A Critic Strikes Back
Raul Ramos y Sanchez, an author, responds to my piece on Monday about his post discussing immigration into the USA. Here is a letter posted as a comment:
Methinks thou doth protest too much. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has become a widely used metaphor to describe the power of the marketplace -- not as a specific reference to the works of Adam Smith. The fact you have spotted this reference 371 times should be a clue. Do you also get your knickers in a twist when someone uses “Dickensian” or “Orwellian” as an adjective? C’mon, Gavin. Give today’s writers a break.
Raul Ramos y Sanchez
If any metaphor is appropriate in a different context, writers of course, are perfectly entitled to use it, and they also have a perfect artistic right to use it inappropriately. If it isn’t appropriate, then critics have a duty to point this out.
‘Adam Smith’s invisible hand has become a widely used metaphor to describe the power of the marketplace -- not as a specific reference to the works of Adam Smith.’
Part of the statement is factually true: It has ‘become a widely used metaphor’. That is not the gist of my comment.
This is ‘Lost Legacy’, a Blog dedicated to clarifying Adam Smith’s actual legacy in his works. In so far as modern economists, mainly from the mid-20th century, most of whom admit to never having read Wealth Of Nations, have adopted a single metaphor and attached it to something he never used it for is something that I think is relevant for Lost Legacy to comment upon.
Adam Smith’s use of the metaphor was hardly noticed by his readers while he was alive, or throughout the 19th century when his works were actually still read by political economists.
The rest of your sentence is a perfect illustration of the misuse of the metaphor: ‘Adam Smith’s invisible hand’ to ‘describe the power of the marketplace’. Now, Adam Smith didn’t use the metaphor remotely for this purpose.
He described the ‘power of the marketplace’ in Books I and II of Wealth Of Nations and there is no mention of ‘an invisible hand’ at work or lurking around, yet the use of the metaphor (and in your case too) implies that he viewed markets operating in such a manner. After all, his analysis centred on markets, yet there is no mention of them requiring a mystical disembodied entity that was a common metaphor in literature of the time.
The ‘power of the market place’ does not need to use such a metaphor and Adam Smith apparently agreed because he didn’t use in that way.
Here are some contemporary uses of the metaphor of an invisible hand:
Homer (Iliad, 720 BC); ‘And from behind Zeus thrust him on with exceeding mighty hand’;
Horace (65-8 BC), Ovid (Metamorphoses, 8 AD): ‘twisted and plied his invisible hand, inflicting wound within wound’;
Lactantius (De divinio praemio, 250-325): ‘invisibilis’ ;
Augustine, 354-430, “God’s ‘hand’ is his power, which moves visible things by invisible means’ (Concerning the City of God, xii, 24);
Shakespeare, ‘Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand’, (Macbeth, 2.3; 1605);
Daniel Defoe, ‘A sudden Blow from an almost invisible Hand, blasted all my Happiness’, in Moll Flanders (1722); ‘it has all been brought to pass by an invisible hand’ (Colonel Jack, 1723);
Nicolas Lenglet Dufesnoy said that an “invisible hand” has power over “what happens under our eyes”;
Charles Rollin (1661-1741), whom Pierre Force describes as ‘very well known in English and Scottish Universities’, said of the military successes of Israeli Kings “the rapidity of their consequences ought to have enabled them to discern the invisible hand which conducted them”;
Charles Bonnet (whom Smith befriended in Geneva in 1765) wrote of the economy of the animal: “It is led towards its end by an invisible hand”;
Jean-Baptiste Robinet (a translator of Hume) refers to fresh water as “those basins of mineral water, prepared by an invisible hand”.
Voltaire (1694-1178) in Oedipe (1718) writes: “Tremble, unfortunate King, an invisible hand suspends above your head’; and ‘an invisible hand pushed away my presents’;
Kant (1784) ‘Universal History’: ‘leads on to infer the design of a wise creator and not [the hand of a malicious spirit]’, p 39.
I am not objecting to you using any metaphor in your composition; I am objecting to you calling it Adam Smith’s metaphor when a), it wasn’t his at all – those above include very famous ealier and contemporary writers; and when b), it is calumny in direct contradiction to his theory of markets.
However, it suits modern economists whose abstract mathematical models of markets are given some sort of endorsement by associating the power of Adam Smith’s name with the alleged validity of their models.
Why not use Shakespeare’s metaphor, or Defoe’s metaphor, which in common with Adam Smith, had nothing to do with markets?
As for “Dickensian” or “Orwellian” as adjectives, it would depend on the contexts. To write of “Adolph Hitler’s Christ-like aura” would be inappropriate, I suggest, and that might provoke many people, perhaps yourself too, to get ‘their knickers in a twist’; in some religions it would provoke degrees of violence.
My comments were precisely that: comments and, appropriate, on Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy.
I hope you are pleased, though, that a few hundred more hits may take place from my mention, with a link in the original post below, on Lost Legacy, by readers who will read your piece on immigration into the US.