From Wealth of Nations

I’m working my way backward through my Modern Library edition of Wealth of Nations. These are a few of my favorite lines from Book V, Chapter III, On Public Debts.


There is not, perhaps, any selfish pleasure so frivolous, of which the pursuit has not sometimes ruined even sensible men. (981)

[B]ounty and hospitality very seldom lead to extravagance; though vanity almost always does. (983)


Commerce and manufactures, in short, can seldom flourish in any state in which there is not a certain degree of confidence in the justice of government. (985)


In the payment of the interest of the public debt, it has been said, it is the right hand which pays the left. The money does not go out of the country. It is only a part of the revenue of one set of the inhabitants which is transferred to another; and the nation it not a farthing the poorer. This apology is founded altogether in the sophistry of the mercantile system, and after the long examination which I have already bestowed upon that system, it may perhaps be unnecessary to say any thing further about it. It supposes, besides, that the whole public debt is owing to the inhabitants of the country, which happens not to be true; the Dutch, as well as several other foreign nations, having a very considerable share in our public funds. But though the whole debt were owing to the inhabitants of the country, it would not upon that account be less pernicious. (1005)


But it ought to be remembered, that when the wisest government has exhausted all the proper subjects of taxation, it must, in cases of urgent necessity, have recourse to improper ones. (1007)


When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of there having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy, sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment. (1008)

More quotations and perhaps even amateur commentary later.

For now, I recommend Gavin Kennedy’s site: Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy



One Response to “From Wealth of Nations

  1. Jesse Says:

    Sorry, read the piece when you posted. Then I got sick (from IHOP). Then baby sick. Then it got sunny and the carebear meter dipped away from the computer. Kay. Good points and excerpts from Smith.

    I very much doubt he was “listened to” at the time of his publication. His ideas were surely discounted as contemporary. The scholars of his day quoting Plato’s Republic. The idea strikes me as too how many current writers and ideas are ushered out the door in the face of antiquated ideology. The idea of “It has withstood the test of time, he was ahead of his time, surely it is the best for our time” theme, yet, complete hooey. Not sure. Ron Paul had some points. So does Limbaugh, Maddow, Savage, and…choke on bile…Beck. Or they may vanish like so many tablets of sit-coms from the greco-roman era.

    The biggest difference Smith did not see was a World Bank, G-10 nations, etc. Central banking did not really exist either.

    I do have to agree that human nature has surely NOT changed so much so many motivations are the same, hence, his proverbs still ring with clarity. It is a good roadmap to be used at any point where things go south, like the Silver Panic or The Great Depression. Kudos. But where do you think we should go from here, Cassandra?

    Love, Apollo

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