Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Ideas

– Nature provide a basis in sentiment for virtue.

– When we adopt the role of impartial spectators, sympathy is the sentiment that is the basis for moral judgments.

– Acting from a sense of duty corrects for any lack of appropriate sentiment in particular instances.

– The deity has implanted powerful instincts (passions), which lead us behave in ways that are ultimately beneficial for all.

– Self-interest coupled with the predisposition to ‘trade’, ‘barter’, and ‘exchange’ provides a basis for the division of labor and economic development.

– In a market free from monopolies and self-serving public policies, competition among the self-interests of isolated consumers and producers produces a stable and expanding economy.

– The self-interested pursuit of wealth may not be individually satisfying but leads to an aggregate increase in wealth that is in the best interests of a nation.

Biography

 Early life

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. His father, also Adam Smith, was a Scottish Writer to the Signet (senior solicitor), advocate and prosecutor (judge advocate) and also served as comptroller of the customs in Kirkcaldy.Smith’s mother was born Margaret Douglas, daughter of the landed Robert Douglas of Strathendry, also in Fife; she married Smith’s father in 1720. Two months before Smith was born, his father died, leaving his mother a widow. The date of Smith’s baptism into the Church of Scotland at Kirkcaldy was 5 June 1723and this has often been treated as if it were also his date of birth,which is unknown.

Although few events in Smith’s early childhood are known, the Scottish journalist John Rae, Smith’s biographer, recorded that Smith was abducted by Romas at the age of three and released when others went to rescue him.[a] Smith was close to his mother, who probably encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions.He attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy—characterised by Rae as “one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period”—from 1729 to 1737, he learned Latin, mathematics, history, and writing.
Adam Smith was an important Scottish political philosopher and economist whose famous work Wealth of Nations (1776) set the tone for work on politics and economics for many people even through today. This was, in fact, the first comprehensive effort to study the nature of capital, the development of industry and the effects of large-scale commerce in Europe.

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. In this way, Smith thought, they would do much more to further the public good and public interests than if the same people were to try to help the public deliberately and intentionally.

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.

In 1759 he published the book Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he discussed the standards of ethical conduct that hold society together. This book was a compilation of ideas and lectures from his time as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

 Formal education

Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was 14 and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. Here, Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason, and free speech. In 1740, Smith was the graduate scholar presented to undertake postgraduate studies at Balliol College, Oxford, under the Snell Exhibition.

Smith considered the teaching at Glasgow to be far superior to that at Oxford, which he found intellectually stifling. In Book V, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: “In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Smith is also reported to have complained to friends that Oxford officials once discovered him reading a copy of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and they subsequently confiscated his book and punished him severely for reading it. According to William Robert Scott, “The Oxford of [Smith’s] time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework.” Nevertheless, Smith took the opportunity while at Oxford to teach himself several subjects by reading many books from the shelves of the large Bodleian Library. When Smith was not studying on his own, his time at Oxford was not a happy one, according to his letters. Near the end of his time there, Smith began suffering from shaking fits, probably the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. He left Oxford University in 1746, before his scholarship ended.

In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments on the low quality of instruction and the meager intellectual activity at English universities, when compared to their Scottish counterparts. He attributes this both to the rich endowments of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, which made the income of professors independent of their ability to attract students, and to the fact that distinguished men of letters could make an even more comfortable living as ministers of the Church of England.

Smith’s discontent at Oxford might be in part due to the absence of his beloved teacher in Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson, who was well regarded as one of the most prominent lecturers at the University of Glasgow in his day and earned the approbation of students, colleagues, and even ordinary residents with the fervor and earnestness of his orations (which he sometimes opened to the public). His lectures endeavoured not merely to teach philosophy, but also to make his students embody that philosophy in their lives, appropriately acquiring the epithet, the preacher of philosophy. Unlike Smith, Hutcheson was not a system builder; rather, his magnetic personality and method of lecturing so influenced his students and caused the greatest of those to reverentially refer to him as “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson”—a title that Smith in all his correspondence used to describe only two people, his good friend David Hume and influential mentor Francis Hutcheson
Teaching career
Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 at the University of Edinburgh,[26] sponsored by the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames.[27] His lecture topics included rhetoric and belles-lettres,[28] and later the subject of “the progress of opulence”. On this latter topic, he first expounded his economic philosophy of “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty”. While Smith was not adept at public speaking, his lectures met with success.[29]

In 1750, Smith met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. In their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics, and religion, Smith and Hume shared closer intellectual and personal bonds than with other important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.[30]

In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic courses, and in 1752, he was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, having been introduced to the society by Lord Kames. When the head of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow died the next year, Smith took over the position.[29] He worked as an academic for the next 13 years, which he characterised as “by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honorable period [of his life]”.[31]

Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, embodying some of his Glasgow lectures. This work was concerned with how human morality depends on sympathy between agent and spectator, or the individual and other members of society. Smith defined “mutual sympathy” as the basis of moral sentiments. He based his explanation, not on a special “moral sense” as the Third Lord Shaftesbury and Hutcheson had done, nor on utility as Hume did, but on mutual sympathy, a term best captured in modern parlance by the 20th-century concept of empathy, the capacity to recognise feelings that are being experienced by another being.

