Friday, November 30, 2012
Chris Allsobrook is a lecturer in philosophy at St Augustine [Catholic] College and a politics research associate with the University of Johannesburg. He is also managing editor for the social and political theory journal Theoria. He writes, 29 November, in Thought Leader (Mail & Guardian), South Africa HERE
“Margaret Thatcher shared with Thomas Hobbes, the great English political philosopher, a typically British, myth-busting receptivity to common-sense. Thatcher saw through the self-serving rhetoric of moralists whose ideals were bankrupting the economy. She pushed government to basic accounting principles and put Britain back on track. Yet “there is no such thing as society” is the heartless, bean-counting claim for which she is remembered by community-oriented lefties. She gutted societies with the logic of mergers, acquisitions and downsizing, then in vogue, erasing the entity whose existence she denied.
We should interpret Thatcher’s claim more and less charitably. Three hundred years earlier, when Hobbes argued, “there is no such thing as ‘the people’ ” he, admittedly, supported monarchy. But his enlightened point was we should never forget the faces of real human beings, with artificial, abstract concepts like “we, the People” (or, to emphasise this “they, the Africans”). It’s fine to raise appeals on behalf of “society” but who represents individuals on the ground, if not they themselves, in person or in contract? Thatcher was right, sociologically, there is no “society” in the real world; only the members which make up the set. But her anti-essentialist kudos (also in vogue, at the time, like big hair) was unmatched by naïve faith in economic entities of mythic proportions, like, the “market” and its omniscient, omnipotent author, the “invisible hand”.
“There is no invisible hand guiding the market; just the grubby hands of individuals engaged in transactions. Moreover, the “market”, like “society”, is not a category into which each member identically fits. And, just as the term “society” often assumes illicit commonality between politicians and “the people”, so, the concept “market” masks contracts and relations of power between actual people, some in large, lonely mansions, many crowded into broken, little homes. Yet, realistic economists — who may baulk at a “common good” beyond the actual goods of individuals — are committed to more laws of the behaviour of this abstract entity and are prepared to sacrifice more corpses to it, than any religious order has paid its gods.”
Interesting take on the “invisible hand” and “society”. Though I baulk at the idea there is a measureable comparison between the millions of actual corpses from religious-based notions of invisible beings (gods and devils) needing to be appeased by physical punishments inflicted on real and supposed defectors from a host of superstitious beliefs about offending a host of imagined instructions from these imaginary gods and devils through millennia from pre-history to today and tormenting the “victims” to “appease” the god’s of those afflicted with “pusillanimous superstition” (Adam Smith’s words for it) adds up to misery for many millions of humans.
Of course, taking Chris Allsobrook’s “corpses” metaphorically it is still arguable. Long before the first primitive markets even existed between farmers and the first ‘towns’ (c. 8,000 BCE), early notions of religious superstition governed the lives of hunter-gatherers, judging by their grave goods.
However, I am pleased to note the disavowal of the existence of an “invisible hand” by Chris Allsobrook, given the predilections for theology for notions of the “hand of god” in human events throughout the Christian era.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
A Claim from the 1980s in Mainstream Economics
“The Invisible Hand, 1980”
Dr. William Peterson, the Scott L. Probasco, Jr., Professor of Free Enterprise and director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, posted in 1980 in the Foundation for Economic Education’s "The Freeman”, a stout defence of profit, much of which I would agree needs to be stated. But look what he tags on to it – a gratuitous and unnecessary quotation on an entirely different subject from Adam Smith on how some, but not all merchants, concerned with the security of their capital if they sent it abroad in foreign trade and shipping were inclined to invest it in “domestic industry” instead, and how this addition to domestic capital added to the total of annual domestic “revenue and employment”.
Dr Peterson writes:
“To be sure, repressing and decontrolling prices and then taxing “windfall” gains are done under the name of the public interest. But self-interest in a market system usually advances the public interest more than those who profess to serve the public interest (apart from their own inevitable personal interest). As Adam Smith observed, the individual “neither intends to promote the public interest nor knows how much he is promoting it . . . . By . . . directing (his) 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 an end which was no part of his intention.”
Now, mindful that not all merchants invested locally from their concerns about the risks of foreign trade (and therefore not included in Smith’s singular example of “an invisible hand” in Wealth Of Nations) and most decidedly do not always “promote the public interest” as far as consumers – or other domestic merchants - are concerned.
