PROFESSOR JONATHAN WIGHT IS RIGHT ON SMITH'S USE OF THE INVISIBLE-HAND METAPHOR
Jonathan B. Wight, Professor of Economics, Robbins School of Business, University of Richmond, Virginia, contributed chapter 12 to “Propriety and Prosperity: new studies on the philosophy of Adam Smith”, edited by David F. Hardwick and Leslie Marsh, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014: ”Instinct and the Invisible Order: the possibility of Progress”, pp. 223-39. His introduction is reproduced below.
“Instincts and the Invisible Order: The Possibility of Progress”
“The invisible hand means a variety of things to modern writers, who use the phrase loosely to imply the market, the price system, efficiency, laissez-faire, greed is good, and so on (Samuels et. al., 2011; Medema, 2009; Rothschild, 1994). In some circles the invisible hand is referred to with reverence and in others with mockery. What Smith wrote, and meant, is quite different from current constructions. At first reading, Smith’s three references to an invisible hand appear to be unconnected turns of phrase. One can find ample reason for agreeing with Kennedy (2009) that the expression’s current use has been blown out of all proportion to its author’s original intent and any reasonable extrapolation thereof. On the other edge of the spectrum are authors like Klein and Lucas (2011), who argue that the invisible hand is the central concept of Smith’s work and that Smith consciously placed it at the exact physical midpoint of both his books as a rhetorical pièce de résistance, the most nourishing part of the meal. This proposition is implausible on many levels. If there were such an intended dialectical message it is curious that it remained hidden from all of Smith’s friends and closest colleagues. It is possible to argue a middle ground, however, as in this essay, that the concept behind the invisible hand is central to Smith’s work, but that the phrase itself is only one of many spread out through his work, and that the placement, as well as the exact phraseology, are non-issues. In the wider context of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, the “invisible hand” represents those unseen instincts of human nature that motivate and direct behavior. When channeled through appropriate human institutions, the invisible hand can generate a spontaneous order that in many cases produces a beneficial social outcome.”
Professor Wight’s contribution is closest to mine (chapter 10) that I have come across recently, in particular, I draw your attention to his sentence:
“In the wider context of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, the “invisible hand” represents those unseen instincts of human nature that motivate and direct behavior.”
I regard Jonathan’s Wight’s statement as the closest I have read on the evident truth of Smith’s conception of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor and I recommend his chapter to readers of Lost Legacy.
I was fortunate to meet Jonathan Wight in 2009, when I attended a Summer School at the University of Richmond (Virginia) in 2009, where I presented my paper: “The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology” (published in the ‘Journal of the History of Economic Thought’, volume 33, no 3, in 2011.
I believe Jonathan Wight is absolutely correct to observe: “This proposition [the common modern view of the invisible hand] is implausible on many levels. If there were such an intended dialectical message it is curious that it remained hidden from all of Smith’s friends and closest colleagues”.
Absolutely right! None of Smith’s Enlightenment colleagues mentioned in correspondence or published anything referring to Smith's use of ‘the invisible hand’ and, excepting Thomas Chalmers, a Church minister, who read into it a theological association, nor did any later scholars, after he died in 1790, publish anything about its supposed signficicance through to 1875. We know there were oral debates at Cambridge University linking ‘laissez-faire’ to the ‘invisible hand’, but in print there was nothing.
Currently, I am writing a summary essay: ““Adam Smith on “Self Betterment, Self-Interest, the Invisible-Hand, Intended and Unintended consequences” that develops my critique of mainstream (and heterodox) opinions and writings on the Adam Smith’s alleged meaning of the “invisible hand” metaphor in his Works.
Unlike most of my published writngs since 2005 on the ‘invisible hand’ controversy, my new paper is not a polemic against the standard majority’s erroneous opinions on the ‘invisible hand’; instead I ignore them and concentrate on the actual views of Adam Smith as they related to his general scholarship and I ignore the views of his epigones. It develops from Smith’s writings and lectures the core ideas encapsulated in the invisible-hand metaphor, basically that it was a metaphor (as defined in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres”, 1763) for the relationship between universal human motives of “self-betterment” (with us from “cradle to grave”, see Wealth Of Nations) and the consequential actions which were intended to resolve the immediate problems driving their motives. In turn, their actions could also have unintended consequences which may or may not prove subsequently beneficial to humanity.
[I expect his essay in draft will be available in late March or early April and readers wishing to receive an early copy of the draft when ready should drop me note: email@example.com