Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Linguist Misses Adam Smith's Point About Man Being A Social Being

George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points. He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

He writes in Huffington Post (HERE):

What Conservatives Really Want”

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, "Let the market decide" assumes the market itself is The Decider. The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand).”

I am sometimes asked by sceptics of Lost Legacy’s campaign against the modern interpretation/invention of the “invisible hand” – “why is the invisible hand so important? It’s merely an argument over a trivial detail that does not mean all that much”, they tell me. (Let’s face it, it is also a great, though boring, “put down” delivered as only a certain type of scholar can do.)

Well, here is an example of why it is important to me and why is should be important to them. Professor George Lakoff doesn’t believe in the “invisible hand” myth – that’s clear from the context – but he is able to assert that “conservatives” do believe in it, and with some justification – read any modern textbook, or journal article that mentions the ubiquitous “invisible hand” (with the exception of my own – and a very few others).

Professor Lakoff uses this near unanimity among modern economists (conservative, libertarian, Austrian, Hayekian, Public Choice, neo-classical and some heterodox economists (and others apparently, including Chinese communists) to build his case against ‘capitalism’ and its alleged assorted ‘crimes’ against morality, decency, and humanity (follow the link for his full, albeit largely linguistic, thesis).

The invisible hand myth damages economics because it is without merit and it is refutable by the evidence of Smith’s own Works and by the non-evidence of its presence in the real world. Markets, through very visible prices and the reactions of human behaviours to what is visible, fully explains their social power. Economic theorists since the 1870s developed mathematical relationships which do not conform to how humans tend to behave – as the behaviourists have demonstrated - which is more than the mathematicians, marginal utility equilibrium theorists, and the purveyors of Homo Economicus have ever done.

Professor Lakoff misses Adam Smith’s main point, namely that society is not just about individuals – it is always in a social context. Self-interest can only operate between individuals in society. The earliest and decisive propensity common to humans was that of ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, which by definition requires more than one individual.

Society provides the "mirror" (said Smith) from which individuals learn how to behave appropriately to that society (different societies may have different ideas and practices as to what is appropriate). The lonely, self sufficient ego is a figment of the American (and Ayn Rand’s) imagination, not from Adam Smith.

However, this is not the time to provide a compete rebuttal of Professor Lakoff’s wilder shores of his imagination about Adam Smith, his Works and his moral philosophy, or his political economy.

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