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April 23, 2017

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Adam Smith: Economics can set you free

The pioneer of modern economics and the most influential thinker Scotland ever produced has at last been honored in his homeland with the first public statue of him in the United Kingdom. His message of freedom has worked wherever it has been tried, but it still needs spreading further.

Adam Smith's great and practical 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations' (1776), is one of the most influential books ever written. It transformed our understanding of economic life from an ancient to a modern form, based on a completely new understanding of how human society works.

His 10-foot classical bronze statue was unveiled on July 4 (he was a friend of American independence) on the historic Royal Mile in Edinburgh by Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith (no relation).

Before Adam Smith, people assumed that the measure of a nation's wealth was the gold and silver in its treasury. Imports were bad because this gold and silver must be given up in payment. Exports were good because these precious metals came in. Trade benefited only the seller, not the buyer, and a nation could get richer only if others got poorer.

So countries erected vast trade barriers and controls to prevent money going out of the country — taxing imports, subsidizing exports and protecting domestic producers (as many still do, hampering the World Trade Organization's troubled Doha Round negotiations).

Over 240 years ago Smith showed this was counterproductive.

He started not with theories, but from the fact that in any free exchange, both sides must benefit. The buyer profits, just as the seller does, because the buyer values the cash less than the goods it buys. That's why you buy things.

Since trade benefits both sides, said Smith, it increases our prosperity just as surely as do agriculture or manufacture. It is not gold and silver that measure a country's wealth, but the total of its production and commerce. Today we call that Gross National Product.

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