Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New Theory About Invisible Hands

From The Earth Times (HERE) a Press Release:

Writing From the Perspective That Perception Is Not Always Reality, Author Reveals Compelling Philosophy Behind Prosperity” by Calvin Swindell, an “Author, lecturer and business performance consultant Calvin Swindell is founder of numerous businesses while serving on church and charity boards. He holds a bachelor of arts in economics, a master of science in finance and a master of arts in economics. Swindell also did post-graduate studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife and their two children.”

The reviewer writes:

Swindell uses the theory of the "invisible hand," a metaphor for a benevolent God coined in the 1700's by Adam Smith, considered the founder of modern economics. He postulates that the invisible spiritual hand wants you to be successful. The invisible spiritual hand will guide you to prosperity through the mystery of faith and ideas.”

Calvin Swindell is no novice as an economist, as his three degrees show, so his remarks are not the result of a misunderstanding by an enthusiastic evangelist and motivational author. From my visits to bookshops in the USA, the self-development shelves are stacked high with such books and I cannot claim familiarity with their contents.

I can say beyond doubt that Calvin Swindell’s assertions about Adam Smith, the metaphor of the invisible hand and its alleged powers to ‘guide you to prosperity’, is less than accurate (that’s about as polite as I can put it).

The metaphor itself was fairly common among literate people long before Adam Smith used in first: in 1744-6 in his History of Astronomy (where it was a description accorded to the powers of the Roman god, Jove, or Jupiter to protect the Emperor with thunderbolts), followed by his single use of it in his Moral Sentiments in 1759 (to describe how landowners fed the families of their tenants), and finally by his single use in Wealth Of Nations in 1776 (to describe the consequence for the country’s annual product of the risk aversion of some traders to invest locally rather than abroad).

The prior references to ‘invisible hands’ before Adam Smith include:

● Homer (Iliad, 720 BC)
● Horace (65-8 BC), Ovid (Metamorphoses, 8 AD);
● Lactantius (De divinio praemio, c.250-325) ;
● 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’
(Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy' Palgrave
Macmillan, 2008: in press)

There were no doubt many other references to invisible hands and similar sounding phrases, in all kinds of contexts and with many different meanings of allusions, by authors before 1759 (the reference in Smith’s History of Astronomy remained unknown until 1795 when it was first published posthumously by his executors). One such was by the Reverend Dr William Leechman in his introduction to Professor Francis Hutcheson’s posthumous book, A System of Moral Philosophy, in 1755.

People were not led to ‘prosperity’ by ‘an invisible hand’, which Calvin Swindell believes had consciousness, and intentions, as well as the property of invisibility. Many people are unsuccessful in their quest for prosperity, despite the assertion of ‘the mystery of faith and ideas’. Adam Smith described such notions as ‘pusillanimous superstition’. Economists know why some business efforts are successful and others are not. There is no religious faith that differentiates the one from other. People are successful or fail from all faiths and none.


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