Friday, January 20, 2012

Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith

Jan Peter Hammer is reported on HERE

Jan Peter Hammer produces a ‘U-tube’ video cameo asserting, wrongly, that Adam Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” metaphor was an “off-shoot” from Bernard Mandelson’s (1705-1724) ‘Fable of the Bees, Private vices, Public benefits’ theme. It wasn’t.

“The Fable of the Bees by Jan Peter Hammer at Supportico Lopez in Berlin”

“The Fable of the Bees by Jan Peter Hammer is an exhibition based on the 1705 poem by Bernard Mandeville “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.” In his poem and ancillary prose Mandeville brings into being the counter-intuitive argument that better people make the world a worse place, since so-called vices such as egoism or greed stimulate social prosperity, whilst altruism or honesty result in collective atavism and disinvestment. In spite of the harsh reception of Mandeville’s work, which gave great offense to contemporary readers, his core idea that private vices lead to an increase in public benefits was later recovered and popularized by the British Utilitarian School. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” parable is an off-shoot of Mandeville’s fable minus the cynical crudeness, with an added veneer of scientific respectability that makes the argument much more palatable and less contentious. Fables and parables are moral tales whose aim is to instruct, each of which contains a lesson to be learnt by its readers. Though 18th century’s classical political economy embraced a moralizing function, economics has since gone to great lengths to hide its ethical foundations. Claims of neutrality notwithstanding, choices of economic policy remain largely political.

In Jan Peter Hammer’s eponymous video “The Fable of the Bees” – shot in the guise of a You Tube home-made production – an eager young professional unwittingly channels Mandeville’s reasoning, providing a good illustration of the adage that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”(J.M. Keynes)”

“That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen” is a title borrowed from Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 text “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas”, in which Bastiat lays out yet another parable, the “parable of the broken window”. Positioning himself against Mandeville’s notion that destruction brings net-benefits, Bastiat states that, “In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.”

Two erroneous ideas may make a passable ‘U-Tube’ video that amuses viewers, but art is not necessarily history, nor instructive. Adam Smith did not deduct Mandeville’s “cynical crudeness” to add a “ veneer of scientific respectability” to make Mandeville’s “argument much more palatable and less contentious”.

He dismissed Mandeville’s satire as a “licentious System” and regarded it in “almost every respect erroneous” (Moral Sentiments, Book IV, Chapter 1.10.185); which should be read to appreciate Smith’s rejection of it in every respect). He attacked his ideas about vice and vanity as being wholly vicious, and a “mere offspring of flattery begot upon pride”. He concedes that Mandeville “once made so much noise in the world” because “in some respects [it] bordered upon the truth”, which is necessary to “deceive us” and “yet [it had] no foundation in nature, nor any sort of resemblance to the truth”, much like the “groundless and absurd fictions” about a “distant country” (which the 18th century abounded in). Such authors, concluded Smith, “appear absurd and ridiculous [even] to the most injudicious and unexperienced reader”.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was never a “parable”, nor an “off-shoot of Mandeville’s fable minus the cynical crudeness”. Treating his use of a metaphor as a parable confuses a figure of speech in English grammar with a moral-type of “story”. How this particular and common 17th-18th-century metaphor became mythical story in modern economics, has to do with those neo-classical economists from the 1940s who felt a need to give their direct opposition to Soviet central planning by invoking the credentials of market solutions for problems of economic growth, living standards, innovation and technologies, in which they felt (rightly) that capitalism was far superior to communism. The Soviets had Karl Marx as their fount of wisdom; western economists rediscovered a mythical Adam Smith who had nothing to do with the Adam Smith born in 1723.

Marxists disparaged Adam Smith; neo-classical economists invented a role for the invisible hand metaphor and ascribed their inventions (wrongly) to Adam Smith by asserting that the invisible hand operated in the “miracle” of markets (but without showing precisely what it did and without a term for it in any of their mathematical abstractions). Marxist theorists simply side-stepped the “wonders” of “an invisible hand”, saying that central state planners replaced the market’s invisible hand (see Oscar Lange: ‘Economics of Socialism’, 1937 and 1947).

