The wealth of the nations

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Title page of Adam Smith's major work (1776)

The Prosperity of Nations (full English title: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations ) is the main work of the Scottish economist Adam Smith published on March 9, 1776 . It emerged as a counterpoint to the mercantilism that had prevailed in economic policy until then , as practiced by the major European powers of the time. Smith's work is considered to be the fundamental work of economics , which only later established itself as an independent scientific discipline, and marks the beginning of classical economics as well as economic liberalism .

Smith does not develop his own closed theory in his work. To a large extent, the wealth of nations is to be understood as a summary of the economic theoretical findings of numerous liberal thought leaders. It received a great response from subsequent economists such as David Ricardo , Thomas Robert Malthus and Karl Marx . Today the work is primarily known through the metaphor of the invisible hand (English invisible hand ) and the principle asserted with it, although this was actually only mentioned incidentally by Smith. In addition, the quote is usually taken out of its actual context. Smith referred with his concept of the invisible hand only to the support of the domestic industry (" the support of domestic industry ") in contrast to the import of goods. In this context, he says that the entrepreneur, in the course of supporting the domestic industry by maximizing total income based on his entrepreneurial activity, strives only for his own profit and not for the promotion of the common good, which is only a side effect of his profit maximization. Broken down to the basic concept, Smith's work today is linked to the demand that the state should stay out of the economy ("The state is a bad entrepreneur") and, on the other hand, should limit itself to internal and external security, as well as legal security in its economic area in order to enable the entrepreneurs to run their respective business operations there unhindered (see: Night watchman state ). From this, according to the neoclassical perspective, the demand for any deregulation of the markets is derived today in order to grant the companies as much freedom as possible, which often turns out to be competitive ( monopolies or oligopolies) or socially harmful ("welfare reduction / loss") ).


The Wealth of Nations is divided into five books:

  1. On the causes of the increase in the productive forces of labor, and on the rule according to which its product is naturally distributed among the various classes of the people
  2. Nature, accumulation and use of capital
  3. The different increases in prosperity in individual countries
  4. Systems of Political Economy
  5. The finances of the sovereign or the state

The work covers the basic mechanisms of the various markets , the money economy, the factors of production and foreign trade .

In this work, Smith specifically deals with the division of labor in emerging factories and bases his theories on the example of pin production in southern England. In relation to this example, Smith is mostly cited merely to justify the advantages of this form of division of labor. On the other hand, it is seldom pointed out that Smith also warns in his book of the dramatic consequences of making work processes more effective, namely the dumbing down of workers through the constant repetition of the same hand movements.

Translations, annotated editions

The work was first translated into German in 1776 and 1778 in two volumes by Johann Friedrich Schiller, a cousin of the poet Friedrich Schiller . Due to the poor quality of the translation, Smith's ideas were not widely used in Germany. That only changed with Christian Garves' translation between 1794 and 1796. Later, the Göttingen historian and economist Georg Friedrich Sartorius (1765–1828) published a concise description of Smith's teachings under the title Handbuch der Staatswirthschaft (Berlin: Unger, 1796) out what he did for the dissemination of the work. Further translations appeared later, including those by Max Stirner (1806–1856). The economist Harald Hagemann gives an overview of the German translations in an online paper from the University of Hohenheim.

Editions of the book

English editions (selection)

  • Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. , Volume 1, reprinted 1981, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, pp. 14–14 , ISBN 0-86597-006-8
  • Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. , Volume 2, Reprinted from 1981, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, ISBN 0-86597-007-6

Facsimile output (one as an example)

  • An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , Vol. I / Vol. II. Printed for W. Strahn; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776; published by IDION-Verlag, Munich 1976 (based on an original edition in the Heidelberg University Library ).

German editions (among others):

Secondary literature

Web links


  1. Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - Book IV, Chapter II, Of Restraints upon the Importation from Foreign Countries of such Goods as can be Produced at Home, IV.2.9; "But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavors 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 labor 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. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. "
  2. ^ Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume 1, reprinted 1981, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, pp. 14–14 , ISBN 0-86597-006-8 .
  3. Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - Chapter I: On the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth, Part III: On the Expense of Public Works and Public Institutions, Article II: On the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth; "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. "
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