Smith, The Wealth of Nations


The biggest problem with The Wealth of Nations is that it is a thousand pages, which means almost no one has actually bothered to read it. Yet, everyone loves talking about it. After finishing the book, I realized all the people who talk about it haven’t read it either.

This book reveals the fundamental lesson when reading the classics. Because these books are held up as sources of higher wisdom, and because they all have a reputation for being extremely difficult (when in reality only a couple of them are), people love to be disingenuous about the contents of these books. I’m not trying to point fingers at anyone, but just to say that it is to actually have read a book like this and to really know what the author was trying to communicate and why.

Part of the reason this book has taken on such a controversial status, because as an Enlightenment figure, Smith followed the intellectual protocol of his time and wrote widely about a range of topics in economics. At a thousand pages, this makes it very easy to cherry pick quotes out of the book.

You know when the second most popular quote from the book (about the excellence of the division of labor) is the first sentence of the book, absolutely no one bothered to go any further. Even though it is long, Smith is super readable, and I highly recommend anyone dive into it if they are interested in a nice time.

Historically, Smith was alive at a very interesting time. Ideas around Nationalism were growing rapidly. I had always incorrectly assumed that America was one of the newer nations, and that lots of other European nations had existed as so for a long time before that. That is not really true at all, and there were actually a lot of nationalist movements that were sparked because of the American independence movement. France, for instance, was inspired by the American Revolution. Isn’t it weird to think of France as actually being younger (from a nations perspective) than the United States? These two are early examples, and a lot of modern nations actually came into being in the 1800s, lead by concerted efforts by small groups of elites from varying regions. They would even create folklore to artificially build national identities. The Grimm Brothers fairy tales, for instance, were part of a movement to build a national identity around Germany, a place that had historically been a mass of separate principalities. Finland and Sweden followed Germany’s lead, and they paid folklorists to travel the countryside and to gather folktales to morph into collective mythologies.

We were also stuck knee deep in Mercantilism at the time. Nations were rapidly industrializing, and trying their best to maximize exports and minimialize imports, and to hoard gold. Nations like England were in the very center of their colonial expansion, something that Smith was very critical of.