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Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations

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Essay title: Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations

In 1759 Adam Smith, then a thirty-six year old Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, published his Theory of Moral Sentiments. This work attracted the attention of the guardians of the immensely wealthy Duke of Buccleuch towards retaining its author as a tutor to the youthful Duke whilst on a protracted, and hopefully educational, "Grand Tour" of continental Europe.

Whilst acting as tutor from 1763 Smith found some of the time spent in the French provinces hard to fill and seems to have begun his masterpiece An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as a way of taking up otherwise idle hours in the summer of 1764. Overall however he derived much personal philosophical benefit from these months of journeying on the continent. In Paris he met amongst others, the "Physiocrat" economic theorist (and court Physician) Quesnay and the French Ministers, Turgot and Necker.

French economic policy in these times was conducted in accordance with the "Mercantilism" that had held sway in the economic thinking of Europe for some three centuries. Mercantilism expected that governmental control would be exercised over industry and trade in accordance with the theory that national strength (i.e. the Royal states treasury) is increased by a preponderance of exports over imports.

By nature, then, as now, France was fitted to be a great agricultural country, a great producer and exporter of corn and wine; but her legislators for several generations had endeavoured to counteract the apparently natural bias of French economic life towards agriculture, and had tried to make her an exporter of manufactured goods.

Like most legislators in those times, they had been prodigiously impressed by the ambitious position which the maritime powers, as they were then called (the comparatively little powers of England and Holland), were able to take in the politics of Europe. They saw that this influence came from wealth, that this wealth was made in trade and manufacture, and therefore they determined that France should not be behindhand, but should have as much trade and manufacture as possible. Accordingly, they imposed prohibitive or deterring duties on the importation of foreign manufacturers; they gave bounties to the corresponding home manufactures.

Smith found that the French Physiocrats delighted in attempting to prove that the whole Mercantilist structure of the French laws upon industry was utterly wrong; that the prohibitions ought not to be imposed on the import of foreign manufacturers; that bounties ought not to be given to native ones; that the exportation of corn ought to be free; that the whole country ought to be a fiscal unit; that there should be no duty between any province; and so on in other cases. Smith found much that he admired in the Physiocrats outlook but he did not share it completely. Amongst other things the Physiocrats saw land as the primary source of wealth (one seed sown might produce twenty at harvest!) rather than manufacturing.

On the completion of his duties as tutor Smith then returned, after some further months spent in London, to Scotland where he stayed quietly with his mother at his native town of Kirkcaldy and occupied himself in study and writing. It was to be in 1776, that Adam Smith finally saw his "Wealth of Nations" through the press.

Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" is regarded as having been the first great work of Political Economy. It is in some ways an enhancement of his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" in that it focuses on the problems of how people express their self-interest and their morality. Adam Smith attempted to trace the immediate expression of human activity and to suggest how this would change society.

It opens with a most dramatic recommendation of the adoption of practices which saw work being performed as a number of tasks that were each alloted, as specialisations, to individual workers. Smith suggested that a pin factory that had adopted such a "division of labour" might produce tens of thousands of pins a day whereas a pin factory in which each worker attempted to produce pins, from start to finish, by performing all the tasks associated with pin production would produce very few pins.

In an outline that seems to prefigure Karl Marx' "materialist conception of history" that appears later in his "Wealth of Nations" Smith suggests that society has moved through a number of phases - men once lived by hunting, then developed nomadic systems

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