The Invisible Hand and the Common Good (Ethical Economy)

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But now he is not emphasizing fear. Because Adam Smith, those who argue for one Adam Smith rather than two Adam Smiths, say that he has a theory of humans which is a sympathetic theory of humans. We try to please people. We want to impress people. We want to have a reputation; we want to have a good reputation. We want to act honorably.

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So we are seeking sympathy. And I think this is a very important and intriguing idea, which I will show, try to show you later on, may not be completely inconsistent by the idea that seeking self-interest is leading to the common good. Because indeed, if self-interest implies that I also want others to respect and evaluate [correction: value] me, the self-interest also implies that I want to do good to others. And this, I think, is the way how he is being read.


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And he introduces the notion for the first time of the concept invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In fact, I will talk about this later on. The term, the word, invisible hand, the term, comes up three times in his work. The way how we understand invisible hand comes from a section once, in one sentence, in The Wealth of Nations. Watch yourself when you are coining a term because a term occasionally can stick and then it will be always attributed to you, even if you use it once in your life.

Well The Wealth of Nations. Well these are kind of the Table of Contents. He writes about the division of labor and determination of prices, accumulation of capital. He writes about the evaluation of societies: hunting, raising agriculture, and commercial societies. He never used the term capitalism; modern economy was commercial industrial society for him. And then he offers a criticism of mercantilism. And then something is on taxation, what I will not talk about. So self-interest and the common good; one of the big issues we have to discuss when we are faced with Adam Smith. And the arguments are if you are interacting with each other, do not expect benevolence.

Do not expect that somebody else will be charitable to you. There is also saying if you are seeking self-interest—specifically in the citations I have; for instance, choosing your employment. If you chose it rationally, this will be in the common good. And I will try to explain why you seeking self-interest in finding the job which is best for you is also the best for society. And then he says, well the individuals are the better judges of their own interests than any statement or lawgiver. So do not expect benevolence.

Okay, this is a very frequently cited sentence from Adam Smith. I want him to cook a good meal because then I will give a tip. It is in the self-interest of the waiter to serve me well and serve me good food. Otherwise I will not go back again and I will not give a tip. I will punish. It is appealing to the self-interest of the person for whom I expect something, and not is benevolence. Well he said well we address ourselves not to the humanity of the people, not to their self-love, but we want people to take advantage of this.

This is an interesting issue, by the way, even in everyday life. Just to give you a very personalized example. I want people who actually act out of self-interest seeking my relationship. It will be a bad relationship if my friends always think that it cost them to talk to me, and they do not benefit from the relationship with me.

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I want my children to see that having me as a father is beneficial for them. Good relationships are always based on self-interest. Therefore you want people acting out of self-interest. The beggar will make some tricks in which, in fact, actually will appeal to your self-interest, that you are a charitable person or what. Now self-interest in employment.

He said when you are choosing an occupation, of course you want to have a big job, you want to be well-paid. Because the employer gets a lot out of these skills what you get out of Yale, and therefore it will be in the interest of the society that you get the highest possible salary because you make the greatest contribution to the common good; otherwise you would not be paid that high.

So therefore you will try to find that occupation in which you get the highest possible reward, but you will get only the highest possible reward because you make the utmost contribution you can, with your talent, with your hard work, and with your skills, to the common good. Now this is very important too, I find.

Only Catholic Social Teaching can save capitalism from itself

He said well the individuals in the local situations are simply better judges to what is their interest than any statement or lawgiver. People should judge for themselves what they want and it should not be a government which imposes it on them. This is a big debate right now, for instance about the healthcare insurance, the healthcare reform. Should we let it up to people to decide whether they want to have an insurance or not? Should we expect people to be individually responsible for themselves, to take charge of their life?

Or should it be the government, or should it be a statesman, the lawgiver, the Congress who takes care of people? And he clearly takes a position no, I think people are the best judges of their feelings. Now the labor theory of value. And let me rush through of it. This is important. His point of departure comes from John Locke, as we have seen, and it is leading directly to Karl Marx. Karl Marx radicalizes his position, but the point of departure is clearly Adam Smith. And the argument about the labor theory of value: the labor is the measure of all values.

