Friday, February 17, 2012

Mark Skousen and the Invisible-Hand Metaphor

Mark Skousen posts his talk to Hillsdale College, ‘Will The Real Adam Smith Please Stand Up?’ HERE In yesterday’s post, I commented on some remarks made by Mark and today I shall comment on matters of substance. It is a rather long post, but it raises important issues of scholarly conduct.

Mark Skousen writes:

“Invisible Hand: Marginal or Central Concept?”

“Could the detractors be correct in their assessment of Adam Smith’s sentiments? Is the invisible hand metaphor central or marginal to Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty”?

… Gavin Kennedy contended in earlier writings that the invisible hand is nothing more than an after-thought, a “casual metaphor” with limited value. Emma Rothschild even goes so far as to declare, “… the invisible hand…[is] un-Smithian and unimportant to his theory” and was nothing more than a “mildly ironic joke.”]

Adam Smith Reveals His Invisible Hand

A fascinating discovery uncovered by Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University, may shed light on this debate. Based on a brief remark by Peter Minowitz that the “invisible hand” phrase lies roughly in the middle of both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Klein made preliminary investigations that led him to suggest deliberate centrality. Klein then recruited Brandon Lucas … to investigate further. Klein and Lucas found considerable evidence that Smith “deliberately placed ‘led by an invisible hand’ at the centre of his tomes” and that the concept “holds special and positive significance in Smith’s thought.”

Klein and Lucas base their conjecture on two major points. First, the physical location of the metaphor: The single expression “led by an invisible hand” occurs almost dead center in the first and second editions of The Wealth of Nations. (It moves slightly away from the middle after an index and additions were added to later editions.)

Moreover, it appears again “well-nigh dead centre” in the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Klein and Lucas admit that it was not in the middle of the first edition in 1759, speculating that “physical centrality was not initially a part of his intentions…[but that] by 1776, Smith had become intent on centrality.” Indeed, Smith moved the phrase “invisible hand” closer to the center of the book, first by appending an important essay on the origin of language and finally by making substantial revisions in the final edition.

Second, Klein and Lucas note that as an historian and moral philosopher, Adam Smith commented frequently on the importance of middleness in architecture, literature, science, and philosophy. For example:

– Smith wrote sympathetically about the Aristotelian golden mean, the idea that virtue exists “between two opposite vices.” For instance, between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness lies the central virtue of courage. …

– Klein discovered that Smith, in his lectures on rhetoric, admired the poetry of the Greek poet Thycydides, who “often expresses all that he labours so much in a word or two, sometimes placed in the middle of the narration.”

In sum, according to Klein and Lucas, the invisible hand represents the climatic centrality of Smith’s “system of natural liberty,” and is appropriately found in the middle of his works. By this discovery, if true, one goes from one extreme to the other — from seeing the invisible hand as a marginal concept to accepting it as the touchstone of his philosophy.

Klein and Lucas’s list of evidence is what a lawyer might call circumstantial, or “impressionistic,” to use Klein and Lucas’s own adjective. Taken as a whole, the documentation is either an ingenious breakthrough or a “remarkable coincidence,” to quote Gavin Kennedy.

A few Smithian experts have warmed up to Klein and Lucas’s claim. Gavin Kennedy, who previously considered the invisible hand a “casual” metaphor, now sees a “high probability” in their thesis of deliberate centrality. Others are more skeptical. “We have no direct evidence for the conjecture,” states Craig Smith, an expert on Adam Smith at the University of St. Andrews. The idea that Adam Smith deliberately hid his favorite symbol of his philosophy “strikes me…as very un-Smithian,” he states, and runs contrary to his policy of expressing thoughts in a “neat, plain and clever manner.” Placing the shorthand phrase “invisible hand” in the middle of his works may not be plain, but is it not neat and clever?

