Adam Smith on the scientist surplus

“In the greater part of mechanic trades, success is almost certain; but very uncertain in the liberal professions. Put your son apprentice to a shoemaker, there is little doubt of his learning to make a pair of shoes: But send him to study the law, it is at least twenty to one if ever he makes such proficiency as will enable him to live by the business….

Those professions keep their level, however, with other occupations, and, notwithstanding these discouragements, all the most generous and liberal spirits are eager to crowd into them. Two different causes contribute to recommend them. First, the desire of the reputation which attends upon superior excellence in any of them; and, secondly, the natural confidence which every man has more or less, not only in his own abilities, but in his own good fortune….

The contempt of risk and the presumptuous hope of success, are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people chuse their professions. How little the fear of misfortune is then capable of balancing the hope of good luck, appears still more evidently in the readiness of the common people to enlist as soldiers, or to go to sea, than in the eagerness of those of better fashion to enter into what are called the liberal professions.”

2 thoughts on “Adam Smith on the scientist surplus

  1. An interesting quote. I’m curious what your thinking is – at least so far as to have put it here. Have you changed your own estimation(s) of the value of “liberal professions”?


    1. My point was more about the small fraction of people who start grad school in science eventually getting the kind of job many of them hoped for — see “Who should consider grad school” — and Smith’s early recognition of a similar problem. Our value as scientists is a trickier question. The positive overall impact of scientific research certainly outweighs its cost to society, but can we strengthen the links between basic and applied research in ways that improve both?


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