Smith also questioned whether all domestic investment from merchants in their self-interests was necessarily “advantageous” to society, compared to some alternative configurations that different conceptions of their self-interests would have led them to invest in. The answer depended on a whole host of factors and therefore it seems to me a stretch to make this an argument for all domestic investment being equally beneficial. This strikes me as a bland assumption if no more than an unexplained single extract from a single paragraph is proclaimed as a general rule. Adam Smith noted all over Wealth Of Nations, for example, that self-interested merchants often persuaded the legislature to enhance their domestic profits by restricting competition through tariffs and prohibitions of foreign imports. This was one of the major themes of Adam Smith’s “violent attack on the entire commercial system” then operating in Britain, as it had done for two or more centuries, in his critique of “mercantile political economy.”
This post was originally made in 1980 in the midst of the post-Samuelson explosion of multiple references to the invisible hand, supposedly “miraculously” at work in the market economy, though nobody can show this was Adam Smith’s “concept” nor, for that matter, how it worked. Markets work through visible price signals, not theological superstitions of “Providence”, “Divine” orders and “invisible” beings. Markets reflect costs and profits. Mostly they are realized in markets, which have a singular advantage over state-managed command economies, which do not know of “market prices” or know the real economic cost of anything (there truly is 'No such thing as a free lunch',), and consequently they miss out on entrepreneurial discovery and the resultant benefits of a price-driven complex market economy.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Thanksgiving Dinners No Thanks to the Invisible Hand
The Whited Sepulchre HERE
“Adam Smith called it “the invisible hand” — the mysterious power that leads innumerable people, each working for his own gain, to promote ends that benefit many."
If a scientist suggested there was a “mysterious power” acting in a system, they would be expected to explain how it worked. In economic systems we are assured above that there is an invisible “mysterious power” at work, but nobody can explain what it is or how it works,or why it needs to be invisible. There certainly is no mathematical term ever offered for it in the most advanced mathematical modelling, or even in the simplest.
It’s just asserted to be there in the economy, entitled the “invisible hand” and attributed allegedly to Adam Smith. Brilliant minds assert its existence; some of them defend the supposition angrily when asked what it is and what it does.
Yet, from what we know of markets we know for certain that they operate by very visible prices. There is nothing invisible about a price. No market can work without visible prices; no employee would work without a visible remuneration (outside slavery); nobody would buy much without knowing the price and nobody would sell much if their prices were not disclosed. They would certainly demand payment in visible cash if none was forthcoming.
In the British Ministry of Defence items were withdrawn from the stores by requisition orders and nobody knew the costs of the items, either when issuing them or requisitioning them. Then the MOD ordered that every item in the stores were to be labelled with its cost. That alone was radical; the outcome was predictable, fewer items were requisitioned. The visible acquisition cost (from MOD's suppliers) was a surrogate for the supplier's price, and rising costs in supplies competed with rising costs elsewhere in the defence budget, crucial when Supply departments had run out of their budget.
Nobody needed to envisage an invisible hand to explain the mystery. Nor do we need such a “mysterious power” to explain the events leading to Thanksgiving. Expected higher demand for turkeys, leads to anticipation of higher revenue if you are anywhere involved in the turkey supply chain months before November, and higher demand times the quantity of whatever you are selling at the anticipated prices, is enough to activate you do your bit for Thanksgiving dinners, including all the associated products and services. This phenomena is called markets at work and the means are visible prices.
As for Adam Smith's alleged involvement in the "mysterious invisible hand", please consult multiple posts on Lost Legacy.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Adam Smith On Exchange
Dr David Graeber (2011) in his book, “Debt the First 5,000 years” (Melville House), made assertions about Adam Smith on the subject of “truck, barter, and exchange on thing for another” in his Wealth Of Nations (WN I.i.1: 25) published in 1776. Smith’s words were: exchange was “a necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech” and linked it to the division of labour. In fact, Dr Graeber reports, somewhat sneeringly, that anthropologists in the 20th century have not found any evidence of barter among the peoples they had studied in the field. Maybe, but they certainly have found much on the prevalence of exchange, much as Smith meant it.
