The metaphor of the invisible hand

Posted: 25 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Take a course in neoclassical economics or listen to a neoclassical economist and you’ll soon learn of the magic of the invisible hand. And you’ll learn that the invisible hand was Adam Smith’s great contribution to moden economic thought.

Much of the rest of Smith is discarded or simply ignored. The labor theory of value. The role of trust and sympathy in allowing markets to operate. The need for public education in a world in which labor is often reduced to drudgery. And so much more.

But the invisible hand remains. The problem is, the invisible hand is an idea that Smith only invokes twice in his main texts—once in the Wealth of Nations, and once in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

And, as Gavin Kennedy has been arguing, the invisible hand metaphor

was not about markets, regulated of otherwise and in none of the three cases that he uses it was it about markets. The belief that he did refer to markets is a wholly invented myth by modern economists from the 1950s. [The third example Kennedy refers to is in Smith’s Astronomy.]

Why does it matter? According to Kennedy,

If you insist that the ‘invisible hand’ is real, actual, or has content, you take on a wholly fictitious metaphysical idea (‘the hand of God’ or such like construction), which is theology not economics.

My assertion that the metaphor was not used by Adam Smith in relation to markets is based on the close reading of his uses of it. Samuelson and others asserted that it was elated to markets, without a scrap of textual evidence – its is not mentioned in Books I and II of WN, which deal in detail with the workings of markets. Also, his use of it was hardly mentioned by political economists, while Smith was alive, nor for long after he died. Strange for a cardinal principle?

And that’s what we’ve been getting in recent years: a theology of free markets, justified by a powerful metaphor—the invisible hand—for which neoclassical economists have worked very hard to invent a tradition beginning with Adam Smith.

Comments
  1. […] I have discussed before, the invisible hand is a powerful metaphor “for which neoclassical economists have […]

  2. […] of modern mainstream economics—who has become so closely (and mistakenly) identified with the invisible hand—held a narrow theory of money and advocated extensive regulation of the banking […]

  3. […] of modern mainstream economics—who has become so closely (and mistakenly) identified with the invisible hand—held a narrow theory of money and advocated extensive regulation of the banking […]

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