Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Debate on the Invisible Hand Continues in Economic Affairs

A Scholarly debate is published in the latest issue of Economic Affairs, the quarterly Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs on the significance of the Smith’s use of the metaphor of the invisible hand.

Severe copyright restrictions by the publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, preclude me offering web copies.
I have taken a paragraph from each contributor’s article (including my own) to provide a flavour of the debate.

Daniel Klein and Brandon Lucas:

[Our] reading of Smith supports the notion that Smith deliberately placed ‘led by an invisible hand’ at the centre of his tomes. We have not, here, argued the larger interpretation. We have argued only certain matters related to the claim that centrality was deliberate [.]

Daniel B. Klein and Brandon Lucas: “In a word or two, placed in the middle: the invisible hand in Smith’s tomes, Economic Affairs, 2011, March, vol. 31, March 2011: 43-52

Gavin Kennedy:

“While Klein and Lucas’s praiseworthy research on Thucydides and centrality contributes to our understanding of some on Smith’s ideas on rhetoric, physical centrality itself does not lead directly to our understanding of what Smith meant by the IH metaphor. Quoting as their sources from the Talmud and modern theories of ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ distinctions (Strauss, 1952; Minowitz, 2009), plus a host of other scholars, does not shed light on Smith’s teachings on the proper use of metaphors. Neither, in fact, do the many authors before Klein and Lucas, who following Lange (1946) and Samuelson (1948), trace what they call the ‘invisible hand doctrine’ of Adam Smith without mentioning Smith’s teachings on metaphors. It is as if they discuss Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ without mentioning the ‘Prince of Denmark’.”
Economic Affairs, 2011, March, vol. 31, March 2011: 53-55

Craig Smith:

I remain unconvinced by the deliberate centrality thesis; just as I remain unconvinced that Smith’s use of the metaphor was an intentional naming of his core theoretical observations. If this were the case I would expect to find the metaphor appearing with greater frequency in his work as a sort of leitmotif tracking the profusion of unintended consequence style analyses in all of his writings. But his does not means to say that the lovely phrase cannot be made use of as a generic name for a certain form of social theoretic observation and the use of this in support of a policy of natural liberty. I am not convinced that Smith deliberately placed the invisible hand at the centre of his books but I am certain that it lies at the heart of his thinking.’

Craig Smith, “A comment on the centrality of the invisible hand”, Economic Affairs, 2011, March, vol. 31. No. 1, 58-59.

Ryan Hanley:

“Now, if Smith’s use of the invisible hand could be shown, say, to have violated a tenet of the Westminster Confession, or say, to have used the invisible hand in a positive light in the exact middle of Kapital – these would be real finds. But as it stands, I can’t quite how Smith’s attitude to the invisible hand fits Strauss’s criteria.”

[Strauss is an authority the use of English literature and its grammar, who is extensively quoted by Daniel Klein and Brandon Lucas.]

but in the end, I can’t quite shake the suspicions that this sophistication the TMS is not Talmud, [a 2,000 years-old religious text, also quoted by Klein and Lucas.] and that the centrality is best demonstrated not by counting leaves in a physical text but is best demonstrating a concept’s substantive primacy in the system under study – the only centrality that ultimately matters.”

Ryan Hanley, “A comment on the centrality of the invisible hand”, Economic Affairs, 2011, March, vol. 31. No. 1, 60-61.

When Daniel Klein sent me an early copy of his paper (with Brandon Lucas), I was impressed, and said so (because scholars must always submit to the facts), with the evidence the physical centrality of Smith’s two uses of the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations.

However, I was not impressed with the conclusions that Klein and Lucas drew from these physical facts to the wider issues of Smith’s meaning in using the IH metaphor, which Klein has argued for in other published exchanges between us since 2009, after we met at Balliol College, Oxford, commemorating Smith’s publication Moral Sentiments in 1759.



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