Smith was a rather extraordinary man. Born in Kircaldy, County Fife, Scotland in 1723, Smith is characterized by Robert Heilbroner as being an “apt student” (1999). Heilbroner then goes on to recount a story about Smith being kidnapped by gypsies when he was 4. At the age of seventeen, Smith left to study at Oxford. Heilbroner is quick to point out that Oxford at that time was hardly the venerable bastion of learning that it is today and that Smith spent his time there “largely untutored and untaught, reading as he saw fit” (1999). Smith describes Oxford as a “sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection, after they have been hunted out of every other corner of the world” (Herman, 2001). In 1751, Smith became the Chair of Logic at the University of Glasgow, later he would become the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the same institution.
Smith was heavily influenced by his mentor, Francis Hutcheson, and his friend, David Hume. Apparently, Smith was almost expelled from Oxford for having Hume's work in his room (Heilbronner, 1999). And Smith's A Theory of Moral Sentiments is a rework of “Hutcheson's theory of a moral sense” (Herman, 2001). Heilbronner writes about The Wealth of Nations that “there is a long line of observers before Smith who had approached his understanding of the world: Locke, Steuart, Mandeville, Petty, Cantillion, Turgot, not to mention Quesnay and Hume again. Smith took from all of them: there are over a hundred authors mentioned by name in his treatise...The Wealth of Nations is not a wholly original book” (1999). Rima disagrees to some extent saying that it “contains remarkably few references to the writings of other authers and that Smith was perhaps less scholarly in this regard than he might have been” (2009).
Before one can examine The Wealth of Nations, one must first understanding its conceptual antecedent in the form of A Theory of Moral Sentiments. The central question asks how man, who is driven by self-interest and greed, can subvert his/her own interests for the sake and approbation of others. Smith postulated that it was the uniquely human ability to sympathize or even empathize with others that led him/her to abrogate his/her's own self-interest. Smith felt that this ability for humans to imagine how others feel was inherent. He postulates that a person, having grown up in isolation and finally brought into society, “is immediately provided with the mirror that he wanted before” (Rima, 2009).
The Wealth of Nations was a staggering work for several reasons. Heilbroner explains, “where others had fished here and there, Smith spread his net wide; where others had clarified this and that issue, Smith illuminated the entire landscape” (1999). I will discuss three important aspects. First, Smith recognizes that labor produces value. Second, he realizes the importance of the division of labor in the burgeoning industrial revolution. Finally, he demonstrates how the workings...