Study Guide

The Wealth of Nations Setting

By Adam Smith

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18th-Century England

Like many British subjects in the 1700's, Adam Smith was pretty proud of how much more "civilized" England was than most of the other countries in the world. In his mind, even the lowliest worker in England is better off than "an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages" (1.1.11).

This kind of racist prejudice is pretty par for the course in Smith's time, but that doesn't mean he just blindly participates in all the bigotry of his day. He's actually firmly against European colonization because he believes everyone deserves to be free.

One thing that Smith criticizes heavily about the setting he's living in is the way government keeps meddling in the economy. In his mind, the government's "ultimate object, however, it pretends, is always the same, to enrich the country by an advantageous balance of trade" (4.8.1).

This idea that a country can only get richer if others get poorer was completely dominant during Smith's time, and the main goal of his Wealth of Nations is to get people past this kind of thinking. He wants people to realize how free trade and competition will make the whole world richer. But unfortunately, he feels trapped in the prejudices of his time, and it would be at least another hundred years after his death before any country would really start putting most of his ideas into practice. Today, he's considered one of the most influential thinkers in history.

The Wealth of Nations Setting Study Group

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