Of Systems of political Economy
Smith vigorously attacked the antiquated government restrictions he thought hindered industrial expansion. In fact, he attacked most forms of government interference in the economic process, including tariffs, arguing that this creates inefficiency and high prices in the long run. It is believed that this theory influenced government legislation in later years, especially during the 19th century.
Smith advocated a government that was active in sectors other than the economy. He advocated public education for poor adults, a judiciary, and a standing army—institutional systems not directly profitable for private industries.
Of the Principle of the Commercial or Mercantile System
The book has sometimes been described as a critique of mercantilism and a synthesis of the emerging economic thinking of Smith’s time. Specifically, The Wealth of Nations attacks, inter alia, two major tenets of mercantilism:
The idea that protectionist tariffs serve the economic interests of a nation (or indeed any purpose whatsoever) and
The idea that large reserves of gold bullion or other precious metals are necessary for a country’s economic success. This critique of mercantilism was later used by David Ricardo when he laid out his Theory of Comparative Advantage.
Of Restraints upon the Importation: Chapter 2’s full title is “Of Restraints upon the Importation from Foreign Countries of such Goods as can be Produced at Home”. The “Invisible Hand” is a frequently referenced theme from the book, although it is specifically mentioned only once.
“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” (Book 4, Chapter 2)
The metaphor of the “invisible hand” has been widely used out of context. In the passage above Smith is referring to “the support of domestic industry” and contrasting that support with the importation of goods. Neoclassical economic theory has expanded the metaphor beyond the domestic/foreign manufacture argument to encompass nearly all aspects of economics.
Of the extraordinary Restraints: Chapter 3’s long title is “Of the extraordinary Restraints upon the Importation of Goods of almost all Kinds, from those Countries with which the Balance is supposed to be Disadvantageous”.
Of Drawbacks: Merchants and manufacturers are not contented with the monopoly of the home market, but desire likewise the most extensive foreign sale for their goods. Their country has no jurisdiction in foreign nations, and therefore can seldom procure them any monopoly there. They are generally obliged, therefore, to content themselves with petitioning for certain encouragements to exportation.
Of these encouragements what are called Drawbacks seem to be the most reasonable. To allow the merchant to draw back upon exportation, either the whole or a part of whatever excise or inland duty is imposed upon domestic industry, can never occasion the exportation of a greater quantity of goods than what would have been exported had no duty been imposed. Such encouragements do not tend to turn towards any particular employment a greater share of the capital of the country than what would go to that employment of its own accord, but only to hinder the duty from driving away any part of that shares to other employments.
Of Bounties: Bounties upon exportation are, in Great Britain, frequently petitioned for, and sometimes granted to the produce of particular branches of domestic industry. By means of them our merchants and manufacturers, it is pretended, will be enabled to sell their goods as cheap, or cheaper than their rivals in the foreign market. A greater quantity, it is said, will thus be exported, and the balance of trade consequently turned more in favour of our own country. We cannot give our workmen a monopoly in the foreign as we have done in the home market. We cannot force foreigners to buy their goods as we have done our own countrymen. The next best expedient, it has been thought, therefore, is to pay them for buying. It is in this manner that the mercantile system proposes to enrich the whole country, and to put money into all our pockets by means of the balance of trade
Of Treaties of Commerce:
“When a nation binds itself by treaty either to permit the entry of certain goods from one foreign country which it prohibits from all others, or to exempt the goods of one country from duties to which it subjects those of all others, the country, or at least the merchants and manufacturers of the country, whose commerce is so favoured, must necessarily derive great advantage from the treaty. Those merchants and manufacturers enjoy a sort of monopoly in the country which is so indulgent to them. That country becomes a market both more extensive and more advantageous for their goods: more extensive, because the goods of other nations being either excluded or subjected to heavier duties, it takes off a greater quantity of theirs: more advantageous, because the merchants of the favoured country, enjoying a sort of monopoly there, will often sell their goods for a better price than if exposed to the free competition of all other nations.”
Such treaties, however, though they may be advantageous to the merchants and manufacturers of the favoured, are necessarily disadvantageous to those of the favouring country. A monopoly is thus granted against them to a foreign nation; and they must frequently buy the foreign goods they have occasion for dearer than if the free competition of other nations was admitted.
Of the Motives for establishing new Colonies:
“The interest which occasioned the first settlement of the different European colonies in America and the West Indies was not altogether so plain and distinct as that which directed the establishment of those of ancient Greece and Rome.
All the different states of ancient Greece possessed, each of them, but a very small territory, and when the people in any one of them multiplied beyond what that territory could easily maintain, a part of them were sent in quest of a new habitation in some remote and distant part of the world; warlike neighbours surrounded them on all sides, rendering it difficult for any of them to enlarge their territory at home. The colonies of the Dorians resorted chiefly to Italy and Sicily, which, in the times preceding the foundation of Rome, were inhabited by barbarous and uncivilised nations: those of the Ionians and Eolians, the two other great tribes of the Greeks, to Asia Minor and the islands of the Egean Sea, of which the inhabitants seem at that time to have been pretty much in the same state as those of Sicily and Italy. The mother city, though she considered the colony as a child, at all times entitled to great favour and assistance, and owing in return much gratitude and respect, yet considered it as an emancipated child over whom she pretended to claim no direct authority or jurisdiction. The colony settled its own form of government, enacted its own laws, elected its own magistrates, and made peace or war with its neighbours as an independent state, which had no occasion to wait for the approbation or consent of the mother city. Nothing can be more plain and distinct than the interest which directed every such establishment.”
