Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Genesis of the Invisible Hand

Readers will know of my work on identifying the actual meanings that Adam Smith placed on his use of the metaphor of the “invisible hand” and my oft- stated assessment that he used a popular 18th-century metaphor to lighten the work for his readers’ trying to understand the significance of his references to, first, the role of the necessary delusion that drove some of them from their beds each day to hasten the accumulations of their fortunes (Moral Sentiments, 1759) and the role played by the felt insecurities of some, but not all, merchants indecisions about the placing of their capital locally rather than abroad (Wealth Of Nations, 1776).

I have often remarked that the “invisible hand”, deployed by Smith only three times in over the million words he published, was hardly remarked upon by philosophers and political economists for about a hundred years after he died. The origins of the modern surge in interest in the “invisible hand” metaphor can be found roughly from the 1930s (Chicago’s oral tradition), then in a steady stream from the 1940s and into a vast flood from the 1960s, until today it is virtually ubiquitous.

My current research project is to explain this phenomenon, not just for exegetical purposes (interesting as that may be), because the metaphor’s attributed modern meanings, and their imaginative interpretations of the metaphor’s meanings for modern economics (partly ideological), are worthy of study. They explain a lot that is most interesting about recent and contemporary economic history and discourse, and the surprise when their convictions come awry.

One of the joys (and dangers) of research is the tripping over of little diversionary novel and amusing findings which do not appear to be really relevant to the main task. In reporting the “invisible hand” as a popular 17th-18th century literary metaphor, I have tried to downplay the scientific credentials claimed for it by modern economists (though decidedly not by Adam Smith) and this is often dismissed by correspondents and by my critics in conversations.

Well, exploring my notes from earlier research on this subject, I have taken a few moments to extend my characterization of the “invisible hand” as a popular contemporary literary metaphor in Smith’s life-time, to it being a popular literary metaphor from the time between his death in 1790 to (arbitrarily) 1937, or just before modern economists took to noticing it and to incorporating it into their analyses capitalist economies (e.g., General Equilibrium theory).

To sample my assertions, consider the following selection of eleven cases (out of scores) by famous literary authors and their use of the “invisible hand” in their famous works:

1 Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus‎ by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1823):

“finished by an invisible hand. In the day, I believe, he worked sometimes for a
neighbouring farmer, because he often went forth, and did not return until ..”.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844-45):

'Yes; we have never had the happiness of pressing his hand,' continued Maximilian. ... by an invisible hand - a hand as powerful as that of an enchanter. ...

Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there by Lewis Carroll (1865):

“She said afterwards that she had never seen in all her life such a face as the
King made, when he found himself held in the air by an invisible hand, ...”

Anna Karenina‎ (1873) by Leo Tolstoy:

“sprinkled with flour, that some invisible hand had put outside a baker's shop. Those loaves, the pigeons, and the boys were not of this earth.”

War and Peace‎ by Leo Tolstoy (1889)

The Reigate Puzzle ((1894) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“been struck from his mouth, as if by some invisible hand,”

The Invisible Man‎ by H. G. Wells (1897):

“still hiding his invisible hand, trying to discreetly slide over to where his glove sits on the table.”

The war of the worlds‎ by H. G. Wells (1898):

“They saw the flashes and the men falling and an invisible hand, as it were, lit the bushes as it hurried towards them through the twilight.”

Guy de Maupassant (1903):

“I distinctly saw the stalk of one of the roses bend close to me, as if an invisible hand had bent it, and then break, as if that hand had picked it!”

Tarzan of the apes‎ by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914):

“A huge black, standing directly before him, lunged backward as though felled by an invisible hand. Struggling and shrieking, his body, rolling from side to side”

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf (1922):

“as if drawn by an invisible hand; when there are distant concussions in the air and phantom horsemen galloping, ceasing; when the horizon swims blue”

These examples can be added to by scores of others from classical times (Homer, Horace, and Augustine) and from the 16th through to the 18th century.

The main users of the metaphor were theological authors in their sermons and Latin texts (either side of Adam Smith 1723-90).

Food for thought by those enthralled by Adam Smith’s alleged “most important contribution [to] economic thought” (Arrow and Hahn, 1971) and “one of the great ideas of history and one of the most influential” (Tobin, 1992)?



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