I have long practiced the scholar’s duty of always submitting to the evidence of facts; a trait not found among ideologues of left or right, or among those of religious persuasion, and those with a ‘theory’ about how the world works. When Daniel Klein kindly sent to me his findings on “centrality” before publication, I responded as a scholar must. He gave me the choice of denying the evidence he and Brandon had found in measurements of copies of Smith’s early original editions of TMS and WN in the US Library of Congress, or of taking the less scholarly route of denying the evidence, or the lamer (agnostic) excuse of “remaining unconvinced”. I chose to accept the evidence of physical centrality in Smith’s two books (obviously, I completely accepted their reported measurements) and I said so to Daniel. It was the right thing to do. In private correspondence he admitted to being “surprised” by my response.

I did not, and do not, accept that the fact of physical centrality altered the general substance of my view that Smith used the IH metaphor precisely as a metaphor, and nothing written since by Daniel has changed that view – if anything the further that Klein moves away from Smith’s clear meaning in his texts in favour of modern commentaries (let alone the very ancient Talmud), the weaker Daniel makes his case for some higher significance of the IH metaphor. Whether Smith’s use of the metaphor was somehow more significant than I claimed it to be, remains an entirely separate subject from physical centrality, and in subsequent publication of my views, I have remained critical of Daniel Klein’s asserted conclusions that Smith’s use of the IH metaphor was “the touchstone of his philosophy”. [See: Gavin Kennedy, “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth,” Econ Journal Watch 6:2 (2009); and “Adam Smith and the Role of the Metaphor of an Invisible Hand,” Economic Affairs (March 2011), and on Lost Legacy passim.]

Daniel’s “asserted conclusions” rely heavily on a blend of the “Aristotelian golden mean” (well-known to all students of Philosophy 101; and to Adam Smith), and on modern commentaries about the IH metaphor (following Paul Samuelson’s inventions, 1948). Incidentally, the “golden mean” is always presented in philosophy as a mean between two associated extreme behaviours (‘vices’), from which the said “centrality” is postulated philosophically. Symmetry is important in artistic beauty, perspective and design. That Klein and Lucas (from an hint by Peter Minowitz) “discovered” centrality in Smith’s books over 200 years later, is remarkable, but not earth shattering.

I refer to Adam Smith’s “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” [1762] 1983, pp 25-32, which he gave in Edinburgh, 1748-51, and in Glasgow, 1752-63. In his lectures he discussed the role of metaphors. Neither Klein nor Skousen refer to this lecture – in fact, Daniel dismissed my reference to metaphors in this lecture as “simplistic”; a common debater’s put-down, implying my naivety in referring to what is surely the most important source for the elucidation of Adam Smith’s meaning in his use of a commonly known 17th-18th-century metaphor, well known to his contemporary, if not to his modern, readers. In short, Adam Smith did not “coin the phrase”; it applied it as a metaphor.

That he used the IH metaphor according to its standard usage in English grammar, and which was read as such for decades from 1759 (hence absolutely no contemporary references to other, more complex, explanations of it; see below), is exemplified in the important fact that nobody claimed the far greater significance of the expression, as read into it generations later from a few mentions from 1875-1900 (hardly any from 1790 to 1875). This period was followed by a very few from 1900-1940, and then, first a trickle, then dozens, then scores, and then thousands from the 1970s. Warren Samuelson, who tracked the mentions of the IH metaphor in reference to Adam Smith writes:

“between 1816 and 1938, the average annual level of writings in which the invisible appeared was very low”, thereafter from “1942 through 1974, the average annual levels doubled, from 1975 through 1979, it roughly doubled again, and between 1980 and 1989 it was approximately 6.5 times higher than during 1942 though 1974. Between 1990 and 1999, the average level was little more than eight times that of 1942-74 and slightly less 20 per cent higher than the 1980-89 level. During the period 2000-2006, the average annual level seems to have receded to a level slightly more than 60 per cent of the 1990-199 level.
” (Samuels, W. 2022. Erasing the Invisible Hand: essays on an elusive and misused concept in economics, pp. 18-19. Cambridge University Press). The rest of his 329-page volume details the modern IH phenomenon, largely at variance with Klein and Skousen’s assertions.

