9 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes 'The Wealth of Nations'

On this day in 1776, Adam Smith, the “father of modern economics”, published his hugely influential book The Wealth of Nations.

Economists these days are ten a penny. You can't open a web page, newspaper or turn on the TV or radio without one pontificating at you. Keynesians, Austrians, Marxists, Anarchists... there are as many different schools as there are days in the year.

In the 18th century, however, things were different. The dominant force was mercantilism. Trade was strictly controlled, with high tariffs and taxes. Wealth was measured in how big your pile of stuff was. The fiercest critic of this system was the man known as the “father of modern economics”, Adam Smith. And his hugely influential book, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published on this day in 1776.

In it, Smith argued that free trade and market competition were fundamental to economic prosperity; trade benefits the buyer just as much as the seller; and wealth isn't necessarily money, it is labour or the amount of it you can buy or command. (It’s not an easy read, however. It runs to 950 pages, and even the Adam Smith Institute admits it is “almost impenetrable” to the modern reader, written as it was in “flowery” language, and containing numerous lengthy digressions.)

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It was revolutionary stuff. Once accepted, the idea of free trade drove massive economic expansion and growth in prosperity. Smith has been an influence on virtually every one of the world's economic systems ever since. Everyone finds something to build on. Even Karl Marx took Smith's idea that labour was wealth and ran with it, though perhaps a little too far for his and many other people's own good.

Government's job, said Smith, was to stay out of commerce, and provide the things a free market is unable to: defence, justice, public works – including infrastructure and education – and “supporting the dignity of the monarch”.

It is ironic, then, that just two years after publishing The Wealth of Nations, he was appointed as commissioner of customs in Scotland, upholding the very tariffs he argued so eloquently against.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.