Causes of Prosperity of new Colonies:
“The colony of a civilised nation which takes possession either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society.
The colonists carry out with them a knowledge of agriculture and of other useful arts superior to what can grow up of its own accord in the course of many centuries among savage and barbarous nations. They carry out with them, too, the habit of subordination, some notion of the regular government which takes place in their own country, of the system of laws which supports it, and of a regular administration of justice; and they naturally establish something of the same kind in the new settlement.”
Of the Advantages which Europe has derived from the Discovery of America, and from that of a Passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope:
“Such are the advantages which the colonies of America have derived from the policy of Europe. What are those which Europe has derived from the discovery and colonisation of America? Those advantages may be divided, first, into the general advantages which Europe, considered as one great country, has derived from those great events; and, secondly, into the particular advantages which each colonising country has derived from the colonies which particularly belong to it, in consequence of the authority or dominion which it exercises over them.:
The general advantages which Europe, considered as one great country, has derived from the discovery and colonisation of America, consist, first, in the increase of its enjoyments; and, secondly, in the augmentation of its industry.
The surplus produce of America, imported into Europe, furnishes the inhabitants of this great continent with a variety of commodities which they could not otherwise have possessed; some for conveniency and use, some for pleasure, and some for ornament, and thereby contributes to increase their enjoyments.”
Conclusion of the Mercantile System: Smith’s argument about the international political economy opposed the idea of Mercantilism. While the Mercantile System encouraged each country to hoard gold, while trying to grasp hegemony, Smith argued that free trade eventually makes all actors better off. This argument is the modern ‘Free Trade’ argument.
Of the Agricultural Systems: Chapter 9’s long title is “Of the Agricultural Systems, or of those Systems of Political Economy, which Represent the Produce of Land, as either the Sole or the Principal, Source of the Revenue and Wealth of Every Country”.
“That system which represents the produce of land as the sole source of the revenue and wealth of every country has, so far as by that time, never been adopted by any nation, and it at present exists only in the speculations of a few men of great learning and ingenuity in France. It would not, surely, be worthwhile to examine at great length the errors of a system which never has done, and probably never will do, any harm in any part of the world.”
Book V: Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth
Smith postulated four “maxims” of taxation: proportionality, transparency, convenience, and efficiency. Some economists interpret Smith’s opposition to taxes on transfers of money, such as the Stamp Act, as opposition to capital gains taxes, which did not exist in the 18th century. Other economists credit Smith as one of the first to advocate a progressive tax. Smith wrote, “The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion”
Of the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth: Smith uses this chapter to comment on the concept of taxation and expenditure by the state. On taxation Smith wrote,
“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation.”
Smith advocates a tax naturally attached to the “abilities” and habits of each echelon of society.
For the lower echelon, Smith recognised the intellectually erosive effect that the otherwise beneficial division of labour can have on workers, what Marx, though he mainly opposes Smith, later named “alienation,”; therefore, Smith warns of the consequence of government failing to fulfill its proper role, which is to preserve against the innate tendency of human society to fall apart.
…”the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”
Under Smith’s model, government involvement in any area other than those stated above negatively impacts economic growth. This is because economic growth is determined by the needs of a free market and the entrepreneurial nature of private persons. A shortage of a product makes its price rise, and so stimulates producers to produce more and attracts new people to that line of production. An excess supply of a product (more of the product than people are willing to buy) drives prices down, and producers refocus energy and money to other areas where there is a need.
Of the Sources of the General or Public Revenue of the Society: In his discussion of taxes in Book Five, Smith wrote:
“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”
Of War and Public Debts:
“…when war comes [politicians] are both unwilling and unable to increase their [tax] revenue in proportion to the increase of their expense. They are unwilling for fear of offending the people, who, by so great and so sudden an increase of taxes, would soon be disgusted with the war […] The facility of borrowing delivers them from the embarrassment […] By means of borrowing they are enabled, with a very moderate increase of taxes, to raise, from year to year, money sufficient for carrying on the war, and by the practice of perpetually funding they are enabled, with the smallest possible increase of taxes [to pay the interest on the debt], to raise annually the largest possible sum of money [to fund the war]. …The return of peace, indeed, seldom relieves them from the greater part of the taxes imposed during the war. These are mortgaged for the interest of the debt contracted in order to carry it on.”
Smith then goes on to say that even if money was set aside from future revenues to pay for the debts of war, it seldom actually gets used to pay down the debt. Politicians are inclined to spend the money on some other scheme that will win the favour of their constituents. Hence, interest payments rise and war debts continue to grow larger, well beyond the end of the war.