Not being a trained anthropologist, I was unable to judge or discuss the fieldwork of scores of professionals, all of whom today are able to access hundreds, if not thousands, of scholarly sources, from their desks via the Internet. Naturally, I presumed on the basis of David Graeber’s firm convictions that he had sound reasons for being so sure of his assertions, though I was never completely satisfied with his claims the Smith was adamant that 'barter' necessarily preceded exchange the invention of money. Exchange certainly preceded both Truck and Barter.
I was not entirely convinced on several grounds that his modern evidence contradicted Smith’s 18th-century arguments about the social evolution of human societies. Smith used what limited evidence he had from the historical sources available to him, particularly those written (e.g., by two French Jesuit residents and travellers across Canada) on North American ‘Indian’ natives some 300 years after Columbus got there in 1492. He also had access to Captain Cook’s three late 18th-century voyages to the Pacific - he had copies in his library - plus his readings from the Hebrew/ Christian Bible, (which covered a period roughly from the 8th century BC, about the many travails of a bronze-age, Jewish tribe up to early 1st century AD).
Smith’s vocabulary provided the words for his famous statement, “truck, barter, and exchange” and conformed to his knowledge their English language meanings. ‘Truck’ is about the payment of ‘wages’ in the form of goods (labour for goods); ‘barter is usually the exchange of goods for goods; and ‘exchange’ describes the process by which anything is given for anything in return between anybody(see the Oxford English Dictionary). Their meanings in foreign languages and folklore may well be different.
Smith’s ‘exchange’ is often carelessly miss-stated by some authors as general trade (e.g., Polanyi). While trade can describe many forms of exchange, it does not cover all forms of exchange, including those appertaining to pre-historic times and cultures. In the early 19th century, the “Truck Acts” made trucking by employers illegal in the UK. Truck exchanges were around in the early 20th-century, at least in song, e.g., ‘16-tons’ and ‘another day older and deeper in debt, I owe my soul to the company store’. Truck was widely used in Smith’s day, and its form persisted informally elsewhere (for example, truck-type exchanges were mentioned by Emile Zola in ‘Germinal” (1895) in reference to the wives of destitute strikers, who were exploited by a shopkeeper – sexual access for provisions). The word exchange as used by Adam Smith does not need, nor is it limited to, exchange as a monetary exchange.
Smith’s general use of exchange as a legitimate word for what happens goes back to as early as 1761, in his essay, ‘Considerations on the First Formation of Languages’ he notes that language origination, like the division of labour, was a “necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech”, which we know now had evolved over millennia since the speciation of proto-humans from the common ancestor of human and chimpanzee apes. Homo sapiens emerged c.100,000 years ago.
Obviously, no written history is possible for the long period even since the Great Ice Age c.50,000 years ago. The last glacial maximum occurred c.20,000 years ago as humans moved closer to historical accounts. Accounts of how humans in their societies evolved towards today’s complex, highly populated societies are a fascinating and unsettled subject.
I remain sceptical of Dr David Graeber’s dismissal of Smith’s ‘exchange’ conjectures as a peculiarly human behaviour, to which he attributes rather disreputable purposes behind Wealth Of Nations. Dr Graeber has firm views about exchange theory as mainly taken from neo-classical economics textbooks that seem to inform his thinking, but which are not shared by myself and many other economists. Dr Graeber claims that ‘exchange is about equivalence’ (he links it to “gunfire”!) in which each side “is trying to trying to outdo the other” and they “try to break it off when both consider the outcome to be more of less even”, because they really want instead to “seek maximum material advantage” (103). With such a twisted view of exchange, Dr Graeber is stuck in a conundrum: if each side strives for an equivalence and aim to end up better than the other party, and then they break off when they do not succeed, as the cannot on his concept of trade "equivalence", how does anyone ever exchange anything, let alone the 30 billion exchanges available in New York each day? Dr Graeber’s contradictory view taken from some elementary textbooks is not very sound. Both parties, in fact, in exchange make themselves better off than before they exchange. Each considers what they give up is of less ‘value’ to them than what they get back in return. They both gain, otherwise they would not exchange! There is no notional equivalence. Smith said “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want’ (WN I.ii.2: 26); the universal bargainers’ conditional proposition. It is because both sides gain over their pre-trade position that exchange through trade is so widespread and popular. And nobody "designed" it and once it emerged, "spontaneously" it proved to be a mutually winning behaviour. Communists tried violently to suppress the behaviour and failed after 70 millions dead.
