The growth of consumption and consumerism is an extension of the greater capitalist society in the United States, and most all of the other countries of the world. As such, I couldn’t think of a better suited historical figure to summarize than Adam Smith. He is widely acknowledged as the father of capitalism and modern economics as whole. Smith was born in Scotland during the early 18th century. He was encouraged by his widowed mother to pursue academia and attended a fairly prestigious secondary school where he learned Latin, math, history, and writing. He would later attend the University of Glasgow where he studied philosophy. It was there that he discovered his interest in free speech, liberty, and reason. As we know today, these are the foundations of his economic theory.
In 1740 he received a scholarship for Oxford university, which he ultimately attended for a total of 6 years. It is reported from letters he wrote while studying there that he did not like the university and spent a lot of his time alone and teaching himself from books he read. He actually left Oxford before his scholarship ended because it was beginning to take a toll on his health. A few years later he began giving public lectures on philosophy. It was not long after this that he first began lecturing on his own economic philosophy, which he described as the “simple system of natural liberty.”
Smith’s lectures grew in popularity and were generally well received. Before long, he was offered a teaching position at the University of Glasgow. He has described his time teaching as one of the most useful and happiest times of his life. Smith also published his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 during his career at the university. This work was largely base on his philosophy of morals and empathy. The success of the novel caused an uptick in his popularity and enrollment at the university for students interested in learning from him. He began to shift his lectures away from morality and focused more on economics after his first novel was published. He expressed ideas that the measure of a countries wealth was determined by the amount of labor performed in the country.
In 1764, he was offered the position of tutor for the Duke of Buccleuch, Henry Scott. This position awarded him a double in salary and the opportunity to travel Europe with his student and teach him along the way. One of the places Smith visited was France, in which he took note of their physiocratic economy. Particularly, he was interested in the concepts of productive versus unproductive forms of labor. I.e.; frivolous products vs. agriculture production.
After 2 years of traveling Europe and tutoring Henry Scott, Adam Smith returned to Scotland in 1766. He spent a decade working on his next and biggest success, The Wealth of Nations. In it he discussed ideas of division of labor, as well as the idea that the pursuit of private interests by individuals will unintentionally benefit society. He maintained that self-interest based competition in the free market would keep prices low for consumers, while also creating a need for many goods and services. Despite his emphasis on self-interest on the part of the business or manufacturer, he also made it clear to be cautious of monopolies, and political safeguards granted to businesses that would allow them to take advantage of consumers and the public. Ideally, Smith argued that a free market with a plethora of options would benefit both the consumer and businesses by giving people many options, creating healthy competition between businesses, and encouraging the growth and development of a varied set of services and goods. We can see the adoption and even exaggeration of his beliefs in society today. When I want to purchase a sweater, I have more options than I’d ever need at my fingertips. I can pick choose and refuse between different prices and options. Despite this, many of the different businesses that produce sweaters are able to be successful simultaneously. This is all because of the genius ideas that were outlined by Adam Smith over 200 years ago.