Writing an Essay on Adam Smith

It would be less than honest to say that economics is a fascinating subject. In fact most people find it about as dull as it is confusing. Everyone knows the names of dozens of famous musicians, athletes and Hollywood stars, but - despite there being a lot more of them - not very many economists. Many people have heard of John Maynard Keynes, and perhaps Alan Greenspan or Friedrich Hayek; practically everyone has heard of Karl Marx, although of course most of them think of him as a political philosopher rather than an economist. That isn’t a very long list, though, and it’s safe to say that if the average person had to name one really well known economist the name they’d come up with would be Adam Smith.

Of course, being able to name Adam Smith isn’t the same as actually knowing much about him, and as he’s probably the most likely economist to come up as an essay topic that’s a bit unfortunate. What information would be useful in writing about this well known but less understood figure?


The obvious place to start when talking about Adam Smith - or any other historical figure, really - is who he was. The internet makes it easy to find plenty of details, but here are the basics. Adam Smith was born on 5 June 1723 in Kircaldy, Scotland. His father, a lawyer and civil servant, died only two months after he was born. At the age of four Smith was kidnapped by gypsies, but was released when people went in search of him.


Smith attended the local school in Kircaldy, which was seen as one of the best schools in Scotland at the time. He studied a range of subjects including Latin, maths and history. At the rather young age of 14 he went to Glasgow University to study moral philosophy, and aged 17 won a scholarship to Oxford. He believed Oxford to be inferior to Glasgow, but used the college library to teach himself a range of new subjects.


Smith spent several years teaching after leaving Oxford, but in the 1750s he began to write. His books - the first was published in 1759 - explored ideas about human nature, how people interact in society and how self-interest can work as a force to benefit society as a whole. These ideas were put into an economic context in his most famous book, On The Wealth of Nations.


Smith is best known for his 1776 book Wealth of Nations. However he himself thought his first book, the 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was better. His third major work was Essays on Philosophical Subjects, published after his death, which despite its title was mainly about astronomy.


Smith is often cited as an influence by classical liberals, libertarians and opponents of economic regulation. His belief that prices, wages and production are best set by the operation of the free market has been the foundation of western capitalism.

Adam Smith continues to be quoted as an expert on economics more than 300 years after he died. Later economists, especially Marx and Keynes, are now largely discredited because their theories have been tried and have failed every time. Smith’s work, however, lives on. As long as it does, people will be writing essays about him.