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Wealth of Nations: A Selected Edition (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 17 Apr 2008
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the selection of material is judicious and the commentary brilliant and entertaining (Mark Davis, Professor of Mathematics, Imperial College London)
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The introduction, by Kathryn Sutherland, explains the structure of Smith's argument across those five volumes and why she included those elements that she did. It situates Smith's work in the intellectual context of the time. Sutherland, interestingly, is not an economist but a specialist in bibliography and textual criticism, and this may explain her greater interest in the background to Smith's ideas than in identifying the originality of his thought. As her excellent notes make clear, Smith drew on the work of many earlier writers. One of Smith's most famous examples, illustrating the importance of the division of labour into specialised but simpler tasks, pin making, is traced to an essay published by Denis Diderot in Paris in 1755. Much of his thinking on the nature of money was based on theories of John Locke writing almost a century earlier. It was interesting to discover so many of Smith's examples from the economy in the remoter parts of Scotland, often used as an example of a less developed economy than in England, were based on observations by Dr Samuel Johnson, notwithstanding that Adam Smith himself was a Scotsman, and Johnson an (adopted) Londoner who famously quipped that the finest sight in Scotland was the road to England! David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, du Halde, Mandeville are also extensively referenced, and Smith's many references to the classics and to trades and professions long since forgotten are fully explained.
In the context of the credit crunch of 2008, one particularly germane section of Volume II explains the development of "promissory bills" - paper money. That bankers might lend as many as five times their deposits of silver and gold was sustainable and useful, Smith said. Money, he argued, had no intrinsic value, even if it were gold or silver, but it was the "wheel of circulation" that facilitated the faster creation of value, and the creation of additional money through paper notes allowed for more rapid economic development than in an economy limited by the availability of precious metal coinage. It seems, from recent experience, that twenty times might be going too far!
I hate to think how many times I referred to Wealth of Nations back in school and university history essays without ever having read it. It is generally regarded as the first economics text, although, it much more than that, being also an historical explanation of the stages of economic development, an approach that was a precursor of Karl Marx's analysis, and a thesis on personal liberty and the proper role of government. It is rewarding to study the original, but it is not easy going. While Smith wrote clearly, I found myself having to re-read passages frequently to get my head around his long sentences and complicated structure. While the words he uses are, in the main still ones in common usage, I did realise that they were often invested with subtly different meanings. It is this, rather than any technical complexity of the underlying economics, that makes this a challenging read. Not for the faint hearted, but a rewarding read for those interested in economics and economic history. It is, as the series name suggests, a "World Classic". If, however, you want to get a rapid grasp of Smith's thinking, you might well be better to read a modern commentary.
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