Disappointing Paper on the Invisible-Hand by Six Sociologists
I started reading this paper during my week’s holiday in France and completed it during my flight back to Scotland: A. C. Finlayson, T. A. Lyson, A. Pleasant, K. A. Schafft and R. J. Torres (with “contributions from A. L. Rayner”): 2005. “The ‘Invisible hand’: neoclassical economics and the ordering of society”, Critical Sociology, Vol. 31, no 4, pp. 515-36.
First, I was struck by why it took 5 academics to write a 21-page sociology paper from Cornel, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, and St. Lawrence Universities, financed by grants from the Agricultural Experiment Station, and the USDA/CSREES regional research projects, Civic Community and Civic Welfare.
Having read the output of this uneven collaboration, I am sad to report that the Authors’ time was not well spent and their grants not really justified. But then I am not a sociologist, nor am I well versed in sociological discourse, though I read Karl Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’ and have commented on aspects of it. I have also read some of the other authors cited in the references.
An opening sentence in the Abstract announces that a ‘founding proposition [of neoclassical economics] is that an “invisible hand” aggregates individual decisions driven by rational self-interest into socially optimal decisions” (515). There is much lost here in the time-line of when Jevons and co. elaborated their mathematical treatment of economics in the post 1870s and the emergence of the significant mistreatment of IH metaphor from the 1940s, by which time the main propositions of neo-classical economics were established (e.g., rational self-interest, etc.). These questions are subsumed in the “fundamental proposition” apparently because “The ‘invisible hand’ is power” (516) and it dominates “the discursive space”.
Regular readers will recognise this formulation of the evolution of neo-classical economics is based on a fundamental misrepresentation of classical economics. In particular the Paper is a falsification of Adam Smith’s actual use of the Invisible-hand metaphor, upon which falsification, or ‘mistake’, if that charge is too strong, neo-classical economists erected their entire analytical apparatus post-war. Therefore I found much of what follows in this paper to be a trip into fantasy using sociology as the vehicle.
The Authors believe that the “conceptual apparatus of neoclassicism not only dominates academic economics but also permeates global society”, when instead it should be “consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history” (516). This last is a well-worn, bled-white metaphoric phrase that is at root deeply offensive to the study of human history. It echoes the ignorant ravings of beer-cellar reactionaries and their ilk that preferred to throw opponents they characterised as ‘enemies of the people’, or rather their ashes, into actual dustbins. Unfortunately, the phrase was common currency among Right and Left politicos in the 1930s.
Now regular readers will know that I have, and express, no fondness for neoclassical economics and this part of the paper looked promising until a bewildering jargon of ill-stated concepts from sociology were introduced: “Theorising Neoclassical Economics as a Technology of Power” (519), a “meta-technology”, “a complex web of social technologies”, “legitimating narrative and discursive resource”, “a subjective construct of interacting individuals and an objective structure that constrains” (520), “hegemonic moments”, an “economically-reductionist framework” (521), “a hegemonic framework” and, finally in this section, an empty assertion that “The invisible hand is power” (523), with no explanation of what that means.
The last section examines the “Rise and Diffusion of Neoclassical Economics: a historical/institutional View” (527). It asserts that “economics” “parasitizes the nests of smaller species”, i.e. other disciplines, though in my experience the spread of such ideas into other disciplines was and is generated from within the other disciplines (my former colleagues were not given to associating that closely with non-economists).
If anything, neoclassical economists borrowed their mathematical apparatus from physics and other numerate sciences, albeit of later 19th-century vintage, and used it, unintentionally to exclud other social scientists whose subjects were not yet expressed in maths or statistics (they were to become so increasingly), as well as not a few of their less numerate economist colleagues, from contaminating what they perceived as their own exclusive territory. However, the Authors assert that “the neoclassical narrative infiltrates society” (528).Reading this paper to its end, I was mindful that the Authors were criticising a false version of a paradigm – complete with a false, modern version of the meaning of the “invisible hand” metaphor.