Smith wrote with the information he had and the plausible conjectures he constructed given the information to which he had access. David Graeber also uses conjecture, for instance in defining human societies as passing through ‘communism’, using the (tendentious) modern wholly political definition of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, through to the many millennia of what Graeber calls the ‘human economies’. In them there was not a great deal of humanity practised, especially for the female line, who were sex slaves, through to recent ‘capitalism’, which Dr Graeber accuses of inventing the ‘catastrophe” of the slave trade, even though it had existed for many millennia before the 19th century and capitalism. And communism really is about "from each according to his role in the central plan, to each according to his politics".
So, post reading Graeber’s book, I re-looked at some of my books on subjects related to anthropology that I had collected while I was researching my (unpublished) “The Pre-History of Bargaining” (2003-5). Among them there is Steven Mithen’s, “After the Ice: a global human history 20,000 – 5,000 BC”, Orion, 2004, which at 622 pages pips in length Dr Graeber’s long book and neatly ends where Graeber’s begins. I also re-read a book I had bought more recently, Timothy Baugh and Jonathon Ericson’s, “Pre-historic Exchange Systems in North America,1994, Plenum Press. Taking just two of the 14 scholarly refereed papers, Jon L. Gibson, “Empirical Characterisation of Exchange Systems in the Lower Mississippi Valley Pre-history’ and Robert H. Lafferty’s paper, ‘Pre-Historic Exchange in the Lower Mississippi Valley”, I was struck by the scientific precision of each paper, both fully referenced from scientific sources from the primary archeolgical literature, based entirely on painstaking field research by the authors, as recorded in the subject’s splendid literature library.
The authors reported on the empirical evidence for trade across several thousand miles of tributary rivers, open land, flood plains, mountains and forests of North America from roughly 10,000BC to 1540AD. Exchange systems and periods are identified from excavation of burial mounds and nearby detritus belonging to various tribes common to each area. ‘Beautiful stone ornaments, abstract life-forms, effigy beads; rare (to individual areas of mounds) geological materials (pebbles, flints, lithics, adzes, minerals, pottery, large axes, beads, obsidian, coloured rocks and etc., and much else that are naturally sourced great distances away, suggesting long-standing, long distance exchange relationship and forms of primitive trade. From graveside offerings and rituals they suggest ceremonialism in more recent periods (160 BC to AD 70). The association of objects with elite burials leads to suggestions that exchange/trade was mainly of benefit to elites and not widespread bilaterally among populations. Exchange in objects was political in nature.
As technology developed in water-borne traffic, and in hunting/ warfare weapons, it promoted associated growth of territorial influences and dominance. With the arrival of Europeans (Spanish and British) trade in animal skins and trinkets grew and the quantity of all exchange goods, both local and imported, across large distances, grew in importance, from the Rockies to the Atlantic. There is even evidence of mines 20 to 40 feet deep, suggesting knowledge of minerals. Thousands of farm tools, hoes and oval spades suggest quite independent indigenous introduction of early agriculture in North America separate from the earlier agricultural revolution in the European middle east c.10,000 BC.
Now what these suggest, pertinent to Smith’s primitive discussion of the Ages of Man and to his hypothesis of the role of exchange in social evolution, is that he was broadly right about the role played by the evolution of forms of exchange, be the crude reciprocities common to all human cultures (and to near relatives like Chimpanzees), more sophisticated access by male elites to women and their children, whose males were trapped in some kind of invented social debts and general submission, exchanges of goods for goods however this was wrapped in local cultures controlled by elite men, or for political alliances for mutual security between strangers and neighbouring tribes.
I conclude, that Dr David Graeber takes far to narrow (and dare I say, somewhat too hasty) a view of Adam Smith, largely unsupported by the evidence of anthropology and archaeology of the deep past. Anthropologists who only look to surviving remnants of living tribes living on the edges of modern society, as if they are perfect examples of isolated past, pre-modern contact societies, who once dominated the planet, may jump to fallacious conclusions. Of course, they are not helped by relying on modern neoclassical textbooks for their understanding of economics or of Adam Smith, as Lost Legacy has tried to show since 2005.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Good Sense on Economists and Dentists
Chris Dillow at his “Stumbling and Mumbling” Blog writes HERE
“ECONOMISTS AS DENTISTS”
Is the "crisis" in economics one of the content of the discipline, or rather of its social function? I ask because of a point made by Ronald Coase:
‘The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate (hat tip to Paul).’
