Wednesday, November 20, 2013

From My Notebook no. 19

In the novel The Antiquary (1816), Walter Scott paid homage to a third artist: ‘In the inside of the cottage was a scene which our Wilkie could have painted, with that exquisite feeling that characterises his enchanting productions.’   He wrote back with typical modesty to say that these had placed him under a ‘debt of obligation’ as ‘with as unseen hand in The Antiquary, you took me up, and claimed me, the humble painter of domestic sorrow, as your countryman.’ (Michael Fry, 2013. ‘A New Race of Men:  Scotland 1814-1915’, Berlinn Books, Edinburgh).
It’s some years since I read Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Antiquary’, which I enjoyed reading, and it’s on my shelves somewhere. Clearly, David Wilkie played an important role in the history of Scottish Art. Unfortunately he died in 1841 and was buried at sea while returning from an artistic pilgrimage to Palestine. Wilkie was closely interested in Scottish Calvinist Presbyterianism of a kind that was similar to the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, who was an ardent enthusiast of his theological interpretation of Adam Smith.
The phrase, the “unseen hand in The Antiquary”, caught my eye as the “unseen hand” was a phrase also used by Chalmers.  It is close to being the theological equivalent of the “invisible hand” as the “hand of God”.
I have, so far, found no references to the “invisible hand” between 1809 (Dugald Stewart, as part of a long excerpt from Wealth Of Nations without comment) and 1875 (mentioned in a dissertation for a Fellowship at Cambridge).  I shall add David Wilkie’s reference to my list, though its connection to Smith’s use of the metaphor is very tenuous but surely weakens claims that Thomas Chalmers use it other than theologically.


Blogger airth10 said...

Earlier on there was a post on Adam Smith's Lost Legacy about who was the better philosopher, Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Both made their contributions. But Smith comes out on top. After all, the world reflects his philosophical thinking more than Marx's.

But what neither philosopher talked about is the need for an economic system to be able to sustain itself and the society it serves. They didn't broach the subject of sustainability. But of the two, Smith was the closest with his 'invisible hand', which had no equivalence in Marxism.

The invisible hand is about self-interest. Economic sustainability, ironically, arises from the pursuit of self-interest.

1:25 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I am not sure what you mean.
Your last sentence is counter-factual. Self-interested polluters are part of the problem, not the solution.
The absence of the invisible-hand in Marx is consistent with its absence in other literature until after 1875 when it was revised at Cambridge (England), and relapsed into silence until the 1930s in its modern guise.
The sustainability issue has no connection with IH metaphor.

3:02 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

That is the thing about economists, they don't use their imagination.

The invisible hand is bias to self-interest. Self-interest, as Smith implied, is good for the whole, meaning that if a person follows his own interest the outcome will be best for society, rather than if things were centrally organized.

We know why communism collapsed, because it was centrally controlled, where individuals could not pursue their own self-interest or be bias towards their own interest. Communism had no such spirit as the bias of the invisible hand.

Just the comparison between capitalism and communism should tell you that the bias of the invisible hand/pursuit of self interest has something to do with sustainability, since capitalism has endured and communism hasn't. Individualism pursuing their own self-interest, a la the invisible hand argument, is good for society and thus has a sustaining influence. Communism collapsed because it was unsustainable, because it didn't have individual initiative and enterprise to support it.

The implication and association of the invisible hand metaphor and sustainability are there.

4:35 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

" rather than if things were centrally organized" - Of course, that is not an issue for me or for Smith, but that has nothing to with the metaphor of an "invisible hand" unless to equate the IH with market forces. Smith certainly did not in either of his examples he used. Landlords and mercantile Britain were not "free markets"!
The capitalist who pollutes, or cheats, pays slave wages, or drive out competitors, follow their self-interests, and Smith condemned that behaviour. It was never good for society that such self-interested capitalists acted in such a manner.
Communism had all the defects you mention and collapsed for the reasons you state.
But it had nothing to do with the IH, anymore than capitalism has anything to with it - it does not exist! Any way, thanks for your comment. You keep me on my toes!

2:01 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

Well, Gavin, it is astonishing that you don't understand what I am getting at.

The idea that is embodied in the IH has everything to do with sustainability and capitalism. You said the IH is about a bias of self-interest. It is that bias that is behind capitalism, and its driving force. The invisible hand should be called the 'ironic hand' because the results of what the metaphor implies is not what one would expect, in the textbook sense, but the opposite, that self-interest leads to a more robust society, not a dog-eat-dog, selfish one that ends in ruin. It is that hidden, unexpected result that conjured the metaphor of the invisible hand as a way to describe something totally unexpected and counterintuitive.

The main reason why the world has gravitated to capitalism is because it offers the practitioners of it economic sustainability. For instance, back in the 1970s the Chinese wisely realized that communism offered no sustainable future, because its central planning didn't generate the entrepreneurs and initiative that builds and maintains things to last and continue. Instead, communism offered stagnation, atrophy and a dead-end.

3:20 pm  

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