Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

Adam Smith, economist (1723 - 1790)

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Interviewer: Adam Smith, as a man who has rarely left Scotland, you like to present yourself as a font of knowledge on many controversial topics, but what exactly is your specialist field?

Smith:  I have dedicated my life to the study of philosophy and the moral nature of mankind.  My conclusions are published as The Theory of Moral Sentiments. My other passion is the workings of international commerce and finance, and my theories can be read been in my treatise, The Wealth Of Nations.

Interviewer: It is the accepted belief that man will first examine his own morality, then use his conclusions to judge others. However, you seem to think you know better?

Smith: I most certainly do. I believe that we first examine the morality of our fellow man, sympathise with him, and then use that to judge our own morality. The starting point for all human relations is the sympathy one feels for his fellow man. Man is naturally selfish in that he is driven by self interest. However, he does possess principles which cause him to be interested in the fortunes of others, which in turn make his fellow man’s happiness necessary to his own sense of well being - making him aware of his own morality. Therefore, morally speaking, society is the mirror in which one catches sight of oneself. The great law of Christianity is to love thy neighbour as we love ourselves. But the great law of nature is to love ourselves as we love our neighbour.

Interviewer: Your theories on philosophy question the beliefs that millions of church goers hold dear. Have you no respect for the moral code by which they live their lives, and worse , no respect for the church, or even God?

Smith:  I became very sceptical about the church at an early age. Whilst studying theology at Oxford University, I was punished for reading the work of my fellow Scot, the philosopher David Hume. I grew suspicious of a church which would accuse a man of heresy, ban his books and attempt to discredit his work simply because he dared to question the blind faith of its followers.

At Oxford, many of my fellow students chose to abandon the careers for which they were studying – instead they decided upon a life in the clergy. Some had little or no interest in the church, and many held no firm religious beliefs. However, they saw the material benefits available to men of the cloth, and followed this path towards an easy and profitable lifestyle.

This was encouraged by the church, and with this policy and these employees at its heart, I cannot in good faith support an institution which engages ministers who neither believe in, nor practise what they preach.

Interviewer: Your theories on morality suggest you that you have studied mankind in all his forms. Yet you have ventured abroad only once, and chose to abandon Oxford University to return to Scotland and live with your mother?

Smith: It matters not where I have studied mankind, as I believe that man is the same the world over, driven by the same urges and passions –the same needs and wants. A poor man in Kirkcaldy has the same needs and wants as a poor man in Africa - a rich man in London has the same urges and passions as rich man in Paris. And on the occasion when I did “venture abroad”, I taught throughout Europe, spending much time in the company of its finest minds, in the finest seats of learning.

As for leaving Oxford University to continue my studies in Scotland - I witnessed how the nature of that institution affected the attitude of its students. Oxford is resting on its laurels and survives on nothing but its reputation. It thrives on elitism which encourages poor teaching practices, a culture of laziness and complacency.

I say this not as a nationalist Scot, bent on mocking the English educational system, but as a fully committed Unionist, who truly believes that the marriage of our countries brings commercial and cultural benefit.

Interviewer: Many would suggest that your theories are undermined by your well known eccentricity, your various medical complaints, and suggestions by some of, dare I say, madness?

Smith: Sir, do you question not only my work, but also my sanity? Let me ask you this... do the shaking fits that on occasion plague me render me incapable of reason? I agree I am a beau in nothing but my books, but does my physical appearance show a lack of intelligence? And when I do talk to myself, I am merely giving voice to the debates which constantly occupy my mind. Does this make my conclusions invalid? If you believe so, then you should also question the sanity of those who have had confidence to appoint me to many prestigious academic posts including Professor of Moral Philosophy, Chair of Moral Philosophy, and Doctor of Laws at the University of Glasgow; Commissioner of Customs in Scotland; founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and Honorary Lord Rector of University of Glasgow.

Interviewer: Your economic theories question the accepted knowledge of society and the nature of its wealth, the practices of employers, and the conditions they impose upon their workers.

Smith:  I contend that wealth comes from production, and not simply from amassing a hoard of precious metals in a vault. Riches are a mere deception, but it is their pursuit which keeps in motion the industry of mankind. I believe that self interest drives the rich, but in order to sustain this they must share their wealth with the poor, and in doing so, they provide them with employment and wages, and everyone benefits. As a result, the poor see the rich as something to aspire to and work harder. Motivation of the worker is crucial to production.

Let us say there are eighteen steps involved in the production of a pin, and one worker could produce twenty pins in a day. By employing ten people, and dividing the eighteen steps between them, 48,000 pins could be produced in a single day! To maintain this level of production though, the worker must remain interested and motivated. The interest comes via division and rotation of labour, which results in multi skilled workers. The motivation is provided by good wages and the desire to better oneself. An employer should never forget that no benevolent man ever lost altogether the fruits of his benevolence.

Interviewer: Surely no man can be both a philosopher and an economist, as one deals in opinions and debate, while the other deals in cold hard facts and the desire for profit.

Smith:  If you take the time to read my work, you will see that both are entirely compatible. Man’s self interest demands that he satisfies his wants and needs, and provides security for himself and his dependants. The whole magic of a well-ordered society is that each man works for others, while believing that he is working for himself, thereby satisfying this self interest. Thus, the wealth of the rich is shared with the poor. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self love – we never talk to them of our needs, but of the advantages to them. Ultimately every man strives to satisfy these needs and wants at his own level in society. The beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway possesses the same security which kings will fight for. And I believe that it is this combination of personal morality and economic theory that will inform international finance and commerce for many, many years to come.

Thank you.

A video with an actor portraying the 18th-century Scottish economist and author of the 'The Wealth of Nations', in which he explains his understanding of the morality of mankind and international commerce.

An image of Adam Smith

Learn more about Adam Smith

More details about Adam Smith's life and work, including quotes, that illustrate the development of his thinking about economics and morality.