Friday, December 13, 2013

Actions Not Motives Cause Unintended Consequences

Karen Hedwig Backman posts (10 December) on Daily Kos Here 
“Counterfactual Theory and the Invisible Hand of Intelligent Design”
According to David Lewis, if a and b are distinct events that actually occur, then b causally depends on a if and only if a were not to occur, then b would not occur either (1973a). If the match had not been struck, then it would not have lit. ...
But, but, what about the many times I have struck a match and the match has not lit. Varying circumstances caused this to happen, a damp environment which discourages fire, an abrasive surface for striking a match which is no longer abrasive, age and decay of the chemicals in the matches. Holy Cow! Just because you strike a match -- or friction it against a suitably rough surface -- does not mean that it will burst into flame.
But, but, what about the counter logic of counterfactual theory? I leap, like Zippy, into a wonderful fairyland of conjectural bewilderment.
In the matter of a and b and a causal relationship between the two, if the action of a occurs but b does not result, what about the logic of the invisible hand and intelligent design?
How did it all happen? Why must it be so damned uncertain? If a match is struck, or rubbed frictionally against an appropriately rough surface ... some matches are designed so that they only ignite when rubbed frictionally against a specific chemically treated surfaces, a markedly complex synergy which cancels out all a's as the cause of b. I concede that b can still occur if the proper circumstances of a occur but not always. That's as far as I'll go.
A possibility, but nothing so firm as a probability.
Intelligent design? Pishtah! Again, a possibility, remotely, but blind happenstance prevails. Once in a while even the universe makes sense and is momentarily certain.
I quote Karen Hedwig Backman’s short post because it deals tangentially with a debate I am having with an anonymous correspondent on “unintended consequences” and the metaphor of “an invisible hand”.  Whereas the invisible hand as a metaphor addresses the hidden, thereby invisible, motives of those merchants who avoid foreign trade because of their perceived insecurity of their capital. When their capital leaves their own country it is out of their sight in foreign countries, of which they are less familiar with in respect of the honesty of the people they must rely upon abroad and the uncertain legal systems that they would necessarily depend upon to remedy any deficiencies in the probity of their overseas partners.  Hence, they prefer to invest at home in “domestic industry, writes Adam Smith in Wealth Of Nations (WN IV.ii.1-10: 452-456).
I have long criticised modern interpretations of this paragraph and the assertions that follow about the ‘unintended consequences’ as mentioned by Adam Smith. These disputes narrow down to what the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor refers to. 
I claim, following Adam Smith, that all metaphors, refer to their “objects”.  Smith wrote of them thus: “Metaphors describe in a more striking and interesting manner their objects” in his Lectures on Rhetoric, delivered during November 1762 and December 1763) (Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1983, p. 29. Oxford University Press).   This definition and his examples conform to modern definition of metaphors in the definitive Oxford English Dictionary (and as far as I have been able to check in all English language dictionaries).
Clearly, the motives of the merchant’s insecurity are the “object” addressed by the metaphor of “an invisible hand”. It “describes in a more striking and interesting manner” the object.  No amount of wriggling can get my anonymous critic off that hook.
The debate moved on to another line of attack, specifically Smith’s reference to “unintended consequences”, which my critic pretends to find a rescue for his/her crumbling position. My critic claims that the “invisible hand” is a metaphor for the ‘unintended consequence’ of the merchant’s motives.  This is illogical; it gets the relationship the wrong way round. 
The merchant’s motives are private, hidden and cannot be seen by others – they are “invisible” to others!  But his actions, which are the consequences of the merchants acting on his invisible motives, are visible: they arithmetically increase “domestic revenue and employment”, as Smith says.  What is visible is not comfortably expressed as a metaphor like “an invisible hand”.
To suggest, as some, like my anonymous critic does, that ‘an invisible hand’ leads the merchant to produce the “unintended consequences” identified by Adam Smith is to import into economics a wholly mysterious “intentional force” that deliberately creates the “unintentional consequences” of the merchant’s actions!  A logical nonsense surely?  I can only admire the cheek that is introduced into economics by this virtual theological invisible force, which nobody can see or measure.
The sequence, I suggest, is that the private motives of individuals lead them to actions and these actions, not their motives, lead their visible actions to the visible “unintended consequences”. 
In Karen Hedwig Backman’s presentation of David Lewis’s logic: “if a and b are distinct events that actually occur, then b causally depends on a if and only if a were not to occur, then b would not occur either”. 
Now, if the merchant’s insecurity was not present as the motive, he might export his capital in the “foreign trade of consumption” and most certainly the arithmetic increase in “domestic revenue and employment” that would occur if he had invested his capital domestically.  In short, if a did not occur then neither would b – because if there is no motive, then there would be no action to avoid foreign investment, and consequently there would not be c, in this case, the “unintended consequences” of the action of investing in domestic industry.
What a host of complications and, sad to say, outright fantasies, that would be avoided if only modern economists wedded to “invisible hand” theology would carefully read Adam Smith’s words and not jump to their unwarranted conclusions.


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