Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Metaphor of an 'Invisible Hand' in Moral Sentiments

Rick Moniak, a Juneau resident, writes (16 November) in Juneauempire HERE

“Listen to the Invisible Hand”

“I may be taking a lot of liberty with a few random economic statistics to advocate for a socialist agenda. But the truth is I arrived here courtesy of economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The origin of this oft used term wasn’t an argument against government intervention in the free market as is commonly claimed by many economists. Smith used it first in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He referred to the wealthy as having naturally selfish intentions, but postulated that they are led by an “invisible hand” to “divide with the poor the produce of all their improvement,” and thus “without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

Smith believed that most people gain nothing from their charitable acts aside from the joy of seeing the results firsthand. Similarly, he wrote “we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others” when we directly witness their pain and suffering. It’s quite possible then that Smith’s “invisible hand” is a reference to the stirring of one’s moral conscience.
But it’s important to consider the fact the economy was almost entirely a local affair when Smith theorized about the invisible hand in 1759. It was hard, if not impossible, to ignore the plight of the poorer people living nearby. Interstate commerce and global trade have changed this. Out of sight and out of mind, the saying goes, and it’s well suited for the global capitalist who wants to keep his moral conscience from interfering with his selfish tendencies.

As Smith pointed out, care for the poor benefits all of society. He confesses he also takes few supply side economists will ever advocate restoring morality of this nature to the free market.”

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

Apart from the imaginative attribution to the ‘invisible hand’ having a voice to listen to, there is not much to say about the rest of the piece by Rick Moniak. He seems to be confused between the IH metaphor as noun and as metaphor and, strangely, a noun with many meanings, significantly, those that support Rick’s Moniak’s rose-tinted imaginative attributions to Adam Smith.

Rick Moniak admits “taking a lot of liberty with a few random economic statistics to advocate for a socialist agenda”, which while revealing of his approach to advocacy, also reveals his bad habits in ‘taking liberty’ with Adam Smith’s texts.

At least he had read something of Adam Smith’s use of the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiments, but seems to have squeezed something into it that Adam Smith certainly didn’t. Smith was not just talking about a group of ‘wealthy’ persons (incomparably poor by today’s standards in modern capitalist economies), he referred to that relatively ‘privileged’ order in earlier societies that owned the land and, effectively, the men and women who toiled for him on that land, covering variously, oligarchs, kings, princes, barons and, in time, a ‘proud and unfeeling’ landlord, surveying his ‘extensive fields’ and ‘in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows on them’. (Moral Sentiments, Book IV.ii.10: 184)

But, Smith points out, that in fact the ‘unfeeling landlord’ is ‘obliged to distribute among those who toil in his fields and pamper his whimsical needs in his ‘palace’ a ‘share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice’.

Smith used the IH metaphor for this absolutely necessary transfer of his produce from his fields to the poor labourers and their families, and in so using the metaphor in this manner, ‘he described in a striking and more interesting manner’ the ‘object’ of the metaphor. This is what metaphors contribute to grammatical literacy, as Adam Smith defined metaphors in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” in 1763 at Glasgow University (page 29). For the record that is also how metaphors are described in the Oxford English Dictionary (1983) and as they are taught in every English language lecture and texts today. Smith’s class in Rhetoric was delivered as part of his Moral Philosophy class from 1748-63 (Edinburgh and Glasgow).

The IH metaphor was not a simple noun as suggested by Rick Moniak. The fact that in Smith’s view this ‘advance’ of ‘the interest of the society” was an unintentional consequence of the delusion of the rich landlords (shared with the Pharos of Egypt, the Kings of Babylon, and the Emperors of China) is a key aspect of his philosophy. It had precious little to do with “stirring one’s moral conscience”. Smith’s explicit point was that it was the landlord’s ignorance and delusion, not the ‘stirring of” his ‘moral conscience’ that ‘led’ him to share (for in truth the ‘unfeeling’ landlord had no choice but to do so – if he did not share even the bare minimum, his labourers could not work and would die, and 'no food, no labour'; no labour no 'greatness' to be 'proud and unfeeling about'). Also, that it would be a ‘vain’ hope if the poor relied upon him acquiring a ‘moral conscience’.

It certainly was not “hard, if not impossible, to ignore the plight of the poorer people living nearby”. The “plight of the poorer people living nearby” was ignored for generations to come, and had been since our predecessors left the forest and discovered shepherding and farming from about 11,000 years ago. Also, be clear that Smith meant by ‘necessaries’ the very basic necessities of life – and what was sufficient subsistence was as determined by ‘unfeeling’ landlords, as interpreted by the ‘landlords' ’ overseers, traditionally a set of violent bullies, not given in the main to feelings of humanity towards those at their mercy.

I suggest, politely, that Rick Moniak re-read Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments on the ‘invisible hand’ (and read his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres on metaphors) before imagining what Adam Smith meant by the IH metaphor of 'an invisible hand'.

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