Monday, January 09, 2012

The IH Debate Acquires Scholarly Traction

'Steve J' posts on Radamisto, 6 January, HERE


Before Smith and Mandeville, there was Descartes, who in 1645-46 not only described the Invisible Hand but also provided a causal explanation of why it works. From Alexis de Tocqueville : the first social scientist (2009) by Jon Elster, page 53:

In one letter, Descartes merely affirms the existence of an invisible hand:

[It] is difficult to determine exactly how far reason orders us to interest ourselves in the public; yet that is not something in which one must be very exact; it suffices to satisfy one's conscience, and in doing that, one can grant very much to one's inclination. For God has so established the order of things, and has joined men together in so connected a society, that even if everyone related only to himself and had not charity for others, a man would nevertheless ordinarily not fail to employ himself on the behalf of others in everything that would be in his powers, provided he uses prudence."

Challenged by Elisabeth to explain his argument more fully, Descartes replied as follows:

“The reason that makes me believe that those who do nothing save for their own utility, ought also, if they wish to be prudent, work, as do others, for the good of others, and try to please everyone as much as they can, is that one ordinarily sees it occur that those who are deemed obliging and prompt to please also receive a quantity of good deeds from others, even from people who have never been obliged to them; and these things they would not receive did people believe them of another humor; and the pains they take to please other people are not so great as the conveniences that the friendship of those who know them provides. For others expect of us only the deeds we can render without inconvenience to ourselves, nor do we expect more of them; but it often happens that deeds that cost others little profit us very much, and can even save our life. It is true that occasionally one wastes his toil in doing good and that, on the other hand, occasionally one gains in doing evil; but that cannot change the rule of prudence that relates only to things that happen most often. As for me, the maxim I have followed in all the conduct of my life has been to follow only the grand path, and to believe that the principal subtlety [finesse] is never to make use of subtlety.”

This extract from Descartes’ correspondence (1645-6) is of historical interest. It shows that Descartes was in line with conventional 17th-century theological thinking of what became known as the “hand of God”, without mentioning the IH metaphor.

Professor Peter Harrison (Oxford University) published a detailed summary of mainly theological authors in the 17th-18th centuries, who referred directly to the “invisible hand” of God, from which Peter deduces that Adam Smith thereby used the IH metaphor in a theological sense, an assertion I find unconvincing.

See Harrison, 2010, September, Journal of the History of Ideas, and my own discussion, “The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology”, Journal of the History of Economic Theory, 2011, September.

Presently, I am reviewing: Warren Samuelson, Marianne Johnson, and William Perry, “Erasing the Invisible Hand: essays on an illusive and misunderstood concept in economics”, 2011, Cambridge University Press, which is a promising blockbuster of a scholarly work, settling for once and all the much vexed debates we have on Lost Legacy, of which more soon when I have completed it.



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