Keynes may have been right about “practical men” being “the slaves of some defunct economist”, though neoclassical exponents of “invisible hand” myth are the slaves of a wholly invented role for a lowly metaphor that has nothing to do with Adam Smith (see Warren Samuels, “Erasing the Invisible Hand: essays in an elusive and misused concept in economics” 2011 – and Lost Legacy, passim).

Jan Peter Hammer’s quotation from Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 text “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas”, is interesting. It is not clear what Jan Peter Hammer makes of what Bastiat was saying: “the first [effect] alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.” This formulation has nothing to do with the “invisible hand” metaphor.

In both cases of Smith’s use of the IH metaphor its object is clear (but unseen). In Moral Sentiments, the rich landlord is led to his action in feeding his dependent serfs (“the thousands he employs”) by his unseen dependence on their toil (‘no food, no toil’), but the consequences of his action are seen in the subsistence paid to his toilers and their families, which results in the “advance of society and the multiplication of the species” (‘no toil, no food’) (TMS IV.1.10: 185).

In Wealth Of Nations, those insecure traders who prefer to invest in “domestic industry” rather than risk investing in “foreign trade” (unseen attitudes to risk), which unseen motive results in higher and seen “domestic revenue and employment” (WN IV.ii.9: 456). Bastiat’s quotation is about seen causes and unseen consequences, while in Smith’s use of the IH metaphor, the causes of being led are unseen; the consequences are seen. The IH metaphor describes these relations in a “more striking and interesting manner” (Adam Smith, Lectures in Rhetoric and Beller Letters, [1762] 1983, p 29).

Smith’s point was specific too: both the landlord and the investors act without “intending, without knowing” the consequences of their actions (Moral Sentiments, TMS IV.1.10: 185), and a risk averse investor acts to “promote an end which was no part of his intention” (WN IV.ii.9: 456). In neither case can we see the cause, but we can see the consequences in both cases.

I am all for art and such-like creative endeavour as demonstrated by Jan Peter Hammer, but let's keep my feet on the ground, not in the clouds, when it comes to interpreting historical licence from artistic subjects.

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Blogger airth10 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:44 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


You may be right, but it's u-tube in Scottish press.


10:02 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Comment from' airth', now deleted in delated post, but releant to the duplicate post:
"I think if Adam Smith were around today he might rethink or clarify his metaphor of the invisible hand. The two examples Smith uses of the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiment and Wealth of Nations seem to refer more to common sense than anything else. Perhaps, then, we should think that common sense is what constitutes the invisible hand. When you think about it, though, Smith's discoveries were not that great a revelation. I like best the idea that the IH metaphor is more like the counter intuitive argument Mandeville makes. As I have always thought humans develop and progress in a perverse (counter intuitive) manner. That is really the invisible hand. But, then, Smith also made this argument about the butcher and he serving his own self-interest first, inadvertently doing good for the community. That is really the invisible hand, the astonishing fact that lasting goodness comes out of the perverseness of human behavior.
By airth10 on Bernard Mandeville Was Not a Precursor of Adam Smi... at 18:38.

Response: you are making it up as you go along. I shall not respond to such endless comments.


10:13 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:55 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I have been very patient with you; answering your comments for several months, as their themes keep changing, without consistency, and ever changing the very basis of your alleged attachment to the idea, come what may.

Reluctantly, I am no longer sure that you are not a troll or acting like one.

From now on, I shall consider carefully any comment that you send in, and may no longer publish them.

I suggest that you read Warren Samuels' new book from his 27-year study of ALL the literature on the invisible hand in Adam Smith and what modern economists have written about it (hundreds of articles, scores of books). He concludes that the IH is "empty" of content, does not exist, and is widely misunderstood and misrepresented in economics.

Good night.


6:42 am  

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