From chapter V of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith:

The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money or those goods indeed save us this toil.

In the first part of the quote, I understand that the true cost of acquiring something is the amount of effort and labor that it takes to acquire it.

However, the second part is confusing to me because when the author says "toil and trouble which it can save to himself".

Is the author arguing that exchanging a commodity for other things means being free of the cost of maintaining it and imposing that cost on the person who acquires it?

  • Is it possible that Smith's phrasing was influenced by one of the more famous lines from Macbeth — Act IV Scene I, where the witches repeat “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.”?
    – gidds
    Nov 20 at 12:48

2 Answers 2


No, I don't think it's the cost of maintenance.

Here is my interpretation:

When you buy something, according to Smith, you are really buying the item with your labor. This means that, conversely, when you sell something, you are trading what you have for someone else's labor, as represented by money, goods, etc.

The seller can then use the proceeds of that sale to get a different item that they actually want, essentially buying it with someone else's labor instead of their own. In other words, "the toil and trouble" is "save[d] to himself", and instead "impose[d] upon other people".

Suppose Alice works for many hours and saves her money to buy a cow. Alice then buys a cow from Bob, who turns around and uses that money to buy a horse. In a sense, Bob bought the horse with Alice's labor. Alternatively, Bob could have chosen to hold on to his cow, but then he would have had to labor for many hours himself in order to afford the horse. (Modern economists would refer to this as the "opportunity cost" of not selling the cow.)


I think that being free of toil and trouble in this case means being free of the time and physical effort necessary to make that item himself. Instead of spending a lot of time and physical effort making the item, he can just pay money for the item.

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