Monday, March 15, 2010

Adam Smith is Innocent

Michael Tilley writes (14 February) for The City Wire HERE

"Anger management"

“The last gasps of the near-dead out-of-touch traditional media want us to believe greedy corporate bastards are the root cause for whatever ails us, but down deep we all rightly suspect that too many bureaucrats have perverted the movements of Adam Smith’s unseen hand.”

Michael Tilley writes fluently about the anger of people caught the financial crisis and uses his large stick to implicate Adam Smith and his ‘hidden hand’, which, presumably, he believes exists and operates as modern economists told us since the 1950s (precious few had heard of it before then, though Smith mentioned it once in Wealth Of Nations in 1776).

Tilley’s story line is that ‘too many bureaucrats have perverted’ Smith’s hidden hand, presumably by acting as if it didn’t exist or somehow preventing it working.

Well, story time over folks.

The people who first ‘perverted’ (a bit strong, but I’m quoting Tilley’s angry expression) ‘Adam Smith’s unseen hand’ were the very same modern economists who gave it to us 60 years ago, including our Nobel prize winners, though one, Joe Stiglitz recanted last December.

You see, Michael, Adam Smith never made the claims for ‘his’ hidden hand that were attributed to him 174 years later. He used a well known literary metaphor from the 17th-18th century to illustrate “in a more striking manner” what he had just described about the consequences of risk-aversion in some, but not all, merchants choosing between investing their capital in trading ventures abroad to Europe or the British colonies in the America’s and investing at home.

The more merchants who chose not to take the extra-risks of foreign trade and invested at home instead, the greater would be domestic capital investment and, in consequence, the larger would be domestic output on the well-known arithmetic rule that the whole is the sum of its parts.

Saying they were led by ‘an invisible hand’ to set off these consequences is far more ‘striking’ than explaining it accurately as he did before he used the metaphor. And that, Michael Tilley, is what a metaphor does (though I am sure you know that already being such a clear writer).

In short, Adam Smith is innocent; the financial traders and bureaucrats who caused the crisis did it all by their lonesome selves.



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