Adam Smith (1723–1790)

"Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes us to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil."

Adam Smith is the most well-known expositor of capitalism of all time. He was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, a small coastal town near Edinburgh. Smith was educated at Glasgow University and Ballioll College in Oxford, England. Later he lectured at Edinburgh and became a professor at Glasgow University. After a time, Smith went to France to tutor the Duke of Buccleugh and met Quesmay, Turgot, and Voltaire. While in France, Smith began to write The Wealth of Nations and continued writing it upon his return to Scotland. This influential work was published in 1776. In 1778 he followed in the footsteps of his father as a customs official. He died in Edinburgh.

Much emphasis is placed upon Smith's contribution to the economic field. Underappreciated is his view of religion and morality. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discussed the role of sympathy in connecting self-interest with virtue. If the free market is allowed to function and people are afluent, they will have time to worry about the plight of the indigent. In a primitive society, people primarily focus upon survival. Also, Smith argued that the market promoted virtues such as responsibility, honesty, frugality, ability, and self-control. In the quest for acquisition of wealth and power, these virtues are needed to succeed. In times past, there was no such channeling mechanism or incentive of the market to harness virtue. The rich and powerful depended upon deception and privilege in the pre-commercial era, Smith wrote.

Besides the market, other institutions such as the church and society would bolster virtue. Smith asserted that religion is an expression of the need for justice and benevolence in the material world and "enforces the natural sense of duty." However, Smith wrote that church establishment, that is, the funding of religion through taxation, would remove the incentive for proselytization. In society, Smith argued, association with like-minded people would foster like effects. If one chose to affiliate with good people, good results would tend to occur.


Sources: Adam Smith In His Time and Ours by Jerry Z. Muller (Princeton University Press, 1993); and Adam Smith: The Man and His Works by E. G. West (Liberty Press, 1976).


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