Who was he: Adam Smith, widely cited as the father of modern economics, was a Scottish political economist and philosopher. He was a pioneer of political economy and one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith believed that in a laissez-faire economy, individual self-interest would ultimately work toward the general public welfare. Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and conservative economists favor Smith's philosophy.
Adam Smith authored numerous papers, treatises and two well-known books, one of which was to make him world famous. Smith authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).
The latter, his most influential book, is commonly referred to as The Wealth of Nations. The Wealth of Nations is considered the most influential work on economics and free markets ever written. It is widely cited by classical liberals who espouse the workings of Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" to create a better life for all through natural marketplace competition.
There is some disagreement amongst economists as to whether The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations complement or contradict each other. Those who see the contradiction indicate that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith places an emphasis on sympathy as a fundamental human motive. In The Wealth of Nations the emphasis is on the key role of self-interest.
In the former, the emphasis seems to be on the general harmony of human motives and actions under a beneficent Providence. In the latter, Smith finds more occasion for pointing out cases of conflict and the selfishness of human motives. This is in spite of the general theme of "the invisible hand" as promoting a harmony of interests.
Those who see the works as complementary insist that contrary to popular belief, there is a consistency in outlook and a general compatibility between the two. They see a close relationship between Smith's moral and economic philosophies. The belief is that The Theory of Moral Sentiments explains a moral system that provides a general framework for the economic tenets discussed in The Wealth of Nations.
Background: The exact date of Adam Smith's birth seems unclear. Many historians therefore use the date of his baptism, which, depending on the source used, is either June 5, 1723 or June 16, 1723. Smith's father was comptroller of the customs at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland and died before Adam's birth.
From about the age of 15, Adam Smith studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson and in 1740 entered Balliol College, Oxford. After graduating, Smith began delivering a series of public lectures in Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames. This led to his meeting David Hume in about 1750. The two became close friends and Hume would have a major impact on Smith's future writings. They were to collaborate during the Scottish Enlightenment.
In 1751 Smith took a professorship at Glasgow University and in 1759 published his Theory of Moral Sentiments. The work established Smith's reputation in his own day, and was concerned with the explanation of moral approval and disapproval.
Toward the end of 1763 Smith resigned his professorship and took a position as traveling tutor for the young Duke of Buccleuch and his brother. From 1764-66 he traveled with his pupils, mostly in France, where he came to know many intellectual leaders. Amongst them were Turgot, D'Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and Francois Quesnay.
Smith returned home to Kirkcaldy and spent much of the next ten years writing The Wealth of Nations, which appeared in 1776. In 1778 he was appointed customs commissioner in Scotland and in 1784 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. By this time, he had gone home to live with his mother, in Edinburgh, where he died on July 17, 1790.