Saturday, July 04, 2009

Mythical Basis for a Theory

Linda Naiman writes at the Creativity at Work Blog HERE:

Taking Responsibility for the Whole

Built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning was the assumption that the actions of many units of individual enterprise, responding to market forces and guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, would somehow add up to desirable outcomes.

“But in the last decade of the twentieth century, It has become clear that the ‘invisible hand’ is faltering. It depended upon a consensus of overarching meanings and values that is no longer present. So business has to adopt a tradition it has never had throughout the entire history of capitalism: to share responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action that is taken, must be viewed in the light of that kind of responsibility

The “assumption” that market forces were “guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith” add up “to desirable outcomes” was not “built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning”.

That is a modern myth spread widely and repeatedly from the 1950s by modern economists (though it was earlier taught in the Chicago oral tradition from the 1930s). It was backdated to Adam Smith to give the myth high-level approval, as if he had made the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ a central theorem of his analysis of 18th century commercial markets (he never knew of ‘capitalism’, a word invented in English for the first time in 1854 – see Oxford English Dictionary).

Smith used the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ only three times in nearly a million words: once only in his Essay on Astronomy, written from 1744 to 1758, unpublished in his lifetime and published posthumously in 1795; once in Moral Sentiments, 1759; and once in Wealth Of Nations, 1776.

In no sense was the metaphor about “responding to market forces and guided by the ‘invisible hand”. In fact Smith discussed how markets worked in Books I and II in Wealth Of Nations without any mention of ‘an invisible hand’. That he is alleged to have done so is a myth – a sort of ‘academic campus myth’ like those ‘urban myths’ we hear so much about.

Modern economists blessed their mathematical models of general equilibrium with quasi-miraculous foundations and it was used also to proclaim the self-evident superiority of capitalist institutions and markets over the then prevailing counter-claims of the centralized planned economies of communist rivals.

Modern economists ‘over egged the pudding’, as we say in English. Markets are superior in most cases to non-market institutions and do not need the imaginary aid of so-called invisible hands, and certainly not associated with Adam Smith's isolated use of the metaphor, a wholly innocent victim of the purloining of his legacy.

That there may be a role for regulation, made on a case-by-case basis and not as a catch-all cop out, is quite consistent with Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and political economy.

Smith was NOT opposed on principle to intervention in some markets; his outright opposition to the forms of government inspired interventions from the 16th century in Britain through policies which he described as ‘mercantile political economy’ (many features of which remain active today) should not be taken as evidence for his general views on the levels of government promoted interventions.

Smith in Wealth Of Nations identified several important areas for government intervention – such as in banking regulations (even if it was contrary to his principles of ‘natural liberty’ when the security of people was at stake) - and in weights, measures, quality of cloths, gold and silver, the Mint, and post offices. He advocated public funding of in ‘public works’ (roads, bridges, canals, harbours, town cleanliness, and pavements) and in public institutions (education and aspects of health). He also advocated the separation of church and state.

His general policy is best summed as ‘markets where possible’ (operating under the justice system - an independent judiciary, Habeas Corpus, and trial by juries) and ‘public works where necessary’. Which is a far cry from the so-called ‘night watchman state’ (actually an idea of Ferdinand Lassell’s, the firebrand 19th century socialist, not Adam Smith’s).

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Blogger Donald Pretari said...

"His general policy is best summed as ‘markets where possible’ (operating under the justice system - an independent judiciary, Habeas Corpus, and trial by juries) and ‘public works where necessary’."

As near as I can tell, I believe the same thing.

Don the libertarian Democrat

8:40 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Yes its a neat way of putting it and perfectly consistent with Adam Smith.


8:52 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Adam,

I'm delighted my post provoked your argument about Adam Smith, and thanks for setting the record straight. However, I think you are missing Harman's point: that business needs to take responsibility for the whole; (ie the environment, community, good governance) and not just profit-making.


5:03 pm  

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