Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith was a prominent 18th century moral philosopher who, along with David Hume, established a “civic morality” that was an insightful alternative to the traditional moral codes adhered to by most people. Specifically, Smith stressed that there is a strong distinction between “empathy” and “sympathy.” The former is a person’s inclination to respond to the pain of others, and the latter is the true commitment that one makes only after they take a step back and reflect first.

Additionally, Smith also emphasized the distinction between “feudal” and “commercial” civilization. The feudal civilization consists of prayers, warriors, and workers, while the commercial civilization consists of landowners, laborers, and capitalists. In commercial civilization, people can voluntarily participate in various clubs and societies thereby having the opportunity to discover what independence and liberty truly is.

Smith believed that with the proper effort and sympathy, the middle class could become “natural aristocrats.” However, he also believed that most laborers lack the time and desire to be educated, and therefore can’t appreciate that their interests are harmonious with society at large. Smith was most cautious of capitalists because of their inclinations to pervert public interest and demoralize laborers for personal benefits. Much of what Smith believed speaks contrary to John Locke’s belief that the poor are to be blamed for the situations they are in, as Smith seemed to think their unfortunate situations are a product of social dynamics.

Finally, Smith believed that the key in defending society against problems that arise from both types of civilizations is the social and ethical wisdom gathered by those participants who are independent-minded and make decisions about their own lives voluntarily. Ultimately, Smith’s works contributed to the decline of mercantilism and the rise of free trade and laissez-faire economics.


  1. Fideler, Paul A. Social Welfare in Pre-Industrial England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  2. Gee, J. M. A. Adam Smith’s Social Welfaire Function. Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 1968.

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