Friday, June 10, 2005

The invisible hand again

Science & Theology News
Quincy, Mass., USA
The science of compassion
Compassion is about more than being nice to others. It is living a more spiritually satisfying life. By Matt Donnelly(June 10, 2005)

Marc Ian Barasch is the author of Field Notes on the Compassionate Life and is a leading voice in discussions about living a more holistic life. Science & Theology News web editor Matt Donnelly spoke with Barasch about Field Notes, the role of religion in a compassionate society and the very real connection between the brain and the heart.

Two paragraphs from Barasch's replies to Matt Donnelly:

“Look at Adam Smith and his idea of the Invisible Hand. Smith said, crudely put, that through the mediation of this providential Hand—which, by the way, strikes me more as a theological than a scientific construct--the pursuit by each of his or her self-interest will miraculously translate into good for all…

I mean, look at the society we’ve built under that set of assumptions, which is magnificent in so many ways. But what of the inequitable apportionment worldwide of the goods needed for some basic level of material well-being? The Hand has been too graspy, too sticky-fingered, to very dexterously sort that out. It’s been all thumbs. It certainly produces, efficiently and in great quantity, this great torrent of goods and services, but rather blindly, with little consideration of deeper values and collective effects. The Hand has been for a century positively throttling the environment. Our current civilization is devouring the planet to produce the superfluous junk of mass shopping culture, which hardly conduces to living together compassionately, let alone sustaining the earth. We can’t continue on this path, and I’m not twiddling my thumbs waiting for the Invisible Hand. We’ve elevated egocentricity to social and economic policy, even a raison d’etre.”

That is some giant construction placed on a single isolated metaphor in “Wealth of Nations” that referred to a special case where, because some 18th century “merchants and manufacturers” (basically small scale traders and small scale but skilled handicraft workers – forgers, blacksmiths, farm implement makers, saddlers and coachbuilders) preferred to sell their produce locally rather than export it for ‘distant sale’, this unintentionally benefited national prosperity. Smith suggested they were led by an ‘invisible hand’ on this occasion to benefit the national interest, although individually they believed they did so for themselves.

That’s all there is to Smith’s invisible hand! He only mentioned twice more but neither of them were in “Wealth of Nations” (1776). He mentioned it onnce in a “juvenile essay” (1743-49) on the “History of Astronomy” in reference to pagan superstitions that everything that happened to them was guided by the ‘invisible hand of Jupiter (the Roman God, not the planet), and again in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), this time referring to the behaviour of feudal lords who spent their money on trinkets, baubles and other trivia, sold to them by ‘merchants and manufacturers’ and thus weakened their political and military power.

We should note that the metaphor was not Smith’s at all. It was Shakespeare’s, over 150 years earlier in his play, “Macbeth” (3.2): ‘with thy bloody and invisible hand’.

From an isolated metaphor, the invisible hand has been made into an all embracing general maxim, analogous to the ‘market’ What Barasch writes is a travesty of Smith’s intentions or meaning. All that Marc Barasch complains about under the astonishing rubric, ‘The Hand’, has nothing at all to do with Adam Smith’s legacy.

In the spirit of Barasch's book we must show compassion. Obviously he never read "Wealth of Nations" (but neither have almost everybody who quotes from it) and therefore he has been misled by the very visible (in its consequences) hand of misinformation. Perhaps Barasch will show similar compassion towards Adam Smith's legacy in future?


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