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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2015

Christopher S. Martin*
Department of Economics & Business Administration, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale MI. Email:


Generations of readers have nodded in agreement with Adam Smith’s argument, in Book One of the Wealth of Nations, that a nation cannot be happy if the workers who constitute the majority of its population are miserable. Smith notes that equity, besides, demands that workers receive a generous recompense for their labor. I contend that this famous statement is best interpreted in light of contemporary arguments that it was socially useful for workers to be poor. Smith’s engagement with these arguments is usually interpreted with reference to the labor supply function, but I argue that it also involved deeper suppositions about the place of workers in the social order. Smith’s reaction to these suppositions enriches our understanding of his contribution to liberal economics.

Copyright © The History of Economics Society 2015 

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