Monday, October 05, 2009

A Research Agenda

Even Adam Smith, the canny Scot whose monumental book, ‘The Wealth Of Nations’(1776), represents the beginning of modern economics or political economy – even he was so thrilled by the recognition of an order in the economic system that he proclaimed the mystical principle of ‘the invisible hand’: that each individual in pursuing his own selfish good was led, as if by an invisible hand, to achieve the best good of all, so that any interference with free competition was almost certain to be injurious. This unguarded conclusion has done almost as much harm as good in the past century and a half, especially since too often it is all that some of our leading citizens remember, 30 years later, of their college course in economics.”

(Paul A. Samuelson, Economics: an introductory analysis, 1st edition, p 36, 1948, McGraw-Hill, New York.)

This paragraph, from one of the world’s most popular textbooks by the distinguished Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson, encapsulates the modern myth of the invisible hand, which is often sanctified with the other myth that Adam Smith was its original inspiration.

Samuelson’s warning that the “unguarded conclusion” had already done “as much harm as good” was soon discarded and was as soon forgotten by his colleagues (including by Samuelson himself in the eighteen editions of his textbook, Economics, that followed to 2009).

The metaphor of “an invisible hand” is now ubiquitous in almost all economics textbooks (miss-teaching generations of students), in many articles in peer-reviewed journals, in campus lectures, policy statements, political debates, mainstream media, and among scores of economic Blogs across the global Internet.

My current research is about the making of those myths from their early beginnings in the 20th century up to today’s treatment of the “invisible hand”, its credibility somewhat mixed of late following the global “credit crunch” of 2007-09, and what might be the main causes of its popularity, how it developed into a “Panglossian” error of perception, why it is mythical and why the popular belief that it is related to anything written by Adam Smith endures even when the evidence to the contrary is so strong.

In writing about the history of an idea throughout a period from the 1770s to the 21st century there is a danger that the appeal limits itself to a tiny band of specialist historians, presumably divorced from the interests of modern readers.

Well, that may be the case if my subject was, say, a history of the anachronistic labour theory of value, more suited as a PhD subject. But the essential beauty of a study of the evolution of the metaphor of the “invisible hand”, and its promotion into a major “idea”, “concept”, “theory”, even “paradigm” of economics, is that despite its longevity (much older than Adam Smith’s ambivalent use in the 18th century), the metaphor in its modern forms entered serious discourse and gained its undeserved credibility among academics and policy makers at the highest-level of politicians in the world’s legislatures, who applied its implications in their real “hands off” versus “hands on” treatments of the economies they managed.

In short, from the 1950s onwards, the metaphor of the invisible hand became operational, and not just descriptive, in practice.

How and why did this happen? What have been, and are, the consequences for economic policy and practice? What evidence is there, besides Samuelson’s 1948 warning about it doing “almost as much harm as good”, that any economists over the past 60 years realised the emptiness of the myth? What happened from their belief in Panglossian outcomes from mythical invisible hands to their actual policy recomendations? Does modern capitalism need the invisible hand myth or would it be better off without it?

These and related themes are the central questions to be addressed throughout Lost Legacy.

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