Adam Smith’s landmark book, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a 500-plus page treatise on economics, oft cited bur rarely read, except by economists and masochists like me. If you can overlook Smith’s sing-song style, his tediousness, repetition, generalizations, vague and archaic terminology, and inconsistent reasoning, the book is worth reading, especially as a social history. It is important to recognize that Smith writes as a spokesman for the monarchy and the wealthy stock holders, landowners, and mercantilists who made the book an immediate hit and won him a position as Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, Scotland. His description of a "commercial society" has enshrined him as the “first modern economist,” or “father of modern capitalism."
A confluence of factors contributed to the economic conditions of Smith’s time. The “industrial revolution” began in Britain with the invention of the steam engine in 1712, first used for pumping water out of coal mines. Other inventions quickly followed, eventually leading to the growth and dominance of the British Empire, through manufacture, trade, and colonization. Another feature of 1700s Britain involved war and military conquest. As an island nation, with England, Scotland, and Wales united as the United Kingdom, or “Great Britain,” in 1707, it developed its sea power and had established dominance in the seas and in trading routes by the time Smith wrote Wealth of Nations. Competition with other powers brought war and its heavy costs.
Wealth of Nations refers repeatedly to the “late war,” which presumably was the Seven Years’ War, fought between 1756 and 1763. One of the book’s primary aims appears to be exploring the various modes of taxation the king could use to pay debts from that war.
Meanwhile, the industrial revolution was bringing a rapid shift in social and cultural dynamics, as Great Britain went from predominantly agrarian, rural society to one of urban and industrial predominance. The textile industry was probably the first to be affected in a major way, with the invention of the spinning jenny--“jenny” is a nickname for “engine”--by Englishman James Hargreaves in 1764.
The iron industry also underwent fast transformation, and with it, the transportation industry. Communication and banking adapted accordingly.
Because industrialization necessitated large capital investments, business ownership shifted from individuals to groups, including partnerships and corporations. The banking industry grew by leaps and bounds after the Bank of England was first chartered in 1694. The London Stock Exchange boomed after the Seven Years’ War. The government became increasingly dependent on it to finance wars.
Like many of his contemporaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, Adam Smith was fascinated by machinery and its commercial potential.
In the first pages of Wealth, Smith presents the plan for the book, summarizing that the real wealth of a nation comes down to the “annual produce of the land and labor of the society.”
He then distinguishes between towns and agriculture and glorifies machines for facilitating division of labor, thus efficiency and productivity. He uses pin-making as an example, with speed of production due to division of labor the only criterion.
Smith claims farmers are lazy, because as one-man operations, they waste time changing tasks, whereas a group of men in a “workhouse,” each doing one small task repeatedly, is able to produce much more in the same time period.
Smith says “Cochin-china” is one of several Asian countries that have sea access as well as extensive canals inland, but most of their trade is internal. He wonders why they have not sought to trade outside their own countries.
Wealth emphasizes the enduring value of labor, despite the fluctuations in metal money. Smith says the discovery of gold and silver in the Americas caused a glut in Europe that reduced the value to a third of what it was before. A man can only do so much labor, but that labor holds its value through all the ups and downs of markets.
Wealth gives a multiplicity of examples of how labor costs rise and fall in relation to cities versus rural, or demand—such as North America, where labor was in great demand and food relatively inexpensive—and how much a laborer must be paid to sustain himself and children to replace him. Since 50% of children die before reaching adulthood, says Smith, we need to calculate the cost of feeding four children in every family. Smith acknowledges that all the laws favor the employers, should the laborers strike for higher wages.
While Smith presses the point that nothing happens without labor, he is happy to squeeze the laborer into a bare subsistence wage, better to keep him working hard to make ends meet.
He cites numerous examples of relationships between labor and stocks. New land, like the colonies, attracted lots of stock capital because it was cheap, full of natural resources, and soil was rich.
Early on “corporations” restricted competition, with the king’s (or queen’s) support. Smith says 5th of Elizabeth formalized the “Statute of Apprenticeship” that restricted practice of craft or trade to those who had apprenticed seven years. Church wardens, mandated by the king to provide for the poor in their parishes, did everything possible to keep the poor from moving in.
Corn is the major food crop in Europe. Smith says tobacco grows well enough in parts of Europe, but it is illegal because it’s too hard to tax individual farmers, so tobacco is imported from (primarily) Virginia and Maryland, warehoused, and resold at profit. Sugar is in great demand, and is very expensive, imported from Caribbean colonies. In “Cochin-china” sugar is no more expensive than ordinary food crops and is cultivated alongside them and apparently not exported much.
Adam Smith notes that labor and landlords benefit from policies that also serve the public. Stockholders, however, are loud, moneyed, and invested in reducing competition, so they generally work against the public good.
Smith explains how money is not the same as circulating capital. It is the “wheel” of the economic engine but has no intrinsic value. A coin is not used up when it is exchanged for goods or services, so the same coin, each time it changes hands, buys its face value for the purchaser, who gets his coin’s “worth” in product.
Smith also writes about the banks, primarily of Scotland, that used paper money promissory notes in excess of gold deposits for lending. 80% paper to 20% backup. Merchants could also get lines of credit, so were encouraged to accept that bank’s paper in trade, to promote it to friends and associates, and to spend it. However, paper was no good in foreign countries, so gold was exported to import foreign products.
“No equal capital puts into motion a greater quantity of productive labor than that of the farmer,” says Smith. Also, farms stay put, like retail shops, and can’t be outsourced.
