Life and Times
Explore the life and ideas of Adam Smith with a variety of resources which highlight the context and importance of Smith’s thought in his own time and how his insightful contributions apply to our world today.
Resources by Theme
Learn more about Smith the man, the scholar, and the teacher, as well as his historical surroundings. Read original essays, excerpts from Smith's work, and more.
Adam Smith is one of the luminaries of a larger movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The thinkers involved reaffirmed our natural sociality while upholding the ideal of the individual. Learn more about the Scottish Enlightenment and explore the contributions of Smith and his contemporaries.
Better known today as an economist, Smith never held that title during his lifetime. Smith held a chair in Moral Philosophy, and his first published work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is a testament to the origins of his exploration into what makes man tick. Explore with Smith here.
While Smith is often named as the “father of economics,” the discipline we know today in many ways bore little relation to Smith's line of study. Explore the origins of the study of man's natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange in this section.
1776 and the American Founding
In 1776, Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It was also the year the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Neither event occurred in a vacuum.
Coming this Fall! An all new, live-action biographical video series exploring Adam Smith’s life, work, and contemporary relevance.
Division of Labor
The Industrial Revolution was in its infancy when Adam Smith toured Europe as a tutor. He observed that by separating production into smaller tasks, each handled by a specialized worker, great efficiencies could be had. This division of labor—even without the aid of machinery—is what makes it possible to accumulate capital with which to further production.
Sympathy & Self-Interest
As a professor at Glasgow University, Adam Smith compiled his thoughts on human morality into a book on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He posited that people preserve harmony through a “mutual sympathy” for one another. This desire to adapt behavior to better get along with others is the foundation of morality and our ability to have productive economic interactions.
The Free Market
Adam Smith was born into a time when nations measured wealth in gold and rulers believed prosperity came only when exports outstripped imports. He saw things differently: the wealth of a nation should be calculated by the productivity of each of its members, and the best way to maximize productivity was to allow it to function unfettered.
The Invisible Hand
Adam Smith returned to Scotland where he spent a decade writing what would become The Wealth of Nations. He realized that when people are free to pursue their self-interest it did not result in chaos. On the contrary, it was as if humans were guided by an “invisible hand” to maintain order and encourage prosperity. As people bargained and bartered for their own gain, a nation's productive capacity naturally adapted to meet the needs and desires of its people.
The Role of Authority
In Adam Smith's day he observed that tariffs and controls employed by governments, as well as the monopolies granted to the guilds, hindered national wealth. Smith argued that a government must be limited to specific purposes—namely providing defense, ensuring justice, and building infrastructure. A government should maintain an open and free market, not manipulate it.