Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Malthus’ Essay on Population

The Wealth of Nations, 1776

Author: Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher, and is known as “the father of modern economics.” He enjoyed a thorough education at the University of Glasgow, and after graduating traveled around Europe as a tutor.

Context: Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations during the Industrial Revolution. It was published shortly after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. At the time, Great Britain’s economy was booming, and it’s imperialist influence was spreading through Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

Language: Smith uses simple and concise language. His ideas are well developed and clearly explained.

Audience: The Wealth of Nations targeted an educated demographic. Smith wanted to influence people who could affect the economy, like business men, philosophers, and political officials.

Intent: The objective was to explain economic ideas, like productivity, division of labor, free markets, and the invisible hand. The first chapter discusses the division of labor

Message: The Wealth of Nations is a collection of ideas that Smith hypothesized would build a nation’s prosperity. The first chapter focusses on the three benefits of the division of labor. Firstly, with divided labor, each contributor is very good at producing his or her product, and can therefore produce a lot of it. Secondly, dividing labor prevents contributors from having to switch tasks, which wastes time. Thirdly, when contributors focus on one simple task, they are more likely to find an easier, more efficient way to perform that task.

Essay on Population, 1798

Author: Thomas Robert Malthus was an English cleric and scholar. He believed that society can never be perfect, and disagreed with many 18th century enlightenment thinkers. He pioneered Malthusianism, which explains the “preventative checks” on populations, such as disease, food supply, and available space.

Context: Disease and famine were common in England, even with the agricultural and medical advancements form the Industrial Revolution. England’s population was increasing, and people were starting to live longer

Language: Malthus uses colorful and descriptive language.

Audience: Malthus’ Essay on Population targeted an intellectual demographic. It’s audience was even more specific than Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Malthus wanted to influence scholars and thinkers like himself

Intent: The goal was to show that society cannot be perfect. There will always be food shortages, disease, and other problems.

Message: There is a cap on every human population. Disease, limited food, and limited space prevent society from increasing forever. Once the population gets too big, people will die off because of a lack of food or space. As the population drops, more food or space will become available. The population will rise again, only to fall as food or space become scarce.

3 thoughts on “Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Malthus’ Essay on Population

  1. Firstly, you provided very detailed descriptions in your ACLAIM method to further understanding both readings. Both of The Wealth of Nations and Essay on Population provided light to the real problems of England as a whole, which included the economy and population. Also, these documents showed that no matter how good your economy is or how well your nation is doing demographically, it is impossible for society to be perfect. Both of these documents, at the time, provided light to the intellectual people of England of the reality of their society. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith does an incredible job demonstrating why the division of labor makes production more efficient and cheaper while in Essay on Population, Thomas Mathus shows that each time food production increases, the population will increase to the point where there is a shortage of food. Although both documents demonstrate different points, they both encompass demographic and economic ideas that provided great knowledge to the people of England in the late 1700’s.

  2. I think that you make a good point in stating that Malthus was targeting a more specific audience than Smith. He wrote his “Essay on Population” as a rebuttal of William Godwin’s work, and thus he engaged in a more academic debate–which is not to say that his thoughts on population do not have practical relevance as well. However, Malthus makes a more theoretical argument than Smith overall, and he likely did target a more educated, intellectual demographic than Smith. Smith’s work would have seemed more immediately relevant to the common man of the eighteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution began to make division of labor more common. Malthus’ work, on the other hand, is important to anyone who does not wish to exhaust the planet’s finite resources, but the common laborer would have had a hard time relating to problems cannot be immediately (or ever) fixed.

  3. I agree with the comments above me, and would like to comment on the implication of both Smith and Malthus. Smith is largely considered the father of modern capitalism, and his theory on “invisible hand” economics hugely influenced the laisse-faire economics in the west in the 20th century. Regardless of one’s feelings toward laisse-faire economies, discouraging intervention in economies has a dramatically different effect that Malthus’ work, which is often used to discourage intervention in cases of famine, and other ‘population control’ events.

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