BEST NOT TO IGNORE GOOD ADVICE
FROM AN UNPUBLISHED PAPER OF MINE in 2008:
"At the 40th Annual Conference of the UK History of Economic Thought, held in Edinburgh in September 2008, when I presented a paper, “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth” (later, I re-wrote the paper, keeping the title), it was my first acquaintance with most of the international HET scholars in attendance. Most of those who contributed to the session’s discussion that followed were largely critical of my paper for several reasons.
However, Professor Mary Morgan (LSE) afterwards gave me some valuable advice privately on how to criticise widely accepted ideas to scholarly audiences, of which advice I took note.
My paper, she pointed out, did not open with a statement about the various ways in which modern economists use the invisible hand metaphor and, in consequence, it was not clear, she suggested, exactly to what I was objecting, other than my assertion that Adam Smith did not mean the invisible hand to be treated other than as a metaphor.
She asked if was I criticising the theory that an invisible hand guiding self-interested, even selfish, actions, whatever the intentions of the actors, produced benign outcomes? Or was I denying that the invisible hand was a mechanism that operated in markets, through prices and supply and demand? Making this clear, she advised, would guide listeners to the point I was making.
A theory, she added, can always be tested to decide if it corresponds to, or explains, experience. For example, the claim that Adam Smith believed that “self-interested” – even “selfish – behaviours” led to “public benefits” could be tested by specific instances where this was or was not evident in practice. It could also be contrasted with my claim that because Adam Smith refers in Books 1, 2, and 3 of Wealth Of Nations to over 80 instances where the selfish/self interested behaviours of individuals had malign consequences for those affected rather than leading to private, not public, benefits, as claimed for modern versions of the “invisible-hand”.2
On reflection later, I accepted Professor Morgan’s objective advice (she did not indicate whether she agreed or otherwise with me on the invisible hand).
However, since that conversation, I have tried to be wary of ignoring her advice. If readers were left in the dark about the significance of what I have been trying to say since 2005, I would merely be having conversations with myself."
I was looking through my files of my previous writings on the “invisible hand” and among them I noted the above paragraphs of a most relevant and interesting account of my response to Professor Mary Morgan’s (London School of Economics) advice.
It is a timely reminder as I commence writing my 3rd book on Adam Smith (details will be released in due course). I shall, of course, also apply Professor Morgan’s advice to my general writing on my Blog: - (www.adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.co.uk).
Looking through recent items, I sometimes descend to mockery of the writings on the “invisible hand’ in the public media, if only from my exasperation…
I shall try to do better.