It's certainly unfortunate, because the economics that can help people with the "ordinary business of life" is actually thriving. As I've said in the IC, there's a tremendous amount economics can offer to investors. We know the distribution of asset returns and therefore their risks. We know the cognitive biases that can lead to widespread poor investment performance, and we can both quantify their effects and identify some of the stock market anomalies they generate. And we know about the maths of how to diversify. All this, and more, allows us to give useful investment advice.
Of course, we can't predict the future. But perhaps we don't need to: those investors who had used the Halloween and May Day indicators in 2008 would have avoided the worst of the 2008 crash.
In this regard, economists are indeed living up to Keynes' famous ideal:
‘If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.’
Like dentists, we can't greatly enrich people's lives, but we can offer reasonable advice on how they can avoid a few nasty problems.
Why, then, should we think economics is in crisis?
The obvious answer is that we didn't see the crash of 2008 coming.
But is it even logically possible to foresee the future? G.L.S Shackle thought not, because individuals' choices, which are what determine economic outcomes, are not forecastable - and his argument has been ignored rather than rebutted. And Gary Gorton has said that "Financial crises are not predictable", in part because they arise from cascade-type behaviour which cannot be foreseen.
Put this another way. Imagine economists had widely and credibly warned of a financial crisis in the mid-00s. People would have responded to such warnings by lending less and borrowing less (I'm ignoring agency problems here). But this would have resulted in less gearing and so no crisis. There would now be a crisis in economics as everyone wondered why the disaster we predicted never happened. The point is that forecasts can only be right if they are not believed.’
I agree with these remarks by Chris Dillow (though I do not always agree with him on Adam Smith). I interpret Adam Smith’s approach to predictions similarly – he rarely made any; his sole prediction that in just over 100 years (1876) North America would produce more wealth than Britain came true.
Economists started giving advice to government from the 19th century. Smith too, gave direct private advice to UK government ministers (at their request and occasionally unsolicited) on specific matters like taxation and when publicly advising them to desist from intervening in entrepreneurial matters for which they were unqualified. In the very last few lines of Wealth Of Nations he advised readers to cut their spending on defending the colonies which wouldn’t pay for it and to withdraw, but unfortunately they, and successive Victorian governments, did not heed him). Smith saw the role of philosophers throughout history as “doing nothing, but observing everything” and his entire life’s work was mainly spent doing just that.
Keynes was right about lowering the ambitions of modern economists from their high vanity-driven roles to that of more "humble dentists”. Read the rest of Chris Dillow’s post by following the link. [Fellow economists would do well to reflect on their reaction to the idea of being less pretentious about what think they can predict about the future.]
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Lost Legacy Elsewhere
Two Blogger/readers pick up items from Lost Legacy today and link to them:
The first, is Mark Thoma who runs the Economist’s View Blog HERE and today he links to
my piece: “Adam Smith on Government Intervention”.
Also today Michael W. Kruse who writes Kruse Khronicle Bog HERE
published extracts and a comment on the recent Lost Legacy item: Adam Smith's Authentic Views On Church and State.
These and other Bloggers are most welcome to do so. There is no need to agree with everything, or anything, I write. I prefer to let readers, especially new ones scrolling through other Blogs, make up their own minds.
If readers see other mentions of Lost Legacy, please let me know.
A Case For "Fact Checkers"
“Adam Smith Invented Modern Free-Market Economics”
“Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" was published in 1776.
[Fortuitous perhaps, but his book was ready in 1773 and he went to London to supervise it publication. While there he got caught up in “zealous” debates with MPs and Ministers about events in the British colonies of North America. His advice was not accepted (see the very last paragraph in Wealth Of Nations for a hint at his advice). Friends (David Hume and the Duke of Buccleugh) advised him to desist and publish his book. He did so in March, 1776; it had been printed in December 1775. The ‘timing’ was accidental, not planned]
Coming out the same year as the Declaration of Independence, the book sparked its own revolution.
It showed that the best way to expand an economy was for government to get out of the way of entrepreneurs.
