What was the most important document published in 1776? The Declaration of Independence is the easy answer for Americans, but many would argue that Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" had a more important global impact. In this article, we will look at Smith's masterpiece and its contributions to modern economics. (For background reading, see Adam Smith: The Father Of Economics.)
Smith's Opposition to Mercantilism
On March 9, 1776, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" (commonly referred to as simply "The Wealth of Nations") was published. Smith, a Scottish philosopher by trade, wrote the book to upend the mercantilist system. Mercantilism held that wealth was fixed and finite, and that the only way to prosper was to hoard gold and tariff products from abroad. This meant that nations should sell their goods to other countries while buying nothing in return. Predictably, nations fell into rounds of retaliatory tariffs that choked off international trade. (For related reading, see The Basics Of Tariffs And Trade Barriers.)
The Invisible Hand
The core of Smith's thesis was that man's natural tendency toward self-interest - in modern terms, looking out for No.1 - results in prosperity. By giving everyone freedom to produce and exchange goods as they pleased (free trade) and opening all markets to competition (international as well as domestic - Smith lived in the age of government chartered monopolies), people's natural self-interest would bring about universal opulence with very little effort from a nation's government. This free-market force became known as the invisible hand, but it needed support to bring about its magic. (For more insight on free market theories, see Free Markets: What's The Cost?)
Boiling his principles down to essentials, Smith believed that a nation needed three elements to bring about universal prosperity:
Smith wanted people to practice thrift, hard work and enlightened self-interest. He thought the practice of enlightened self-interest was natural for the majority of people. In his famous example, a butcher does not supply meat based on good-hearted intentions, but because he profits by selling meat. If the meat he sells is poor, he will not have repeat customers and thus, no profit. Therefore, it's in the butcher's interest to sell good meat at a price that customers are willing to pay, so that both parties benefit in every transaction. Smith believed that the ability to think long-term would curb most businesses from abusing customers. When that wasn't enough, he looked to the government to enforce laws.
Extending upon self-interest in trade, Smith saw thrift and savings as important virtues, especially when savings were used to invest. Through investment, industry would have the capital to buy more labor-saving machinery and encourage innovation. This technological leap forward would increase returns on invested capital and raise the overall standard of living.
Smith saw the responsibilities of the government being limited to the defense of the nation, universal education, public works (infrastructure such as roads and bridges), the enforcement of legal rights (property rights and contracts) and the punishment of crime. The government would step in when people acted on their short-term interests, and would make and enforce laws against robbery, fraud and other similar crimes. He cautioned against larger, bureaucratic governments, writing, "there is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people." His focus on universal education was to counteract the negative and dulling effects of the division of labor that was a necessary part of industrialization. (Learn about an economist who took this idea even further in Free Market Maven: Milton Friedman.)
Solid Currency and Free-Market Economy
The third element Smith proposed was a solid currency twinned with free-market principles. By backing currency with hard metals, Smith hoped to curtail the government's ability to depreciate currency by circulating more of it to pay for wars or other wasteful expenditures. With hard currency acting as a check to spending, Smith wanted the government to follow free-market principles by keeping taxes low and allowing free trade across borders by eliminating tariffs. He pointed out that tariffs and other taxes only succeeded in making life more expensive for the people while also stifling industry and trade abroad. (For more on backing a currency with precious metal, read The Gold Standard Revisited.)
Grapes Overthrow Mercantilism
To drive home the damaging nature of tariffs, Smith used the example of making wine in Scotland. He pointed out that good grapes could be grown in Scotland in hothouses, but the extra costs of heating would make Scottish wine 30 times more expensive than French wines. Far better, he reasoned, would be to trade something Scotland had an abundance of, such as wool, in return for the wine. In other words, because France has a competitive advantage in producing wine, tariffs aimed to create and protect a domestic wine industry would just waste resources and cost the public money.
What Wasn't in "The Wealth Of Nations"?
"The Wealth of Nations" is an incredible book that represents the birth of free-market economics, but it's not without faults. It lacks proper explanations for pricing or a theory of value, and Smith failed to see the importance of the entrepreneur in breaking up inefficiencies and creating new markets.
Both the opponents of and believers in Adam Smith's free market capitalism have added to the framework setup in "The Wealth of Nations". Like any good theory, free-market capitalism gets stronger with each reformulation, whether prompted by an addition from a friend or an attack from a foe. Marginal utility, comparative advantage, entrepreneurship, the time-preference theory of interest, monetary theory and many other pieces have been added to the whole since 1776. There is still work to be done as the size and interconnectedness of the world's economies bring up new and unexpected challenges to free-market capitalism. (To read more about this evolution, check out The History Of Economic Thought.)
The Bottom Line
The publishing of "The Wealth of Nations" marked the birth of modern capitalism as well as economics. Oddly enough, Adam Smith, the champion of the free market, spent the last years of his life as the Commissioner of Customs, meaning he was responsible for enforcing all the tariffs. He took the work to heart, and burned many of his clothes when he discovered they had been smuggled into shops from abroad. Historical irony aside, his invisible hand continues to be a powerful force today. Smith overturned the miserly view of mercantilism and gave us a vision of plenty and freedom for all. The free market he envisioned, though not yet fully realized, may have done more to raise the global standard of living than any single idea in history.