Saturday, April 03, 2010

Spontaneous Order A More Likely Example Than an Invisible Hand

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics. He writes in American Thinker (3 April) ">HERE

“Aerobics and the Invisible Hand”

“Adam Smith was right about human behavior. An invisible hand extends throughout human affairs, even to the placement of chairs in an aerobics class. This hand reaches into all social and economic affairs because all those affairs involve self-interest. When the invisible hand is stayed by the intrusion of authority, the result is less than satisfactory. Smith's insight into human nature was remarkably shrewd and wise, and it applies to nearly every aspect of human affairs. Free individuals prefer to decide for themselves where they place their chairs, just as they prefer to live where they like, work where they like, and spend their money as they like. There is something remarkably sane and true about allowing individuals to make decisions for themselves.”

Interesting article about some aerobic participants who normally arrange where they stand an participate in their class place their chairs as opposed to a new tutor who arrived before them and placed the chairs in an orderly manner which, unknown to the new tutor, apparently didn’t suit the established group of attendees, who normally arrive separately and set their chairs where they find it most comfortable for them.

This, to Jeffrey Folks is an example of the invisible hand at work which sorts chair positions the way the attendees want them to be placed. I find this kind of thinking a stretch of the imagination. Exactly, what is the mechanism by which the invisible hand does this?

Clearly, the independent actions of the arriving attendees placing their chairs were they want them to be, with late comers choosing their spots in knowledge of where earlier arrivals have placed theirs (allowing for some number of the earlier arrivals having ‘favourite’ spots and later arrivals have to choose, perhaps, from ‘second-best’ positions – unless, the invisible hand always chooses the ‘first best’ spots every time).

I can see why attendees would aim to occupy the spots they find most comfortable, but discount that there is an invisible hand at work – its called individual choice. Smith actually mentions in Moral Sentiments how a person entering his chamber finds his chairs in disorder in the middle of the room and he is ‘angry’ because his servant has not placed them with ‘their backs to the wall’ and so takes the ‘trouble’ to place them so (see TMS IV.1.4: 180). His servant would get short shrift if he claimed it was the ‘invisible hand’ that did it, not him!

People at football matches who stand up and obscure the view of those behind them get shouted at – I know from my days when I watched live football matches.

I think Jeffrey Folks really means ‘spontaneous order’ in his example, not Adam Smith and the invisible hand.



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