Auctions | September 4, 2013

<i>The Wealth of Nations</i> Sells For £46,000 at Lyon & Turnbull

A fine example of a rare copy of a first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations), the magnum opus of the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith sold today in Edinburgh for £46,000.

It was first published in 1776, the book offers one of the world's first collected descriptions of what builds nations' wealth and is today a fundamental work in classical economics. In it Smith challenged the prevailing mercantilist economic philosophy, in which people saw national wealth in terms of a country's stock of gold and silver and imports as a danger to a nation's wealth, arguing that in a free exchange both sides became better off. Quite simply, nobody would trade if they expected to lose from it. The buyer profits, he argued, just as the seller does. Imports are just as valuable to us as our exports are to others.

Simon Vickers Book Specialist at Lyon & Turnbull said “There was fierce competition from the internet and phone bidders, this is such a significant book in the history of economics first editions do not readily appear on the market. In it Smith argued, it increases our prosperity just as surely as do agriculture or manufacture. A nation's wealth is not the quantity of gold and silver in its vaults, but the total of its production and commerce - what today we would call gross national product.”

Even today the common sense of free trade is generally accepted worldwide. The Wealth of Nations was therefore not just a study of economics but a survey of human social psychology: about life, welfare, political institutions, the law, and morality.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was not only one of Scotland's greatest moral philosophers but also a pioneer of political economy.  Smith was born in Kirkaldy, Fife, entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. Here, Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason and free speech. After a brief spell at Oxford University, Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 in the University of Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames, on the topics of rhetoric and belles-lettres and, later, the subject of "the progress of opulence".

In 1750 he met the Scottish philosopher David Hume who became a close friend, the two sharing wide intellectual interests. In 1751 Smith was given a professorship at Glasgow University and in 1752 was appointed head of Moral Philosophy.