He discusses how the American trade is financed by merchants in Great Britain. Smith uses the example of hogsheads of tobacco from Virginia and Maryland as commodity money that is bought in excess by England and resold in other places.
But "the great commerce of every civilized society is between country and town." In fact, the home trade, by far the most important, was considered subsidiary to foreign trade, based on Man’s book, England’s Treasure in Foreign Trade. Smith says the mercantile system works in many ways against the enrichment of the country. It selectively encourages exportation and discourages importation.
He says it is a mistake to politically favor exports over imports. Restraints on imports consist of high duties and absolute prohibitions. Exports were encouraged by “drawbacks” (tax relief), “bounties (subsidies), advantageous treaties, and the establishment of colonies. Smith is down on bounties. He specifically mentions corn, because it, to him, is the commodity by which the price of everything else is measured.
He claims restraints on importation and prohibitions may be good for the home manufacturers but not for the population or the economy as a whole. The famous “invisible hand” comes up on page 300, in which Smith mentions the folly of “statesmen” who try to control private enterprise. He says the market will determine what is needed without government help.
Merchants and manufacturers derive the most benefit from monopolies, says he, whereas farmers and populace derive little and undoubtedly lose by them. Corn merchants benefit more from subsidies than corn farmers.
The notion of “balance of trade” is “absurd,” and he enumerates reasons. Smith also states that it is silly for nations to try to improve their wealth at the expense of other nations. This leads to hostilities rather than friendly exchanges.
Smith asserts again that all wealth comes from the land, with farmers the most productive workers and everyone else subsidiary. Those who bring raw materials to more useable form, like wool manufacturers, do not add as much value as the farmer does by cultivating the land.
Smith cites the duties of the sovereign. He claims the sovereign does not have the duty or right to regulate commerce. At the same time, he says the king’s first duty is to protect the country from other governments.
He makes the case for a standing army and says this is the only way the sovereign can maintain peace and order. Now “civilized” societies can conquer “barbarous” societies, which don’t have the advantage of gun power. He believes, therefore, that gun power equals civilization.
Smith mentions highways, bridges, navigable canals, coinage, and the post office as public institutions that facilitate commerce. Post offices everywhere, he says, are valuable revenue sources for the government, with steady and immediate cash flow and low maintenance costs.
Obviously, a glaring inconsistency in Smith’s premise is between his views on free trade and his belief in the importance of a standing army. Here we have our pseudo proponent of free trade justifying forts and garrisons in foreign countries to protect merchants’ stores. Where these countries do not allow forts, it has been necessary to send ambassadors. Smith believes most ambassadorships were created to protect trade.
He goes into “regulated companies,” which are open to anyone with the money, willing to submit to the rules, and trading his own stock at his own risk. These are opposed to “joint stock” companies, which sound like publically traded companies today. Pooled resources and pooled profits. He says only four types of joint stock companies seem valid. He cites: 1. The banking industry; 2. Fire and sea-risk insurance companies; 3. Canal or navigable channel companies; and 4. Those bringing water by pipe or otherwise to a great city. He notes the Bank of England doesn’t have exclusive privilege, except that no other bank in England can employ more than six people, and the Bank of England lends to the sovereign.
The last hundred pages of the book are devoted to taxes and other potential sources of revenue for the commonwealth or sovereign.
He floats the concept of a central bank, calling it a “public bank to support public credit, and upon particular emergencies to advance to government the whole produce of a tax, to the amount, perhaps, of several millions, a year or two before it comes in.”
Smith asserts the king should be wealthier than anyone, with grand style and pomp to support his “dignity.”
He distinguishes between direct and indirect taxes, saying the former, as on land, are easily assessed. Tax on interest or money is difficult to calculate without extraordinary “inquisition” into every man’s private circumstances and “would be a source of such continual and endless vexation as no people could support.”
“There is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”
Wages on the “inferior classes of workmen” are regulated by demand for labor and the price of provisions. As taxes on labor go up, wages must go up more, to cover the additional tax. Manufacturers can pass these costs on to the consumer, but farmers’ landlords must absorb them. This leads to a decrease in the demand for labor. “Absurd and destructive as such taxes are, however, they take place in many countries.”
Smith goes into government jobs, which are much sought after, because they are highly paid and carry perquisites (perks). Taxes on luxuries do not raise the price of other commodities, but those on necessities do, so should not be taxed. He mentions alcohol taxes as by far the most productive.
Excise taxes are generally on home goods destined for home markets and imposed on only certain items of the most general use. Excise laws discourage smuggling more effectively than customs laws.
He acknowledges that poor people, because there are more of them, consume the most, not only in quantity, but in value.
He mentions that war has required even the most frugal republics to contract great debts to maintain independence. He says it is incorrect to assume money lent to government increases capital, because it is generally wasted, and that money would otherwise be spent on productive labor. Also, foreigners often buy in.
“When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.”
Wealth ends rather abruptly on the subject of public debt, saying that when it exceeds taxpayers’ ability to pay with reasonable measures, government uses unreasonable measures, such as issuing interest-free bonds for immediate expenses, or interest-only bonds that are never intended to be repaid. He says this has “enfeebled” multiple governments.
When governments reach the point where they can’t pay the debt, they either inflate the currency or declare bankruptcy. He says the latter is more honest, but the entire system of debt-backed government is “pernicious.”
My take is the tradition of monarchs and overlords has led to societies in which unearned wealth is glorified and held in high esteem. The most highly respected and emulated are those who have done the least to acquire what they have, in general terms. The very idea, The Wealth of Nations, presumes the nations own the individuals who live within their borders.