[Gross exaggeration; Wealth Of Nations was mainly about how “merchants and manufacturers”, who lobbied for tariffs and prohibitions, and domestic monopolies who were “in the way” of free markets; of government he advised them to desist from listening to such lobbying and stop acting as if they knew what was good for consumers.]
"He got most of it right, and for the past two centuries economists have been filling in the details," Tim Taylor, author of Teaching Co.'s audio course "Legacies of the Great Economists," told IBD. "If you disagree with him, you probably need to re-examine your ideas."
Smith (1723-90) was born in Scotland to a civil servant who died two months later.
[Adam Smith’s father died in January 1723 and he was born in June 1723]
His mother encouraged his interest in learning and enrolled him in one of the best secondary schools, giving him a solid foundation in the Latin classics, history, writing and spelling. [He attended Kirkcaldy Borough school, a couple of hundred yards from his mother’s house - I have walked the distance between the site where his mother's house stood until demolished. It happened to be an excellent school due to his teacher, David Millar.]
At 14, he entered the University of Glasgow and studied moral philosophy, developing a passion for reason, free speech and liberty.
Three years later he received a scholarship to Oxford University, but found the professors uninterested in teaching or new ideas, so he spent his time outside class reading widely in the library.
Unhappy, he left in 1746 before his scholarship was up.
Soon he was hired to give lectures at the University of Edinburgh.
[Adam Smith was never hired to lecture by Edinburgh University. He gave private lectures, in effect competing with the university, in a hired hall off-campus to fee payers, sponsored by Henry Home, later Lord Kames, and James Oswald, MP. Many students of law or Divinity, plus members of the public voluntarily attended. We have no definite records of their contents, other than his lectures on Rhetoric.]
Many of the themes involved his thoughts on the relationship of morality, freedom and prosperity.
In 1751 he earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic and stayed in that post 12 years.
[Smith taught Logic for one year only, and then switched to the chair of Moral philosophy until 1764.]
All the while, he put down his thoughts — and in 1759 he came out with his first book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." In it, he showed how morality depended on sympathy between individuals.
"He explored the processes by which we acquire the senses of propriety, justice, political obligation and beauty on which our skills in the arts of social intercourse and our character depend," Nicholas Phillipson wrote in his new biography, "Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life." "In doing so, he introduced into his analysis a simple observation about the principles of human nature that had been ignored by modern philosophy, that man's natural indigence had somehow gone hand in hand with a love of improvement which he would exercise whenever he felt secure enough to do so."
The book attracted students from all over Europe. Smith inspired them by extending his thinking about the human tendency toward betterment — even economically.
If Scot Smith had read closely Nicholas Phillipson’s excellent ‘Enlightened Life’ he would not have got the above facts so wrong. I trust that Investor’s Business Daily employs fact-checkers for ensuring that their financial advice reaches a higher standard than their author’s knowledge of Adam Smith.
Incidentally, neither Adam Smith, nor any individual, ever “invented modern free markets”. No society is “invented” by an individual or by designers (attempts to do always disappoint the designers or those affected by the design). Societies and changes within them emerge by evolution as nameless individuals discover that what they try seems to work in an existing social context in which they live with others. Free-markets emerged “spontaneously” and evolved over many centuries prior to 1776, and, of course, unsurprisingly, have continued to evolve in unpredictable ways since 1776.
Adam Smith observed that evolutionary process and in doing so he noticed several important features of commercial society that help us understand something of its dynamics. He made modest pragmatic proposals that were practicable that could improve how commercial society mightd work better but he never made predictions about whether his suggestions would be adopted.
