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How was Adam Smith shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment?

Adam Smith was an extraordinary thinker, who was shaped by and informed the extraordinary era of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is widely considered the father of modern economics with the publication of his landmark work, The Wealth of Nations. The success of this book, published in 1776, is related not only to its contents but also to the existence of a literate reading public at that time. Smith was fortunate to be part of the Scottish Enlightenment.

He was born in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy, not far from Edinburgh, the capital city. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow were seats of learning and had a vibrant social and intellectual scene. There were publishing houses and important periodicals, such as the Edinburgh Review. Although Smith was no extrovert, it was relatively easy for him to meet other well known thinkers, such as the philosopher David Hume.

Smith was also able to travel abroad as he became the tutor to a wealthy young aristocrat who was doing a grand tour. During this period, he met influential people such as Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. He also encountered an important group of economic thinkers – the French Physiocrats – who were opposed to some of the policies of the ancien régime, which, they argued, had impoverished France.

During Smith’s time, European nations pursued mercantilist policies, through which they attempted to limit imports by protectionism. This ignored the gains from trade, and tended to lead to trade wars or even actual warfare. Smith later argued against mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations.

Smith was also influenced by the systematic approach to economic ideas used by the Physiocrats, such as Quesnay’s Tableau Économique, even if he did not agree with the specifics of their arguments. It is also from the Physiocrats that Smith adopted the attitude of laissez-faire for which he is famous, even if the nuances of his views have often since been misunderstood.

The Wealth of Nations became a publishing phenomenon. Some of its ideas – such as the role of self-interest and the invisible hand of the market – are taken as foundational concepts in economics. Earlier thinkers argued that self-interest was a sin, and that society was created and managed by God. Smith’s own public image went some way to making problematic ideas acceptable. He was a religious man and his companion work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, reflects his deep faith.

Both volumes are well worth returning to as we mark the tercentenary of his birth and think about his contributions to thought in his times and in ours.

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Who are experts on this question?

  • Jesse Norman
  • Helen Paul
  • Emma Rothschild
  • Craig Smith
  • Benjamin Friedman
Author: Helen Paul
Image: Painting of the East India Company's settlement in Bombay by George Lambert and Samuel Scott circa. 1732-1733, via Wikimedia
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