Adam Smith’s seminal writings on society, economy, and population received little demographic attention in the twentieth century. Yet the Wealth of Nations is a sustained and systematic explanation of central modern demographic concerns, notably of the mechanisms that tend to slow economic and population growth, and how and why this varies in developed and developing economies. Smith’s theory is often viewed today as important because it serves as a critical guide to national-level economic analysis. Yet the vast bulk of his book addresses an endogenous system of meso-level relationships: the division of labor plays the principal role as the motor of growth through the renewal of population heterogeneity. This renewal is for Smith the basis of the economic and moral dynamism of modern society: growth occurs as a well-managed division of labor generates progressively more specialization and the sub-populations necessary for production, commerce, and services. Central sections of this essay give an exposition of Smith’s compositional approach to population. The interest of Smith’s emphasis on distribution and heterogeneity for understanding the diversity of demographic transitions and of post-transitional demography is noted, together with the importance of his account of the nature and tenacity of obstacles to economic growth and population management. Smith was much concerned with how advancing societies can manage their slowing population and economic growth without sacrificing personal freedoms that depend on fair distribution.
Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council. Philip Kreager is Senior Research Fellow in Human Sciences, Somerville College, and directs the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group in the School of Anthropology, Oxford University.