In 1753, Adam Smith was a moral philosopher specializing in Stoicism, teaching at the University of Glasgow. After publishing his first book, Smith became a minor intellectual celebrity. His friend David Hume helped him leverage his fame into a cushy job tutoring the son of a wealthy English duke while traveling with the boy across Europe. In France, Smith met a group of thinkers who profoundly affected his thinking and led him to the central ideas of his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations.
These thinkers were called the physiocrats. They theorized that agriculture was the foundation of any stable society, a reaction to France’s current economic development. The country was on the cusp of industrialization, and the French government, in an attempt to catch up to more developed countries like England, had forcibly directed investment to industry and the country’s infrastructure. The physiocrats hated all this. They thought that the land, and by extension, the elite class who owned it, should be the priority for state protection—not the grubby merchants and industrialists with their grimy factories. They were a cult of nature and defenders of the feudal organization of an agrarian society.
Smith concurred. The physiocratic system, he said, “with all its imperfections is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of