Volume I of Smith’s great work on political economy. First published in 1776, the year in which the American Revolution officially began, Smith’s Wealth of Nations sparked a revolution of its own. In it Smith analyzes the major elements of political economy, from market pricing and the division of labor to monetary, tax, trade, and other government policies that affect economic behavior. Throughout he offers seminal arguments for free trade, free markets, and limited government.
The effects of the division of labour, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood, by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance: but in those trifling manufactures which are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator. In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen, that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures, therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts, than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) is commonly regarded as the first modern economist with the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations. He wrote in a wide range of disciplines: moral philosophy, jurisprudence, rhetoric and literature, and the history of science. He was one of the leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith also studied the social forces giving rise to competition, trade, and markets. While professor of logic, and later professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, he also had the opportunity to travel to France, where he met François Quesnay and the physiocrats; he had friends in business and the government, and drew broadly on his observations of life as well as careful statistical work summarizing his findings in tabular form. He is viewed as the founder of modern economic thought, and his work inspires economists to this day. The economic phrase for which he is most famous, the “invisible hand” of economic incentives, was only one of his many contributions to the modern-day teaching of economics.