Friday, November 23, 2012
Adam Smith on Government Intervention When Promoted by a “Public-Spirited Patriot”
“When a patriot exerts himself for the improvement of any part of the public police, his conduct does not always arise from pure sympathy with the happiness of those who are to reap the benefit of it. It is not commonly from a fellow–feeling with carriers and waggoners that a public–spirited man encourages the mending of high roads. When the legislature establishes premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen or woollen manufactures, its conduct seldom proceeds from pure sympathy with the wearer of cheap or fine cloth, and much less from that with the manufacturer or merchant. The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects. The contemplation of them pleases us, and we are interested in whatever can tend to advance them. They make part of the great system of government, and the wheels of the political machine seem to move with more harmony and ease by means of them. We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions. All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end. From a certain spirit of system, however, from a certain love of art and contrivance, we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow–creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy. There have been men of the greatest public spirit, who have shown themselves in other respects not very sensible to the feelings of humanity. And on the contrary, there have been men of the greatest humanity, who seem to have been entirely devoid of public spirit. Every man may find in the circle of his acquaintance instances both of the one kind and the other. ... Would you awaken the industry of the man who seems almost dead to ambition, it will often be to no purpose to describe to him the happiness of the rich and the great; to tell him that they are generally sheltered from the sun and the rain, that they are seldom hungry, that they are seldom cold, and that they are rarely exposed to weariness, or to want of any kind. The most eloquent exhortation of this kind will have little effect upon him. If you would hope to succeed, you must describe to him the conveniency and arrangement of the different apartments in their palaces; you must explain to him the propriety of their equipages, and point out to him the number, the order, and the different offices of all their attendants. If any thing is capable of making impression upon him, this will. Yet all these things tend only to keep off the sun and the rain, to save them from hunger and cold, from want and weariness. In the same manner, if you would implant public virtue in the breast of him who seems heedless of the interest of his country, it will often be to no purpose to tell him, what superior advantages the subjects of a well–governed state enjoy; that they are better lodged, that they are better clothed, that they are better fed. These considerations will commonly make no great impression. You will be more likely to persuade, if you describe the great system of public police which procures these advantages, if you explain the connexions and dependencies of its several parts, their mutual subordination to one another, and their general subserviency to the happiness of the society; if you show how this system might be introduced into his own country, what it is that hinders it from taking place there at present, how those obstructions might be removed, and all the several wheels of the machine of government be made to move with more harmony and smoothness, without grating upon one another, or mutually retarding one another’s motions. It is scarce possible that a man should listen to a discourse of this kind, and not feel himself animated to some degree of public spirit. He will, at least for the moment, feel some desire to remove those obstructions, and to put into motion so beautiful and so orderly a machine. Nothing tends so much to promote public spirit as the study of politics, of the several systems of civil government, their advantages and disadvantages, of the constitution of our own country, its situation, and interest with regard to foreign nations, its commerce, its defence, the disadvantages it labours under, the dangers to which it may be exposed, how to remove the one, and how to guard against the other. Upon this account political disquisitions, if just, and reasonable, and practicable, are of all the works of speculation the most useful. Even the weakest and the worst of them are not altogether without their utility. They serve at least to animate the public passions of men, and rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of the society (TMS IV.i.11: 185-6).
This passage, remarkably, is not often written about. It deserves to be. It is from the “invisible hand” chapter in Moral Sentiments.
It is specifically about a “public spirited patriot” who seeks to “improve” the “public police”, i.e., the provision of goods and services of benefit to the provision of necessary commodities for supply provisions and consumption among the community.
“The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects.”
“You will be more likely to persuade, if you describe the great system of public police which procures these advantages, if you explain the connexions and dependencies of its several parts, their mutual subordination to one another, and their general subserviency to the happiness of the society; if you show how this system might be introduced into his own country, what it is that hinders it from taking place there at present, how those obstructions might be removed, and all the several wheels of the machine of government be made to move with more harmony and smoothness, without grating upon one another, or mutually retarding one another’s motions.”
Any comments, welcome.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
Loony Tunes No. 71
Tyler Durden HERE
“The invisible hand at work once again as fat-fingered demand dominates union-stifled supply”
By Chris Perez Apartment Therapy HERE
“Invisible Hand, which isn't as creepy as it sounds, will throw-down a little banner if you're on the page of something you're shopping for and let you know if it's cheaper elsewhere.”
Quote by Shawn Lawrence Otto: HERE
“Today the invisible hand seems confused and indecisive”
Fred Kaps: “The invisible hand that smacks your ass as you walk by.”
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
“The Invisible Hand Wont Stop Inequality in Its Tracks”
Sam Pizzigati writes in The Vindicator (Liberty County: ‘printing news since 1887’)
Question on a subscription-only scholarly website: ‘Why is the economy called "competitive" when it is actually cooperative?’
Answer from another senior scholar: “Because competition is co-operative only by an ‘invisible hand’".
Normally, I would post both the above entries on my Loony Tunes series but I am not able to access it just now.
But they really are weird original pieces, beyond parody even by the normal standards of that mad column.