies are not to make markets efficient or free; instead, it is to provide the inhabitants with a good standard of living. In India, how can markets take care of the diversity in caste, language, region, income, etc? Economists must do away with their arrogance and admit that policy making is a serious and complex matter, which cannot be solely guided by macroeconomic models of the general equilibrium variety!

For instance, the variables which the government tries to engineer affect people in different and often opposite ways. Alterations in interest rates affect lenders and borrowers differently. Also, movements in exchange rates affect exporters and importers in exactly opposite ways. More importantly, changes in prices of goods and services affect those who cannot afford it very adversely. Given such differential effects of policy variables, economics must incorporate ethical discussions into its fold. Perhaps, a reading of Theory of Moral Sentiments will be of great help!


For ‘Social’ Economists

Over the past years, I have come across many students of economics who complain about the irrelevance of economics to understand practical issues. Among them, some go on to choose sociology, which is considered to be more practical and realistic. This post is for those who think that the dominant practice of economics is not done the right way. It is certainly possible to be a ‘social’ economist. In fact, this post is about ‘social’ economists and not about social economics, a distinct field in economics, which comprises economists who think ethics, values, philosophy, culture, etc are important.

Social economics/socio-economics/new social economics are emerging fields within economics whose central premise is that one cannot study an economy meaningfully without paying attention to social institutions, culture, beliefs, etc. It is disturbing to know that the practitioners of social economics, socio-economics and new social economics distinguish their work among themselves. This trend is largely because of the urge to be ‘pioneers’ in ‘emerging’ areas in economics. The following extracts from The Elgar Companion to Social Economics shows this clash of identity:

“The association that promotes socio-economics, the Society for  the Advancement of Socio-economics (SASE) advertises itself rightly as  an interdisciplinary organization. In recent years, socio-economists have  increasingly used insights from biology, in addition to psychology and sociology.”

“The association that promotes social economics, the  Association for Social Economics (ASE), presents itself as a pluralistic  organization that emphasizes the role of social values and social relationships in economics. Social economists have a variety of additional orientations, including institutionalism, Marxism, feminism, post-Keynesian,  Kantianism, solidarism, neo-Schumpeterian, environmentalism and  cooperativism. ”

“There is also a quite recent literature termed the ‘new social economics’,  which begins with market relationships, and then seeks to add ‘non-economic’ social content to their analysis. That is, rather than embed the  economy in social relationships, these more recent contributions seek to  embed social relationships in the market. ”

In any case, these emergent fields indicate a dissatisfaction with the dominant economics profession. However, in their haste to carve out a separate field, the essentials are often lost. The adjective social prefixed to economics indicates the existence of an economy which cannot be clearly demarcated from the society in any clear fashion. Moreover, this usage also emphasises the role of how society is organised. The following are some questions pertaining to the economic aspects: Are the people motivated by reason? To what extent does profits motivate entrepreneurs? On what basis are people employed – caste, gender, religion, academic qualification, political connections, bribes, region? Can we visualise distinct social classes in the economy based on their ownership of land? What are the sort of interactions which take place between agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors? How is finance organised in the country? How important are informal sources of finance? Does labour laws apply to all sorts of employment? How does the government intervene in domestic production and consumption of commodities are services? What sorts of price and quantity controls exist? These are some of the questions which aid in understanding how the economic aspects of a society are organised.

Today, economists are asked for their opinion/advice on matters pertaining to financial crises, foreign exchange constraints, poverty, unemployment, inflation, rural development, etc. Only an economist who is reasonably aware of how the society is actually organised will be able to devise strategies and chart plans which can effectively tackle these economic issues. A ‘social’ economist is one who understands the complexity of social studies in general and of economics in particular. In addition, she will always resist the temptation to think in atomistic terms and will resist universal solutions. She will also be aware of the significance of non-market transactions.

Even if the dominant form of economics teaching and research is asocial, the academic enterprise of economics does give space to alternative approaches. However, one must be careful because some of these approaches appear ‘social’ but are in fact static and atomistic. A reading of Adam Smith, the father of economics, easily points to the role and significance of social values and institutions. It is for this reason that we need to return to classical economics, where, as one of the earlier posts argued, economics is  the study of commodities; but their economic analysis can easily incorporate social values and institutions as well.

On the ‘Invisible’ Adam Smith

This post mainly deals with the common misconception about Adam Smith, whose name is known to all students and professors of Economics; the misconception being the notion that he advocated laissez-faire. Sadly, his works are not as known. (Though the names of his two major works are widely known) So, this post tries to makes visible what is commonly invisible regarding Smith.

In the Indian Schools, textbooks in Economics associate him with the ‘wealth definition’. In Frank ISC Economics, which is authored by D K Sethi and U Andrews, Adam Smith is supposed to have defined Economics as “A science which enquires into the nature and causes of wealth of nations.” Definition is “a concise explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase or symbol”. [Dictionary.com] Adam Smith has never defined Economics is the afore mentioned way. Is it ‘right’ to teach such ideas? Isn’t it against the ethics of academics? A large number of students are programmed in such a way in school, whereby their notion of economics is constituted only by neoclassical economics. Plurality in economics has been totally done away with. Teachers teach what is printed in the textbooks. No questions are asked.

Also, it is not surprising to see classical economists (Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, etc) being seen as ‘classical’ or rather irrelevant, because of either their naive assumptions or their bad theories.

The primary focus of this blog post is to argue that Adam Smith never advocated Laissez-faire. Let me put forth two instances where such a misconception has been put forth.

The following paragraph was published in The Hindu Young World, a widely read Indian Newspaper.

Adam Smith’s fundamental proposition was that a free market is a self-regulating mechanism and tends to produce the most desirable types and quantities of goods.

The second instance is from Economy professor, an online dictionary of economics.

Adam Smith’s fundamental argument was that individuals should be allowed to pursue their own private economic interests as much as possible and so long as they do not violate basic principles of justice.

Smith called this the invisible hand of the market – although everyone is acting in their own self-interest, they are led to achieve the good of all as if by an invisible hand of economic forces. Therefore, outside interference will inevitably lead to disaster. This became known as laissez-faire economic policy.

Instances like these are numerous. One reason could be that, the only paragraph(s) that such people read by Smith is this (are these):

Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the 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 Wealth of Nations, Book IV Chapter II

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.

-The Wealth of Nations, Book I Chapter II

In fact, there is very little evidence to state that Smith advocated ‘free markets’ through stating the importance of self-interested behaviour. Also, he viewed individuals as a part of the society and not like an individual that is cut off from the society-the Homo economicus. Sen rightly points out that “it is precisely the narrowing of broad Smithian view of human beings, in modern economies, that can be seen as one of the major deficiencies of contemporary economic theory.” [Sen 1987]

To conclude, Adam Smith tried to understand his society and also tried to prescribe ways by which the society could grow-morally and economically through his two masterpieces. In short, he was a great scholar, who ideas are still prevalent; despite what school textbooks and some academicians posit.


Sen, A.K. 1987: Economic Behaviour and Moral Sentiments. On Ethics and Economics. OUP.

Further Reading

Prof. Gavin Kennedy’s Blog-a must read for those who want to ‘know’ Adam Smith.

The Prospects of Homo economicus-a scientific American piece which uses behavioural economics.

Myth and Fact about Homo economicus