Adam Smith (1723-1790) is often considered the first modern economist because of his seminal work on the self-ordering nature of market forces, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). But economics was not his only interest. Smith's first work,The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), describes principles of human nature that can be used to analyze social institutions and behavior. Smith questioned how humans can form moral judgments (especially about their own behavior) given the powerful desire for self-preservation. He answered by pointing to the individual's capacity to, first, sympathize with the plight of those suffering injustice and, second, reflect on the nature and source of correct behavior. In the latter role, reason can detect the sources of justice in both utility and custom and so give added support to sentiment:
First, we sympathize with the motives of the agent; secondly, we enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions; thirdly, we observe that his conduct has been agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act; and, last of all, when we consider such actions as making a part of the system of behavior which tends to promote the happiness either of the individual or of the society, they appear to derive a beauty from this utility, not unlike that which we ascribe to any well contrived machine.1
Smith sought to develop the theme of self-regulation further in his masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations (1776). At the center of this work is the question: How can a system of perfect liberty function, given the drives and constraints of human nature, to produce an orderly society? Smith argued that orderliness on a larger scale arises from the same clash of passion and reason that produces it on the personal scale. Competition produces restraints on private action. Both society and the economy, according to Smith, can be understood by a commonsense analysis of human motivation. He dubbed the natural order established by the interaction of interested forces in society the "Invisible Hand." The success of this natural system of order depends upon a minimum of government interference by regulation and expropriation. Smith was therefore critical of mercantilism and monopolies and favored a laissez-faire economic policy. He contended that government has only three proper roles: (1) to provide for the defense of the state, (2) to ensure justice for the population, and (3) to provide certain public works and institutions that no person or organization can provide. Smith's analysis of economic forces demonstrated the importance, for a society, of free markets and the division of labor in the production of wealth. All later economic works have had to address this contribution in one way or another.
 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984), p. 326.
Smith, Adam. The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982. Available from Liberty Fund's online book catalog.
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Random House, 1937.
Smith, Adam. Morals and Political Philosophy. 6th ed. 4 vols. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1948.
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. 2 vols. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1921.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 4 vols. 6th ed. Edinburgh: Adam Black and William Tait, etc., 1828.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 3 vols. 6th ed. London: A. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1791.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. London: A. Millar, in the Strand, 1759.
Smith, Adam. Essays On Philosophical Subjects. Dublin: Wogan, Byrne, J. Moore, Colbert, Rice, W. Jones, Porter, and Folingsby, 1795.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 3 vols. 11th ed. London: W. Davies, in the Strand, 1805.
Haakonssen, Knud. The Science of a Legislator: The Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith (Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Haggarty, John. The Wisdom of Adam Smith. Ed. and with an Introduction by Benjamin A. Rogge. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985). Available from Liberty Fund's online book catalog.
Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of Adam Smith (University of Toronto Press, 1973).
Hont, Istvan and Michael Ignatieff. Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Ross, Ian Simpson. The Life of Adam Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Skinner, Andrew S. and Thomas Wilson eds. Essays on Adam Smith (Oxford University Press, 1976).
West, E.G. Adam Smith, The Man and His Work. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976). Available from Liberty Fund's online book catalog.
Winch, Donald. Adam Smith's Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014