There is a growing consensus in the U.S. that economic inequality isn't simply a minor nuisance resulting from a largely just system. Although their solutions differ considerably, both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have acknowledged the existence of economic inequality and the need to address it in some fashion. As French economist Thomas Piketty has outlined, the issue is a stubbornly pervasive condition in modern economies. This is understood by much of the public today. What is less well-known is that the seminal advocate for the free-market economy, Adam Smith, was aware of economic inequality and offered one of the first critiques of the complications it introduces into social and political life.
Smith originally published the "Wealth of Nations" in 1776 as a rebuke to the mercantilist system that had taken hold in Britain. But he had already established his intellectual reputation in 1759 as the author of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." Because the philosophical founding father of modern capitalism devoted considerable thought to the problem of economic inequality, Smith's insights can shed some much-needed light on our contemporary struggle with the issue.