Smith, Adam (1723 – 90)

An eminent Scottish philosopher and social theorist, Professor of Logic then Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, whose influential publications include The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795).

Smith is best known as an economist—although even The Wealth of Nations is much more than simply a treatise on economic affairs. A total philosophy of society, rather than a narrowly economic perspective on social action, is suggested by passages such as the following: ‘Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had lived before almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile dependency upon their superiors.’

Smith’s exposition of the division of labour (which precedes his analysis of prices, resources, and distribution) is concerned to show that it is by dividing the labour process into increasingly specialized roles that industry advances and nations become rich. The first three chapters of The Wealth of Nations locate the origins of the division of labour in the propensity peculiar to human nature ‘to barter, to truck and to exchange’; explain how this is limited by the extent of markets; and observe its effects in massively increased production, as in the celebrated example of the manufacture of pins, such that ten people prepared to break this process down into its constituent eighteen parts will produce 48,000 pins in a day, whereas each working on their own could hope only to make a fraction of this total. In Smith’s view, the division of labour increased production by increasing the dexterity of the worker, who was able to concentrate on fewer processes; by saving time, in making the concentration of the worker task-specific; and by encouraging the invention of labour-saving devices.

However, Smith was not blind to the deleterious effects of the division of labour, and accepted that, where individuals were confined to performing only one or two limited and repetitive operations, this could render them ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human character to become’. He advocated the expansion of education as a means by which governments could combat the atomization and alienation implicit in the advanced division of labour. Unlike later classical economists, he also envisages the state taking an active and wide-ranging part in the organization of social affairs, going beyond the mere provision of justice, defence, and public works. There is, therefore, an ambivalence in his writings that has tended to be overlooked by free-market economists (but see E. G. West , ‘Adam Smith’s Two Views of the Division of Labour’, Economics, 1964)

Read more @ GORDON MARSHALL. “Smith, Adam.” A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved March 18, 2010 from

Comments are closed.