Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sensible Sunday Thoughts on the Invisible Hand

Peter Boettke writes here:

Are Spontaneous Orders Always Beneficial?”

A debate rages in social science circles on whether a strong commitment to spontaneous order theorizing commits a thinker to a Panglosean world view. Lets be clear – it doesn’t. The invisible hand always works within a specified set or rule environment. In short conclusions of beneficial efficiency or undesirable perversity are institutionally contingent.”

Interesting from the Austrian Economists' Blog. ‘Spontaneous Order’ is a concept of Hayek’s adopted within Austrian circles, of which I prefer to think of the idea within it as being better expressed as ‘emergent order’, because ‘spontaneous’ implies to much, in my mind of simultaneity, rather than gradually emerging through time.

That one individual acts unintentionally, accidentally or inventively in a manner that has beneficial effects on self, others, or society, need not, and probably does not, have a resonance immediately in others and it may be some time, maybe generations, before simlar individual acts become widespread. This implies an evolutionarily process, and not one of infinite velocity.

It also disrupts the idea of Panglosean ‘best of all possible worlds’, because at any moment in time the ‘better world’ status may not yet have emerged, and its characteristics may not complete the ‘improvement’ (states of society can be reversed, changes can peter out, and, as likely, may not be noticed). Fashions take time to be copied; there is a gap between first adopters and late adopters; it took several thousand years for agriculture to spread (some have never reached it still); norms slowly change; and so on.

However, let us put Peter Boettke’s idea that ‘The invisible hand always works within a specified set or rule environment.’ I can see what he means but it rubbishes the idea of ‘an invisible hand’.

In Adam Smith’s use of it as a metaphor in Wealth Of Nations the situation is directed at the risk aversion of merchants to exposing themselves to the risks of trade with foreigners, or at least people a long distance from them. (WN IV.ii.9. p 456) In Moral Sentiments it is about rich landlords distributing surplus from their land to tenants and retainers sufficient for them to be near the same subsistence as they would have received if the land was equally divided among them. (TMS IV.1.10: p 184)

Now the metaphor of the invisible hand can only be said to be working (whatever that means in social science?) after it has done its job, i.e., that enough risk averse merchants have invested locally (one or two may not be noticed) to raise domestic investment (the whole is the sum of its parts). It may be that only the few who are most risk averse have done this, while the majority who have invested in the foreign trade of consumption or the carrying trade in pursuit of higher profits have discounted their risk aversion. The invisible hand has not touched them, or whatever this mystical force does to ‘lead’ them.

In the case of the rich landlord, who does not distribute his surplus (by allowing tenants and others to keep back sufficient for their subsistence out of their delivery of harvests to the landlord), and who prefers or his indifferent to the increase in child mortality, early deaths from disease, and general inability for the starving to continue working, the affect of his actions is to reduce the available workforce to continue working on his land. They starve first; the landlord will starve next. Again, unless the landlord does feed his tenants (or allow them to feed themselves) his continuation as a landlord is at risk, from covetous neighbours with more well-fed armed retainers.

Hence, what is the invisible hand ‘doing’.

If risk-averse merchants do keep their capital close to them, then it is alleged that the invisible hand is ‘working’, or as Peter puts it, it is ‘institutionally contingent’; if landlords do what they can only do – meet the subsistence costs of their tenants, like they must do when paying the costs of, say, the builders of their large houses – then the ‘invisible hand’ is ‘leading them’ to ‘beneficial efficiency’.

This makes ‘the invisible hand’ somewhat empty of content. It’s worse than Panglosean illusions about the ‘best of all possible worlds’: it operates when what will happen if risk averse or rich landlords do what they have no choice but to do in their circumstances, but does not work when they do something else, which is also something they would do if they were less risk averse or particularly myopic.


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