The Economists: Adam Smith, David Ricardo & Thomas Malthus

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, several major theorists put forth ideas that would influence how governments handled economic matters. This lesson will discuss the major ideas and influential theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus.


During the 18th and 19th centuries, several major writers began commenting on the economy. These individuals attempted to uncover theories which could be applied to markets in order to promote a better society. Among the most influential theorists of the time were Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. In this lesson, we'll discuss the major theories of these three economists with special attention to how their ideas influenced the field of economics.

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  • 0:08 Introduction
  • 0:35 Adam Smith
  • 2:07 David Ricardo
  • 3:49 Thomas Malthus
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Adam Smith

Adam Smith is known as the father of modern economics. Born in Scotland in 1723, he embarked on an academic career at the age of 15. Educated primarily in European literature, he was awarded a position as chair of logic in 1751 and then chair of moral philosophy the following year at Glasgow University.

In 1764, Smith became the tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch. This career change had lasting effects on Smith's philosophy. While he traveled with the Duke, he visited places like Switzerland and France and became aware of the ideas of thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Quesnay, and Turgot.

Importantly, his employment with the Duke gave him a life-long pension. This granted him the freedom to retire and write his work Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was published in 1759. He continued to write afterwards and produced The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The philosophy he advocated in these works continues to influence economic thought today.

According to Smith, people have a capacity for reasonable judgment that is often underestimated and should not allow politicians or philosophers to impose unreasonable government regulations on them. He was an advocate of laissez-faire thinking, which was a policy of minimal government intervention in the economy. According to Smith, free markets allowed the natural laws of supply and demand to function properly. Smith remained a life-long bachelor and died in Scotland in 1790.

David Ricardo

Another influential economist was David Ricardo. Born in London on April 18, 1772, he was the third of 17 children. At the age of 14, he began working with his father, who was a successful stock broker. Ricardo worked with his father until 1793. During that year, Ricardo married Priscilla Anne Wilkinson, a Quaker. Later, he converted from Judaism to Christianity, a move that greatly angered his parents. This forced Ricardo to leave his father's business and start his own.

As a broker, he was able to save money to retire at the age of 42. With his first career over, he looked to politics for his next challenge. Ricardo read Adam Smith's book Wealth of Nations in 1799. He was so intrigued by the concepts in Smith's work that he began studying economics himself. In 1810, he produced his first publication, The High Price of Bullion, a Proof of the Depreciation of Bank Notes, which argued for the use of metallic currency.

His methods of analyzing market forces by using deduction and mathematics still influence economics today. He also believed, like Smith, that economies functioned best when they were left alone by governments. Ricardo was an early advocate of free trade.

One of his most influential theories was comparative advantage, which was the idea that nations should focus on industries where they could easily compete in the market and only trade with other countries to gain products not available nationally. By this theory, each nation could profit from specializing in certain industries. Ricardo died in 1823 at the age of 51.

Thomas Malthus

Reverend Thomas Malthus was born on February 13, 1766 in England. He has had an enduring effect on economics and even the work of Charles Darwin. In his autobiography, Darwin cited Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population as inspiration for his theory of natural selection. In this work, Malthus wrote that, man, if left unchecked, was capable of producing far more offspring than the world resources could handle.

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