But then he departs from it because he asks the question, where does the profit and rent come from? Marx asked this question as well, and he says exploitation; those who earn profit exploit the workers. But Adam Smith has a different view. He says well those who will lend capital and those who offer land also deserve part of the value. How can that all value is created by labor and belongs to the laborer, and nevertheless the capitalist pockets profit and the landowner pockets rent for the land?

In illegal exchanges, for example, receiving stolen goods, default is more common, and rather difficult for criminals to guard against. Enforcing laws of contract requires cooperation and resources from someone else - in democratic societies, the courts on behalf of the government and the people. But courts and prisons and police cost money and most of the costs fall on people who were not party to the contract in the first place - who are therefore paying for a service that doesn't directly benefit themselves.

Such courts fall into the category of "public good" - we are all better off in a society where the rule of law is upheld - but are not created and maintained by any invisible hand mechanism. Courts are set up deliberately to carry out a public good; and, although they may not always work the way they are intended to, there is nothing unintended about their use to enforce contracts. In a democratic society, there is a strong temptation for "special-interest" groups to form and lobby the government to provide tax-payers' money to the group in the form of subsidies.

Politicians find the prospect of buying the loyalty of the group attractive, and the group sees the prospect of getting other people's money for nothing. Clearly, everyone would be better off if no one sought subsidies - by definition, subsidies are only needed for unprofitable activities, that is, activities that other people do not value sufficiently to pay their own money for. However, if other people seek and gain subsidies, anyone who doesn't bother trying to do the same for themselves will end up subsidising others while receiving no subsidies themselves. This fear may force large numbers of people to spend their time lobbying the government for subsidies, rather than simply engaging in more profitable activities - a classic example of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and one over which no court has jurisdiction.

A very similar situation occurs regarding monopolies. Since pretty much every producer is a consumer, it is probably to everybody's benefit overall if no producers attempt to raise prices by monopolising their market; however, attempting to enforce a monopoly can be very attractive to individual producers. Smith rather sardonically observed that. As explained in the Editorial of Issue 13 of Plus , Arrow's Impossibility Theorem says that, in a certain sense, it is impossible to produce a consistent group preference by aggregating individual preferences.

It is normally stated in terms of votes and elections, and, in this format, says that is impossible to use information about individual voters' preferences to decide what is "the will of the people". Every voting system in current use throws up anomalies, such as "flip-flops", which occur when a third candidate enters the race and overturns the group preference between the other two candidates think of Ralph Nader in California, splitting Al Gore's vote and handing George Bush the election. Again, the relevance to allocation of public goods is not immediately obvious - until you recall that an essential part of the invisible hand process is that producers respond to an single signal that is meant to be an aggregate of all signals by consumers.

Arrow's Theorem is often interpreted as saying that there is no consistent way to aggregate the preferences of individuals to give a single preference which can be regarded as the preference of society - or "the will of the people". An economic version of the flip-flop could occur if a majority of customers would prefer to buy Product X to Product Y, but some of that majority actually like Product Z even better the equivalent of splitting the vote ; the producer may end up producing Product Y even though more people would have liked Product X, and presumably it would have been more profitable to produce it.

If this happens, then the invisible hand cannot be said to have worked to maximise economic wellbeing. In a centralised society a few individuals make decisions on how to spend everyone's money and direct everyone's effort. How economic systems work and what can be done to improve them is still very much a live area of research for economists. Mathematicians are currently grappling with the implications of game theory for all sorts of social choice, in particular, what meaning, if any, can be attached to the expressions "the will of the people" and "the public good".

The results of such analyses will not be the only factor in deciding whether societies move towards or away from laissez-faire economics "laissez-faire" means "let alone" and is shorthand for leaving things to the invisible hand. Political will, whether the world becomes more peaceful or less, and the practicality of any alternatives will also be factors. Alternative systems tend to require much more intervention and more stringent rules.

