There are two important features of Smith's concept of the "invisible hand". First, Smith was not advocating a social policy (that people should act in their own self interest), but rather was describing an observed economic reality (that people do act in their own interest). Second, Smith was not claiming that all self-interest has beneficial effects on the community. He did not argue that self-interest is always good; he merely argued against the view that self-interest is necessarily bad. It is worth noting that, upon his death, Smith left much of his personal wealth to charity.
On another level, though, the "invisible hand" refers to the ability of the market to correct for seemingly disastrous situations with no intervention on the part of government or other organizations (although Smith did not, himself, use the term with this meaning in mind). For example, Smith says, if a product shortage were to occur, that product's price in the market would rise, creating incentive for its production and a reduction in its consumption, eventually curing the shortage. The increased competition among manufacturers and increased supply would also lower the price of the product to its production cost plus a small profit, the "natural price." Smith believed that while human motives are often selfish and greedy, the competition in the free market would tend to benefit society as a whole anyway. This was later adopted as a universal principle by the laissez-faire economists of the 19th century.
Smith apparently used the phrase "invisible hand" only three times in his work. Later writers, both supporters and detractors, repeated this phrase far out of proportion to Smith's own usage.
Meritocracy is an important factor in the work. In his book, Smith emphasizes the advancement that one can take based on their will to better themselves. People would want to do things with a strong mindset without the interference of the outside norms. Smith, also, points out the fact that the outside forces lead to infancy in the division of labor, therefore, slowing the economic growth of an economy. Because of the idea of self-improvement is very strong, meritocracy efficiently moves the outcomes of the division of labor, ultimately leading to more efficiency in the economy.
History and significance
The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, during the Age of Enlightenment. It influenced not only authors and economists, but governments and organizations. For example, Alexander Hamilton was influenced in part by The Wealth of Nations to write his Report on Manufactures, in which he argued against many of Smith's policies. Interestingly, Hamilton based much of this report on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and it was, in part, to Colbert's ideas that Smith wished to respond with The Wealth of Nations.
Many other authors were influenced by the book and used it as a starting point in their own work, including Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and, later, Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises. The Russian national poet Aleksandr Pushkin refers to The Wealth of Nations in his 1833 verse-novel Eugene Onegin.
Irrespective of historical influence, however, The Wealth of Nations represented a clear leap forward in the field of economics, similar to Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica for physics or Antoine Lavoisier's Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for chemistry. The Wealth of Nations is also important in a Scottish linguistic context on account of the fact the book is written in English and not in Scots Language, a somewhat rare occurrence for the time.
Some commentary on the work suffers from anachronism. This is the result of reading the work as though it were written today. The book is written in modern English, but there are some points to consider:
The term economics was not yet in use.
The term capitalism was not yet in use. Smith talks about a "system of perfect liberty" or "system of natural liberty".
To a certain extent, some form of Feudalism was still dominant in parts of Europe (primarily Eastern Europe and Russia).
The feudal corporations referenced by Smith were very different from modern corporations.
Five editions of The Wealth of Nations were published during Smith's lifetime: in 1776, 1778, 1784, 1786, and 1789. Numerous editions appeared after Smith's death in 1790. To better understand the evolution of the work under Smith's hand, a team led by Edwin Cannan collated the first five editions. The differences were published along with an edited fifth edition in 1904. They found minor but numerous differences (including the addition of many footnotes) between the first and the second editions, both of which were published in two volumes. The differences between the second and third editions, however, are major: In 1784, Smith annexed these first two editions with the publication of Additions and Corrections to the First and Second Editions of Dr. Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and he also had published the now three volume third edition of the Wealth of Nations which incorporated Additions and Corrections and, for the first time, an index. Among other things, the Additions and Corrections included entirely new sections. The fourth edition published in 1786 had only slight differences with the third edition, and Smith himself says in the Advertisement at the beginning of the book, "I have made no alterations of any kind." Finally, Cannan notes only trivial differences between the fourth and fifth editions — a set of misprints being removed from the fourth, and a different set of misprints being introduced into the fifth.
The first work of economics?
Eleven years prior to the publication of The Wealth of Nations, Anders Chydenius, a Swedish priest and economist (living in what is now Finland), published The National Gain (Den Nationnale Winsten). Chydenius's work lays out several key principles of liberalism, free markets and free trade, many of which are also to be found in The Wealth of Nations. This has led some to argue that The Wealth of Nations was not the founding work of the modern school of economics after all, but was instead a kind of runner-up.
It is undoubtedly true (as Smith himself admitted) that The Wealth of Nations was composed, in part, of syntheses and analyses of existing political and economic theories. This is especially so with regard to the book's positions on mercantilism and protectionism (Smith owed much of his work on those subjects to the Physiocrats, for example).
However, it is equally true that The National Gain and works like it, have had nowhere near the international impact that The Wealth of Nations has had. The causes of this state of affairs are outside the scope of this article, but whatever the reasons, Smith's work continues to be canon in the field of economics down to this day, whereas The National Gain was not influential whatsoever outside of Chydenius's homeland.
Thus, while it cannot accurately be said to be the "first" modern work of political economy, The Wealth of Nations must still be termed the "founding" work of economics, as it, and no other work, is the progenitor of almost all modern economic theory. Chydenius and others may have been first in the sense of strict timing, but Smith's work was the first to have a wide influence. It should be noted however that, canonical as Smith's book may be, one is unlikely to find many economists today who have actually read it, given the technical nature of modern economics.