A drawing of a man sitting down
François Quesnay, one of the leaders of the physiocratic school of thought
Following the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith became so popular that many wealthy students left their schools in other countries to enroll at Glasgow to learn under Smith.[32] After the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith began to give more attention to jurisprudence and economics in his lectures and less to his theories of morals.[33] For example, Smith lectured that the cause of increase in national wealth is labour, rather than the nation’s quantity of gold or silver, which is the basis for mercantilism, the economic theory that dominated Western European economic policies at the time.[34]

In 1762, the University of Glasgow conferred on Smith the title of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.).[35] At the end of 1763, he obtained an offer from Charles Townshend—who had been introduced to Smith by David Hume—to tutor his stepson, Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith resigned from his professorship in 1764 to take the tutoring position. He subsequently attempted to return the fees he had collected from his students because he had resigned partway through the term, but his students refused.[36]

Tutoring and travels
Smith’s tutoring job entailed touring Europe with Scott, during which time he educated Scott on a variety of subjects, such as etiquette and manners. He was paid £300 per year (plus expenses) along with a £300 per year pension; roughly twice his former income as a teacher.[36] Smith first travelled as a tutor to Toulouse, France, where he stayed for a year and a half. According to his own account, he found Toulouse to be somewhat boring, having written to Hume that he “had begun to write a book to pass away the time”.[36] After touring the south of France, the group moved to Geneva, where Smith met with the philosopher Voltaire.[37]

A man posing for a painting
David Hume was a friend and contemporary of Smith’s.
From Geneva, the party moved to Paris. Here, Smith met Benjamin Franklin, and discovered the Physiocracy school founded by François Quesnay.[38] Physiocrats were opposed to mercantilism, the dominating economic theory of the time, illustrated in their motto Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même! (Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!).

The wealth of France had been virtually depleted by Louis XIV[b] and Louis XV in ruinous wars,[c] and was further exhausted in aiding the American insurgents against the British. The excessive consumption of goods and services deemed to have no economic contribution was considered a source of unproductive labour, with France’s agriculture the only economic sector maintaining the wealth of the nation.[citation needed] Given that the English economy of the day yielded an income distribution that stood in contrast to that which existed in France, Smith concluded that “with all its imperfections, [the Physiocratic school] is perhaps the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy.”[39] The distinction between productive versus unproductive labour—the physiocratic classe steril—was a predominant issue in the development and understanding of what would become classical economic theory.

Later years
In 1766, Henry Scott’s younger brother died in Paris, and Smith’s tour as a tutor ended shortly thereafter.[40] Smith returned home that year to Kirkcaldy, and he devoted much of the next decade to writing his magnum opus.[41] There, he befriended Henry Moyes, a young blind man who showed precocious aptitude. Smith secured the patronage of David Hume and Thomas Reid in the young man’s education.[42] In May 1773, Smith was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London,[43] and was elected a member of the Literary Club in 1775. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and was an instant success, selling out its first edition in only six months.[44]

In 1778, Smith was appointed to a post as commissioner of customs in Scotland and went to live with his mother (who died in 1784)[45] in Panmure House in Edinburgh’s Canongate.[46] Five years later, as a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh when it received its royal charter, he automatically became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.[47] From 1787 to 1789, he occupied the honorary position of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow.[48]

Death
A plaque of Smith
A commemorative plaque for Smith is located in Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy.
Smith died in the northern wing of Panmure House in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790 after a painful illness. His body was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.[49] On his deathbed, Smith expressed disappointment that he had not achieved more.[50]

Smith’s literary executors were two friends from the Scottish academic world: the physicist and chemist Joseph Black and the pioneering geologist James Hutton.[51] Smith left behind many notes and some unpublished material, but gave instructions to destroy anything that was not fit for publication.[52] He mentioned an early unpublished History of Astronomy as probably suitable, and it duly appeared in 1795, along with other material such as Essays on Philosophical Subjects.[51]

Smith’s library went by his will to David Douglas, Lord Reston (son of his cousin Colonel Robert Douglas of Strathendry, Fife), who lived with Smith.[53] It was eventually divided between his two surviving children, Cecilia Margaret (Mrs. Cunningham) and David Anne (Mrs. Bannerman). On the death in 1878 of her husband, the Reverend W. B. Cunningham of Prestonpans, Mrs. Cunningham sold some of the books. The remainder passed to her son, Professor Robert Oliver Cunningham of Queen’s College, Belfast, who presented a part to the library of Queen’s College. After his death, the remaining books were sold. On the death of Mrs. Bannerman in 1879, her portion of the library went intact to the New College (of the Free Church) in Edinburgh and the collection was transferred to the University of Edinburgh Main Library in 1972.

Major Works of Adam Smith

– The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
– An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

One thought on “Adam Smith (1723-1790)

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