In the real world, such rules automatically introduce more and more opportunities for mistakes and corruption, which might mean that another system, even if better in principle, would be worse in practice. Perhaps the strongest reason for leaving the allocation of effort and reward to the invisible hand is that when it misappropriates goods, it is likely to be on a small scale.

More centralised methods of allocating goods are more prone to corruption and waste. Smith described people given the spending of other people's money thus:. It is useful to remember the context in which Smith developed his theories - that of a heavily planned and rather dictatorial society, where some individuals were above the law and others were effectively without any rights.

As Smith said. Helen Joyce is one of the assistant editors on Plus magazine. I would just like to thank you for this article. I am a 12th grader and in an economics class right now. I was assigned a paper on Adam Smith and his ideals and this help out a ton with explaining the invisible hand. Thanks again for a great source! I am a part time student who studying towards my Bachelor of Accounting. To complete my assignment of the free market approach, I read through your article despite it was published in a maths magazine. And I am inspired after I read your article.

It really helped me to complete my work! Thanks again! Helen, thank you for the article! Comprehensive, to the point, and now I have a more thorough understanding of the basics of economics and how the invisible hand plays a role. I am a few classes shy of earning my bachelor's degree in business management. Thank you! Most of what you've said has been right, concerning the actual modern mechanisms of the invisible hand of the market, however the historic basis you've given for its creation isn't right.

Smith never states or hints at all that the modern hand is led by anything but the mass decisions of people making decisions that are best for them at the time. The price of anything, the product of manipulation by the invisible hand, is determined to this day by modern economics in very large part by the exact mechanisms Smith describes: the law of supply which he says creates a direct relationship between the price of a product and the amount sellers are willing to sell and the law of demand which he says creates an inverse relationship between the price of a product and the amount buyers are willing to by.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Smith believed crime was the worst crime of all. When he states that the creation of the civil government can be attributed to the need for defence of the rich against the poor he makes it abundantly clear that this is true because human nature and greed being what it is creates resentment of those who do not have property against those that do.

As such in a society of hunters, where no one has property that cannot be regained within a few days work, there is no need for civil government, because all are relatively financially equal. However, when you arrive at any higher forms of society, like shepherds, husbandmen, or civil society, division of class is created by accumulation of wealth by some.

The Invisible Hand

It is not out of disgust of stealing over any other crime that leads him to his stance on the main reason for civil government, but the realization that the law's duty to protect every citizen from every other citizen stems from some citizens having more than others, and it is those ones that need protection more often than those that have nothing. It would be interesting if there is a networking site where we can discuss ideas.

An open debate for interpretations to foster understanding and to widen our knowledge And it would be interesting to know opinions from different walks of life especially from those in the third world. I am a 10th grader studying adam smith for a research project. This is the first time that I have read a concise, interesting, easily apprehensible article about Adam Smith. Prophets like Adam Smith are followed by priests who codified the prophet's insights and often the priests turn his creativity into drudgery.

It seems that if Smith had been around for the last years, he would have explicitly acknowledged that the Invisible Hand operates through the Price Structure aka Price System [PS]. Businessmen and consumers and most people are both need accurate information on the current prices of everything that affects them.

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The transmitting of prices is essential for there to be a free market. When people are provided false information, that make decisions which they otherwise would not make. Fraud deprives the victim of his right to make a free choice. When the government allows sellers to misrepresent the value of their goods, not only does the innocent buyer lose his money, but serious disruptions in the market can occur when the frauds reach a massive scale.

Only government is large enough to clamp down on people who would disseminate false information about prices. The government can outlaw certain behavior which harms the PS. The Glass-Steagall Act prohibited certain type of business transactions as experience with the Great Depression had taught that cheaters do prosper and predatory and fraudulent business practices are more alluring than sound investments. For example, it was easier for Wall Street to find hundreds of thousands of subprime home mortgages i. Thus, Wall Street realized that by bundling together a lot of subprime mortgages and then getting a rating agency like Standard and Poor to give them AAA ratings, they could sell lead for gold.

