Smith, Adam

Smith, Adam


Adam Smith, paste medallion by James Tassie, 1787; in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, …—Courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

(baptized June 5, 1723, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scot.—died July 17, 1790, Edinburgh) Scottish social philosopher and political economist. The son of a customs official, he studied at the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford. A series of public lectures in Edinburgh (from 1748) led to a lifelong friendship with David Hume and to Smith's appointment to the Glasgow faculty in 1751. After publishing The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), he became the tutor of the future Duke of Buccleuch (1763–66); with him he traveled to France, where Smith consorted with other eminent thinkers. In 1776, after nine years of work, Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the first comprehensive system of political economy. In it he argued in favour of an economic system based on individual self-interest that would be led, as if by an “invisible hand,” to achieve the greatest good for all, and posited the division of labour as the chief factor in economic growth. A reaction to the system of mercantilism then current, it stands as the beginning of classical economics. The Wealth of Nations in time won him an enormous reputation and would become virtually the most influential work on economics ever published. Though often regarded as the bible of capitalism, it is harshly critical of the shortcomings of unrestrained free enterprise and monopoly. In 1777 Smith was appointed commissioner of customs for Scotland, and in 1787 rector of the University of Glasgow.

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