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policies to stabilize the national economy

The field began with the observations of the earliest economists, such as Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher popularly credited with being the father of economics—although scholars were making economic observations long before Smith authored The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Smith’s notion of an invisible hand that guides someone seeking to maximize his or her own well-being to provide the best overall result for society as a whole is one of the most compelling notions in the social sciences. Smith and other early economic thinkers such as David Hume gave birth to the field at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Economic theory developed considerably between the appearance of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the Great Depression, but there was no separation into microeconomics and macroeconomics. Economists implicitly assumed that either markets were in equilibrium—such that prices would adjust to equalize supply and demand—or that in the event of a transient shock, such as a financial crisis or a famine, markets would quickly return to equilibrium. In other words, economists believed that the study of individual markets would adequately explain the behavior of what we now call aggregate variables, such as unemployment and output.