HISTORIANS SHOULD GET BASIC FACTS RIGHT ABOUT HISTORY!
A Review Note on Eleanor Courtemanche: “The ‘Invisible Hand’ and British Fiction, 1818-1860”, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011.
A strange and muddled book in so far as it pretends to be an authoritative account of an aspect of literary history. I bought it at an author’s discount from the publisher of my Adam Smith (2005 and 2008, 2nd ed. 2010), on this occasion attracted by its title.
It was, however, disappointing because it is full of basic errors on Adam Smith, his use of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor, the emergence of capitalism, and the relevance of these phenomena to British fiction. I make no comment on its author’s account of early British fiction. other than the context she uses.
Courtemanche’s account is written entirely from the perspective of modern (post-1948) economics and not from any in-depth, or even passing, knowledge of Adam Smith, his life, ideas or contributions to the allegded theme of her book. In fact, the Author betrays a serious deficiency in almost everything she writes about Adam Smith. and her title’s implied hypothesis demonstrates her failure to even check basic facts about her subject, let alone to appreciate the life and work of Adam Smith.
Courtemanche writes on the false assumption that Adam Smith (1723-90) wrote from the perspective of a knowledge of ‘capitalism’. The word ‘capitalism’ was first used in English in 1854 by Thackeray in the Newcomes. It was not in general use in the modern sense until sometime after its first appearance. See Note Below.
The word ‘capitalist’ was used in English some time earlier (Oxford English Dictionary, vol 2). This leads Courtemanche to develop her false hypothesis to fit into her literary themes on early British fiction.
Moreover, Courtemanche writes as if Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” metaphor was widely known when he was alive (1723-90) and discussed by the classical economists in the early part of the 19th century. The facts are quite different.
No contemporaries of Smith commented on his use of the ‘IH’ and neither did any of the classical economists for most of the19th century. Why should they? While Smith was alive (and for a century or more earlier) the ‘IH’ was in regular use by theologians, preachers, and such like, plus occasional authors using it in their texts (e.g. Skakespeare, Daniel Defoe, and many others).
In fact the first and only reference to Smith’s use of the IH metaphor apears to have been made by the charasmatic Scottish Presbyterian preacher, Chalmers, in 1836, using it for his theological purposes. As for the rest of the time, including by those who knew Smith well and by those who regularly wrote about his economics, there is a definite silence regarding the “invisible hand”. Clearly, they did not consider it other than a familar local metaphor of little importance.
My own search finds the first mentions of Smith’s use of the metaphor in the 1870s (six mentions). From there to the 1940s mentions remained sparse. The big turning point came after 1948 when Paul Samuels, in his highy successful textbook, “Economics: an analytical introduction”, McGraw Hill - 19 editions to 2010, 5 million sales, plus the large second hand market, referred to Smith’s use of the ‘IH’ as being about “selfish” behaviour leading to unintended social benefits (itself a misreading of what Smith actually said), From then on, at first slowly then in a torrent and latterly as a daily virtual flood, the association of Adam Smith with selfish actions and an ‘IH’ took off, and has still not abated. This phenomenon is quite extraordinary. Even a casual glance at Smith’s actaul words in the sole reference he made to the ‘IH’ in WN as a metaphor there is no mention of ‘selfish’ actions, yet Courtemanche writes repeatedly as if there is (surely she checked what Smith actually wrote?).
If she insists that Smith’s other reference to the ‘IH’ in Moral Sentiments (TMS, 1759) was about selfish landlords and their treatment of their serfs, she should note that the centuries of feudal mistreatement only had the consequence that the system secured the biological ‘propagation of the species’. But then all the earlier social arrangements - Smith on ‘savagery’, ‘hunting’, shepherding, farming, commerce - could be said to have achieved population growth irrespective of their short-term economic arrangements. Commerce, of course, boosted popoulation growth at historically unprecedented rates. Selfishness iself was never a significant key factor in human history, as Smith made clear in Moral Sentiments (1759).
For my published accounts on Smith’s use of the ‘Invisible hand’ metaphor, I suggest a couple of my earlier papers (both located via Google on the Internet):
Kennedy, Gavin: “Adam Smith and the Invisible hand: from Metaphor to Myth”, Econon Journal Watch, vol 6, no 2 (May 2009), pp 239-630.
Kennedy, Gavin: “Adam Smith and the Role of the Metaphor of an Invisible Hand”, Economic Affairs 31 (1) (2011), pp 53-57
See also:Kennedy, Gavin: Paul Samuelson and the Invention of the Modern Economics of the Invisible Hand,
History of Economic Ideas Vol. 18, No. 3 (2010), pp. 105-119
A note on the first use in English of the word: capitalism.
I regularly refer readers and authors, such as Eleanor Courtemanche, to the first use of the word capitalism in English, though more often I refer to modern economists, who have less excuse than English language academics for not knowing the first appearance of ‘capitalism’ in English.
Consult William Makepeace Thackery’s novel, The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family” , Thomas Nelson and Sons (1854-5). As regularly, I am also often asked exactly where in Thackeray’s novel does ‘capitalism’ appear - it is a long book.
In my second-hand Thomas Nelson (1900) edition, which I bought for my 1st year English course at University in 1965: I turn to Chapter XLV, p. 558: ‘The Hotel de Florac’. In whatever edition you consult go to the ‘Hotel de Florac’ chapter and find the sentence:
“The Prince de Moncontour took his place with great gravity at the Paris board, whither Barnes made frquent flying visits. The sense of capitalism sobered and dignified Paul de Florac at th age of five-and-forty: …”.