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What Motivated Adam Smith?

Why did Adam Smith, considered by many to be the father of economics, write The Wealth of Nations in 1776? Prof. James Otteson suggests that one of Adam Smith’s main concerns was poverty, which, at the time of Smith’s writings, was much worse than the poverty of today. After analyzing centuries of data, Smith found that commerce and limited government are the best tools for alleviating poverty.


  • Desert Island Game (game, beginner): Can you learn something about trade and cooperation by being marooned on a desert island?

  • Trade Ruler (game, advanced): As the Supreme Ruler of an island, you want the country to prosper. By engaging in international trade, you can achieve this goal.

  • Otteson on Adam Smith [Audio]: James Otteson and Prof. Russ Roberts discuss Adams Smith and two of his books – The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

  • Responsibility to the Poor (Video): Milton Friedman explains how markets often generate far better outcomes for the poor than do government programs.

  • Natural Liberty [Article]: Perry Gresham explains how Adam Smith was actually a champion for the poor.

  • The Wealth of Nations [Book]: Adam Smith explains how specialization and the division of labor are a necessary component of wealth creation.


What Motivated Adam Smith?

Adam Smith is widely considered to be the father of economics, but if you read the Wealth of Nations, one thing that comes through very clearly is that one of his main concerns is not just to explain where wealth comes from, but in particular, how do we raise the estates of the least among us?

He’s deeply concerned about the poor in society. And remember the poor in the 18th century were much worse off than what we might think of today. They were in desperate straits. He’s very much concerned with how to raise their estates, how to alleviate their suffering. And what he does in that book is he doesn’t ask, what do we have natural rights to? He’s not like John Locke in saying we have a right to property. That’s not his approach. He just wants to know what will work to help these people.

And his investigation of centuries of data that he’s able to assemble in that book shows that, empirically, the way to help people who are the least amongst us, the bottom rungs economically of society, is by allowing for commerce, free trade, free migration, limited government. To the extent that you can encourage those policies, their estates will be raised tremendously.

He’s not worried about the wealthy. He’s not worried about kings. Kings can take care of themselves. What he’s interested in is those people at the bottom. And his endorsement of markets and of trade is because he thinks they’ll help the people at the bottom, not because they’ll help the people who are already rich.

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