Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Myth of the Magic Body Parts Rides On

From the mystic magic department we get all sorts of notions celebrating the Chicago idea that markets are run by invisible body parts that have the amazing capacity to turn whatever people do, for whatever motive, good or ill or none at all (that’ll go down wonders with over-wrought therapists failing to treat psychopaths), to magically turn out to be for the best possible benefit for society.

That the idea is so ridiculous I stand in awe before the otherwise brilliant people who purvey this nonsense with all the certainty of one of their equations which show how economies work without the slightest acquaintance with the real world.

Moreover, they dismiss sceptics who cannot find any benefit for society in the self-interested actions of Robert Mugabe and wonder about scores of other examples daily around them (which self-interested actions of paedophiles benefit their victims or society?). They bless their certainties also with what they believe is a final rebuff in claiming that their reference for the source of their belief in body parts as being Adam Smith himself, saying in effect, how can (dare!) you argue with the founder of economics who made ‘the invisible hand’ the centre-piece of his theory of capitalist markets?

Here they reveal one of two things: first, they have never read Adam Smith on ‘an invisible hand’ in either Moral Sentiments or Wealth of Nations, or secondly, if they have, they assume that their readers haven’t or won't. The arrogance of the first view is only matched by the impertinence of the second.

The problem with their self-delusion is that they teach others, innocent students in Economics 101, who go out into the world preaching what they have been told to believe, and lo, what some of them preach is read by those who never bought the myth of the ‘invisible’ body parts being more than a slightly misleading literary metaphor that had nothing to do with markets and less to do with a law of human behaviour showing self-interested actions always led to benign outcomes for others or society generally.

Today’s example (we get them enarly every day from somewhere in the world) Ian Robinson write in the Calgary Sun (Canada), 15 April, under the heading: “Imus gets his due: slapdown by invisible hand preferable to iron fist of the state”, a story about a ‘shock jock’ getting fired for an aside about a women’s basket ball team, not one of the world’s most serious crimes on the planet this weekend I would have thought, but big news in a media desperate for stories to place next to their advertisements (sad that so many talented people are really ‘space filers’).

Ian Robinson (a Scottish name too):

Something kind of cool happened in the case of shock jock Don Imus.

After calling the largely black Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," Imus got a slap in the mouth from the invisible hand.

Much preferable to the visible fist of the state, with its ridiculous hate-crime legislation.

The invisible hand is the term coined by moral and economic philosopher Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations.

It has come to mean the mysterious, way-good stuff that happens when free people exercise their desires as individuals.

Sometimes that means you can buy a dozen sweatsocks at Wal-Mart for a couple of bucks. Sometimes it means a Ronald Reagan gets to be U.S. president.

On the other hand, it can also mean an endless supply of Internet porn, American Idol and Pop Tarts ... but hey. Freedom beats the alternative. Which is Kim Il Jong's North Korea or that sunny Caribbean gulag, Cuba.

Where a Pop Tart costs $850 and the only porn you can find is a 1950s gas station calendar featuring a buxom blond woman -- now long dead, no doubt -- showing less skin than your grandma would during a visit to the Vatican

Smith did not coin the metaphor ‘invisible hand’. Try looking up Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘Scottish play’ from 1605, at 3.2; or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders from 1722, and numerous other authors up to before Wealth Of Nations was published, who used the metaphor, ‘coined’ it if you like, not Smith.

Ian then gives an example of the “good stuff that happens when free people exercise their desires as individuals” followed by examples of the not so good.

True, Ian hints that he may have seen through the myth attributed to Adam Smith: “It has come to mean the mysterious…”, and for that I am grateful, but the damage has been done. He’s given the precedence to Smith for something several other authors coined before him.

The door is partly closed; the horse has bolted to join the others. The myth of the body parts rides on (after all the story comes from Calgary...).


Post a Comment

<< Home