I have found a total unwillingness among modern believers in the invisible-hand’s actual existence, and among those believing that the IH metaphor supposedly had special significance for Adam Smith, to them becoming acquainted with how Adam Smith taught his students on the role and use of metaphors. Of course, the device of disclaiming my (undefined) ‘simplicity’ is pure rhetoric, but it does not answer my, and more importantly, Smith’s point in his Rhetoric Lectures:

In every metaphor, it is evident there must be an allusion betwixt one object and an other. … Now it is evident that none of these metaphors can have beauty unless it be so adapted that it gives the due strength of expression of the object described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner” (LRBL, i.66. p 29).

We should note also how Hugh Blair, who 'took over Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric and had a distinguished career at the University of Edinburgh, shortly after Smith left for Glasgow in 1751, described the use of metaphors:

“this is a figure founded entirely on the resemblance which one object bears to another … it is no other than a comparison expressed in an abridged form … When I say of some great minister, “he upholds the state, like a pillar which supports the weight of the whole edifice, I fairly make a comparison; but when I say of such a minister “that he is the pillar of the state”, it has now become a metaphor” (Hugh Blair, DD. FRSE, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters”, pp 342-33. 3 vols. London, 1827).

Every metaphor Smith used in his works is in the standard format of English grammar. And in applying Smith’s role of metaphors to the “invisible hand” on the three (only) occasions in which he used it, we see this clearly.

In his Lectures on the History of Astronomy [posthumous, 1795; written from 1744] Smith referred to the beliefs of pagan Romans that their god, Jupiter, fired thunderbolts at errant Romans (that is what they believed). For them Jupiter’s invisible hand was very real, and very terrifying. They regarded it not as a metaphor but as a noun (as are most theological users).

In Moral Sentiments (1759-90), Smith describes how a “proud and unfeeling landlord”, viewed the crops in his “extensive fields … without a thought for the wants of his brethren” and “in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them”. But “in spite of their natural and selfish rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements”.

That sentence states the object of the metaphor that follows. Smith writes: “they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford a means to the multiplication of the species” (TMS Part IV, chapter 1, paragraph 10: 184-5). This links the metaphor’s to its object. In short, the IH metaphor “describes in a more striking and interesting manner” its object.

Now, what is so difficult for undoubted and talented scholars, such as Daniel Klein and Mark Skousen, to accept Smith’s standard use of a metaphor in English? (see the definitive Oxford English Dictionary re: metaphors). The haughty landlord was totally dependent upon the “thousands he employs” in his fields, as they were upon him. He did what he did “without a thought for his brethren” – he had to do so because he (and they) had no option to do otherwise (‘no labour, no food’; ‘no food no labour’). It was the absolute necessity of their mutual dependence that led him and them to do what he (and they) had no choice but to do, and the outcome of the landlord's choice was to “advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species”.

In Wealth Of Nations (1776-90) Smith applied the same metaphor that resulted in a similar outcome. He mentions the location of the ‘object’ of the metaphor six times. It was the choice of investing capital in “domestic industry” or in the “foreign trade of consumption”, and either choice affected the arithmetic amount of investment going into ”domestic industry” (the whole is the sum of its parts). Into this decision, Smith raised the important issue that the merchants faced in their assessment of the relative risks involved in their investment choice. In so far as some, but not all, merchant investors perceived that there were greater risks in foreign trade (he describes those greater risks in paragraph 6), they are more likely to choose to invest in “domestic industry”. Their attitudes to risks were subjective; their minds could not be seen, but their minds affected their decisions.

Smith states clearly: “By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security, and by directing that [domestick] industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote and end that was no part of his intention” (WN Book IV, chapter 2, paragraph 9: p 456).

The IH metaphor “describes in a more striking and interesting manner” its object, specifically the insecurity felt by the merchant investor. The outcome of their choice is to “advance the interest of society” by increasing the arithmetic sum of the contributions of “domestck industry” which increases the “annual revenue and employment”, which in Smith’s view, promoted the “pubic interest”.

Why cannot Daniel Klein and Mark Skousen acknowledge Smith’s clear intentions in his use of the IH metaphor? Are they protecting their theories of how modern economies work? Surely, their theories of the modern world would still work, whatever Adam Smith wrote in 1759-90?



Post a Comment

<< Home