Wall Street's scam was a direct attack on the fundamentals of capitalism as Smith had set them forth. When lead is sold as gold, the PS is destroyed and people are deceived into putting too much money into home mortgages. Every dollar that went into a fraudulent bundled mortgage was a dollar that was not invested in a wiser way to make money for the investor and as a result make society as a whole wealthier. But for the fraud, the Invisible Hand of the PS would have directed the investment dollars elsewhere.

Capitalism needs a government that is large enough and with regulatory powers to protect the system from crooks. As we have seen in the last 3 years, when fraud enters the market place, the Invisible Hand ceases to function and the economy crashes But, a few corrupt individuals become extraordinarily wealthy. The first goal of any government should be to protect the integrity of the Price System so that the Indivisible Hand may function. The new Administration has failed to re-instate Glass-Steagall, and Wall Street had continued to make billions upon billions of dollars by interfering with the Price System so that people do not know the true value of Food or Oil.

People make the mistake of thinking that term Invisible Hand means that it is some divine power which operates without any human assistance. Quite the contrary, without a government with the power and the will to protect it, the Invisible Hand withers. The "capitalists" who operate without regulation will alter the price system so that people make bad decisions which favor the capitalists. Thus, the saying that Capitalists themselves are the greatest threat to Capitalism. Whenever one sees some group advocating for a small weak government, one almost always finds corrupt businessmen behind the group.

If we did not know the Koch Bros were financing the tea party, we could discern that fact from Adam Smith. While we will not know the identity of the persons, corporations and countries financing political parties due to the Citizens United Case, we know that those who advocate for a small government and attack regulations have the agenda of destroying Adam Smith's Invisible Hand.

When people understand that the Invisible Hand requires a government large enough to regulate predatory business practices, then we will have a chance for a steady increase of prosperity. As we have seen during the last 3 years, without proper regulation, money flows to the corrupt as they can cheat millions of people out of their money and then the corrupt buy more politicians to make certain government stays small and weak. As a result, the economy enters into wild fluctuations as it is thrown about by all the corrupt manipulations of the Price System. Because the Invisible Hand cannot operate in the sea of fraud and deceit, people do not know where to put their money and almost every place turns out to be the wrong place.

I like when you explain that small government is fueled by the corrupt. Everything ties to price system manipulation, and the invisible hand cannot succeed without regulation against fraud. Great article on Smith's famous hand and the connections to Game Theory and Arrow's theorem. A welcomed and well-written refresher on all these topics. Is the invisible hand infallible and does that assumption lead to the conclusion that non-moral actors like corporations should rightfully be free to do whatever they care to do?

It does seem as though the notion of a "free market" has been corrupted to reinforce this interpretation. The traditional definition of a free market was that of a market where there was freedom of entry - meaning there were no barriers to anyone competing with existing suppliers. Necessarily, a free market would have a large number of small suppliers with none so large as to be able, alone, to influence price. Today, the notion of a "free market" has been corrupted to mean nearly the opposite of this traditional definition.

Today, there seems a widespread acceptance of the idea that a market is free if and only if the government does not regulate the market. Presumably, this notion is motivated by the assumption that the invisible hand is truly infallible. But we know that a market that is not regulated by government, monopolies emerge to eliminate the true freedom in that market.

Once there is a monopoly, new competitors will not be able to compete. We also know, if we examine the issue at all dispassionately, that business cannot function properly without any government regulation. Business depends on the structure and enforcement of law much more than private individuals do. If the free hand is infallible and if it was so important in the thinking of Adam Smith you would think he would have mentioned it often.


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But the quote given at the start of this article seems to be his only mention of the concept. Regulation of corporate and private sector activity by a government that is "big enough" to do it invites disaster. Because all regulation and rules, especially when applied arbitrarily by government officials, favors the bigger monsters over the little guy. Rules to "protect" us from bad food in restaurant also "protect" the biggest restaurant chains from little itsy bitsy Mom and Pops.

My wife cooks lots of food a times better than McDonald's hamburgers, but how many regulations and permits would we have to jump through to just legally sell ONE MEAL to a neighbor?


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