Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations Essay

3033 Words13 Pages
The pivotal second chapter of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, "Of the Principle which gives occasion to the Division of Labour," opens with the oft-cited claim that the foundation of modern political economy is the human "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."1 This formulation plays both an analytical and normative role. It offers an anthropological microfoundation for Smith's understanding of how modern commercial societies function as social organizations, which, in turn, provide a venue for the expression and operation of these human proclivities. Together with the equally famous concept of the invisible hand, this sentence defines the central axis of a new science of political economy…show more content…
Additionally, with this emphasis on spontaneous coordination, Smith pointed to the possibility of a social order in which people live in harmony together with a minimum need of a central, coercive apparatus. He captured the central intuition of classical economists according to which modern commercial society, notwithstanding its conflicts, obeys a kind of pre-established order, and enjoys the advantage of a mechanism, the market, which maintains equilibria by continually adjusting competing interests. Over time, this powerful theoretical proposition has become a legitimating cornerstone for the robust defense of market capitalism, a particular ensemble of political institutions, and a specific line of justification for liberal ideas and values. Though manifestly plausible as an accurate reading of Smith when Wealth of Nations is read on its own, even on these terms, this interpretation, is limited and partial. Astonishingly, and disappointingly, most readers of Wealth of Nations fail to attend the very next sentence that follows Smith's seemingly transhistorical, objectivist theory of human dispositions, mindful of Mandeville's classical representation of human egoism. Smith immediately probed more deeply by asking "Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature of which no further account can be given; or whether, as
Open Document