The Many, Diverse 'Main Points' of Adam Smith's the Wealth of Nations
26 Pages Posted: 25 May 2018
Date Written: April 16, 2018
The purpose of this short paper is to demonstrate that in the modern era Adam Smith scholars make a surprising variety of claims about the “main point” of the Wealth of Nations. In these notes, I collect a range of statements asserting the main point and arrange them by categories. Most statements focus on economic topics (60%), though some entries clearly fall under politics (40%). Nearly half of the statements in the literature argue that Wealth of Nations’s main purpose was to provide a theory of economic development. Other categories include the idea that self-interested individuals can support gains from cooperation; ideas about justice, morals, and liberty; and finally, contributions to economic theory.
The diversity of points is striking, indicating not only the work’s richness, but the many different topics to which it made substantive contributions. An obvious interpretation of these results is that no single, over-arching theme can be said to be the purpose or main point of the Wealth of Nations. This work made so many fundamental or foundational contributions to economics, government, history, law, politics, sociology, and normative political theory that it is difficult to say that any one contribution dominates.
Keywords: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, History of economic thought, comparative economic systems, political economy
JEL Classification: B1, B3, H11, P1, P5, P16
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation