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Adam Smith

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Adam Smith (1723 - 1790) lived in Great Britain. His most important works are The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

The late George J. Stigler, a Nobel prize-winning conservative economist, offered one particular interpretation of Smith's work. At the Wealth of Nations Bicentennial Conference at the University of Glasgow in 1976, Stigler began his talk by saying: "I bring you greetings from Adam Smith, who is alive and well and living in Chicago." He was alluding to the extreme "free market" school of economics at the University of Chicago. The picture that Stigler painted of Smith was that of an advocate of competitive capitalism, free trade, and an efficiently working price mechanism -- the same ideas promoted by Chicago economists like Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. By focusing his attention narrowly on Book I of The Wealth of Nations, especially Chapter VII, Stigler argued that Smith's magnum opus was an incontrovertible argument for the efficiency of unregulated markets. That some free enterprisers view it as a sacred document is indicated by the fact that the Association of Private Enterprise Education bestows its Adam Smith Award on worthy workers in the vineyard of free enterprise economics. Sackrey, Schneider and Knoedler, p 25 - 26

In truth, Adam Smith was a classical liberal. In his view of society, government had an active role.

Adam Smith advocated no government intervention except in certain clearly-defined circumstances; Smith was a classical liberal. But contemporary liberalism emphasizes community, collective, togetherness. However, Smith laid the ground for this later liberalism. He gave government the responsibility to protect against invasion for foreign nations; and to ensure that property, contracts and life are protected from wrongdoing (in other words, justice); and also the task of setting up public institutions, especially for infrastructure and public education.

Building roads was an example of an undertaking that provided more benefit to general welfare when done by the government, than it did profit when undertaken by a small group. Regarding public education, Smith placed the working class at the heart of the economy, a radical notion at the time, especially highly trained specialists. Public education was essential to create a society comprised of individuals with valuable skills; this expansion of human capital reflected Smith's assertion that goods and services, not metal weight, conferred the wealth of nations.