Professor Cole teaches in the Economics Department at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.
Two centuries after his death in 1790, Adam Smith is still justly regarded as the single most towering figure in the history of modern economics. His celebrated work on The Wealth of Nations captured the spirit of industrial capitalism, and presented its theoretical rationale in a form which dominated the thinking of the most influential political economists of the 19th century and which continues to inspire free market advocates to this day.
However, though few people would question the importance of Adam Smith for the history of economics, it is also important to realize that he was not merely (or even primarily) an economist—the field had not yet developed into an independent discipline in his time—and he himself regarded his Wealth as only a partial exposition of a much larger work on “the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society, ” which he hoped to write but never completed in his lifetime. Moreover, even in it is evident that Smith’s conception of economic science encompassed much more than today’s “core” fields of price theory, production and distribution, money and banking, public finance, international trade, and economic growth, each of which is regarded today as a specialty in itself. These topics are of course discussed at length in Smith’s book, but it also includes detailed excursions into fields as diverse as ecclesiastical history, demographics, educational policy, military science, agriculture, and colonial affairs. Indeed, the sheer catholicity of his interests, embracing not only economics, ethics, political philosophy, and jurisprudence, but also literature (ancient and modern), linguistics, psychology, and the history of science, must seem staggering to the modern specialist, but no less staggering is the analytical depth which he applied in all his studies.
Adam Smith was born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, the posthumous son (by a second marriage) of Adam Smith, comptroller of customs, and Margaret Douglas. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized on June 5, 1723, and this date is often mistakenly taken as his birth-date. Little is known about his childhood, except that at the age of 4 he was kidnapped by a band of Gypsies, though prompt action by his uncle soon effected his rescue. “He would have made, I fear, a poor Gypsy, ” commented John Rae, his main biographer. Apart from this incident, Smith’s life was singularly quiet and uneventful, and his story is essentially that of his studies and his books.
In 1737, at the age of 14, having finished his term at the Kirkcaldy Grammar School, Smith entered the University of Glasgow, whereupon he came under the strong influence of “the never to be forgotten” Francis Hutcheson, the famous professor of moral philosophy. Upon his graduation in 1740, Smith won an important scholarship (the Snell Exhibition) to Oxford, studying for six years in Balliol College. However, the intellectual atmosphere at Oxford at the time was lax and disappointing (“. . . the greater part of the public professors [at Oxford] have . . . given up altogether even the pretence of teaching, ” and “. . . it will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive study . . . .”). These years were devoted largely to a program of self-education in which he read widely in both classical and modern literature and philosophy.