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Adam Smith was born on June 5, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father had been a Comptroller of Customs. He studied moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, was emphasizing the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” even in the shadow of John Knox and Scottish Puritanism. Smith then spent six years at Oxford as a Snell Scholar. A crisis of faith, possibly brought on by an exposure to the epistemological skepticism of David Hume, led him to abandon his plan to become a clergyman.
Returning to Scotland in 1748, Smith lectured on literature (student notes have been published as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres) and from 1751-63 was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments appeared in 1759. In it he argues that there is a social consensus on right and wrong which the sensitive social actor both absorbs and replicates. His theory of the “impartial spectator” who serves as the sounding board recalls the later ideas of G. H. Mead, while his “appeal to sympathy” or empathy that give the individual a way into others’ feelings and thoughts looks forward to Weber on Verstehen.
Smith spent the years 1754-6 accompanying the young Duke of Buccleuch on his “grand tour” to Paris, Toulouse, Geneva, and other centers of European culture and thought. Smith met the French philosophes (including Turgot, Helvetius, and Rousseau) and also absorbed the great lesson of Physiocratic economics that the whole is an interdependent and a nature-driven circular flow. France in the last years of the ancien regime must have been an object lesson to him of how liberty could be suppressed by the Bastille, economical statesmanship by Versailles, and optimal allocation by tariffs and taxes.
Smith spent the next ten years, in receipt of a pension from the duke, doing research in Kirkcaldy. It was then that he wrote his great work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776, it was an immediate success. It seemed to be defending the invisible hand” of the free market against mercantilist politicians and incompetent bureaucrats (including, significantly, the corporate hierarchy that Weber, Schumpeter, and Galbraith were to praise so highly) and to be saying that the instinctual drive to “truck, barter, and exchange” would be enough to produce rising living standards for all classes even without a Poor Law or a social welfare net.
Smith anticipates Marx in that he formulates a labor theory of value, implies that the class antagonisms of post-feudal industrialism would be based around the inputs of labor and capital, and demonstrates that the division of labor in the modern production-line system leaves the worker debased and alienated, ”stupid and ignorant.” His insights into conspicuous consumption resemble those of Veblen on the proof of status. They also demonstrate that he was envisaging a meritocratic, mobile society in which ascription would be challenged by achievement.
In 1778 Smith was appointed a Comptroller of Customs. He died in Edinburgh on July 17, 1790, aged 67, and is buried in the Canongate churchyard.
- Pack, S. J. (1991) Capitalism as a Moral System: Adam Smith’s Critique of the Free Market Economy. Edward Elgar, Aldershot.
- Reisman, A. (1976) Adam Smith’s Sociological Economics. Croom Helm, London.
- Smith, A. (1976)  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Clarendon Press, Oxford.