Portrait of Adam Smith

Adam Smith on Inequality Between the Rich and the Poor

Found in: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Cannan ed.), vol. 2

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

In the opening of his discussion Of the Expence of Justice in Book V of Wealth of Nations, Smith discusses the requirements for the administration of justice in the different levels of societal development, defined by Smith as hunter-gatherer, shepherd/pastoral, agricultural, and commercial societies.

Most people are not violent towards one another, says Smith, since there’s little benefit to violence against another person unless you’ve been seized by violent passions. Most people, most of the time, aren’t governed by violent passions.

Violence against property is a different matter: when a thief steals, they gain the stolen property as well as injuring the person who loses it. In a hunter-gatherer society or a society of shepherds, there is little property to defend. And so, once property starts to be established, more resources are required to administer justice. He writes, in Book 5, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations,


But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property, passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour, civil government is not so necessary. (WN V.ii.2)