Interesting Thoughts from Kant
He has found an interesting nugget loosely related to Adam Smith’s use of the IH metaphor.
In "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective" (1784), Immanuel Kant gives this description of the effects of individuals on society:
Individual human beings and even entire peoples give little thought to the fact that they, by pursuing their own ends, each in his own way and often in opposition to others, unwittingly, as if guided along, work to promote the intent of nature, which is unknown to them, and which, even if it were known to them, they would hardly care about.
On the other hand, Kant is much less optimistic than Smith:
One cannot but feel a certain disinclination when one observes their activity as carried out on the great stage of the world and finds it ultimately, despite the occasional semblance of wisdom to be seen in individual actions, all to be made up, by and large, of foolishness, childish vanity, and, often enough, even of childish wickedness and destructiveness.
Further, Kant's vision of the end of history is MUCH more expansive because he affirms that the best state "can occur only late, after many futile attempts" and "this gives us the hope that, after a number of structural revolutions, that which nature has as its highest aim, a universal cosmopolitan condition, can come into being."
Very interesting. Kant’s is certainly an improvement on the modern (post Samuelson) neoclassical economists’ invented version of Adam Smith’s use of the IH metaphor in which Smith is falsely attributed with an IH leading everybody to the public benefit while being "selfish".
Note: ‘each in his own way and often in opposition to other’ recognises that individuals acting in their own self-interest often act contrary to the self-interests of others (an obvious truth in principle). Samuelson started the myth that the IH was about self-interested actors unintentionally and ‘miraculously’ benefitting society and the public good.
Note also: “as if guided along, work to promote the intent of nature”. This leans back to what became the Samuelson 1948 myth, though it may be a paraphrase of the reference to the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiments. Kant does not repeat the IH metaphor, preferring to use “guided along” rather than Smith’s ‘led by an invisible hand”. He also links to the semi-theological idea that "nature" has a "higher aim".
How people working against each other, which Kant expands upon in the second quote, suggests conflicting self-interests (expressed through “individual actions, all to be made up, by and large, of foolishness, childish vanity, and, often enough, even of childish wickedness and destructiveness”) is supposed to imply that the degree of counter-actions against each other would somehow cancel out, or at least severely compromise, outcomes that benefit the general public is not explained.
I think further thought on Kant’s suggestion would be worthwhile. Thank you Steve J!