An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations, is the magnum opus of the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith.
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. By reflecting upon the economics at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the book touches upon such broad topics as the division of labour, productivity, and free markets.
The Wealth of Nations was published in two volumes on 9 March 1776 (with books I–III included in the first volume and books IV and V included in the second). It influenced several authors and economists, such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, as well as governments and organizations, setting the terms for economic debate and discussion for the next century and a half.
For example, Alexander Hamilton was influenced in part by The Wealth of Nations to write his Report on Manufactures, in which he argued against many of Smith’s policies. Hamilton based much of this report on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and it was, in part, Colbert’s ideas that Smith responded to, and criticised, with The Wealth of Nations.
The Wealth of Nations was the product of seventeen years of notes and earlier studies, as well as an observation of conversation among economists of the time (like Nicholas Magens) concerning economic and societal conditions during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it took Smith some ten years to produce. The result was a treatise which sought to offer a practical application for reformed economic theory to replace the mercantilist and physiocratic economic theories that were becoming less relevant in the time of industrial progress and innovation. It represented a clear paradigm shift in the field of economics, comparable to Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica for physics, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for philosophy, Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for chemistry, or Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for biology.
Five editions of The Wealth of Nations were published during Smith’s lifetime: in 1776, 1778, 1784, 1786 and 1789. Numerous editions appeared after Smith’s death in 1790. To better understand the evolution of the work under Smith’s hand, a team led by Edwin Cannan collated the first five editions. The differences were published along with an edited sixth edition in 1904. They found minor but numerous differences (including the addition of many footnotes) between the first and the second editions; the differences between the second and third editions are major. In 1784, Smith annexed these first two editions with the publication of Additions and Corrections to the First and Second Editions of Dr. Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and he also had published the three-volume third edition of the Wealth of Nations, which incorporated Additions and Corrections and, for the first time, an index. Among other things, the Additions and Corrections included entirely new sections, particularly to book 4, chapters 4 and 5, and to book 5, chapter 1, as well as an additional chapter, “Conclusion of the Mercantile System”, in book 4.
The fourth edition, published in 1786, had only slight differences from the third edition, and Smith himself says in the Advertisement at the beginning of the book, “I have made no alterations of any kind.” Finally, Cannan notes only trivial differences between the fourth and fifth editions—a set of misprints being removed from the fourth and a different set of misprints being introduced.