The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

January 2003

AAP Homepage

Emma Rothschild

Economic Sentiments

Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment

Chapter 5: The Bloody and Invisible Hand

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001

pp. 116-156, Notes 288-316


The Invisible Hand of Jupiter

Tremble, Unfortunate King!

Intentions and Interests

Political Influence

Clerical Systems

Smith’s “Stoicism”

Order and Design

A Persuasive Device

Explanation and Understanding

Greatest Possible Values

Evolved Orders

Two Shortcomings of Liberal Thought

The Invisible Hand of Jupiter

Adam Smith’s ideas have had odd secular destinies, and the twentieth century was the epoch of the invisible hand. [1]  “The profoundest observation of Smith,” for Kenneth Arrow, is “that the system works behind the backs of the participants; the directing ‘hand’ is ‘invisible.’”  For Arrow and Frank Hahn, the invisible hand is “surely the most important contribution [of] economic thought” to the understanding of social processes; for James Tobin, it is “one of the great ideas of history and one of the most influential.” [2]  The object of this chapter is to look at the intellectual history of the invisible hand, and to put forward a view of what Adam Smith himself understood by it.  What I will suggest is that Smith did not especially esteem the invisible hand.  The image of the invisible hand is best interpreted as a mildly ironic joke.  The evidence for this interpretation, as will be seen, raises interesting questions both about Smith and about the invisible hands of the twentieth century.

Smith used the words “invisible hand” on three quite dissimilar occasions. [3]  The first use, in his “History of Astronomy” (which is thought to have been written in the 1750s, but was preserved by Smith for posthumous publication), is clearly sardonic.  Smith is talking about the credulity of people in polytheistic societies, who ascribe “the irregular events of nature,” such as thunder and storms, to “intelligent, though invisible beings - to gods, demons, witches, genii, fairies.”  They do not ascribe divine support to “the ordinary course of things”: “Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.” [4]

The second use is in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, in a passage pub-

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lished in 1759, and retained unchanged throughout Smith’s subsequent revisions of the work.  It is here sardonic in a different way.  Smith is describing some particularly unpleasant rich proprietors, who are unconcerned with humanity or justice, but who, in “their natural selfishness and rapacity,” pursue only “their own vain and insatiable desires.”  They do, however, employ thousands of poor workers to produce luxury commodities: “They are led by an invisible hand to ... without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.’ [5]

Smith’s third use of the invisible hand is in the Wealth of Nations, in a chapter concerned with international trade.  He argues strongly against restrictions on imports, and against the merchants and manufacturers who support such restrictions, forming “an overgrown standing army” who “upon many occasions intimidate the legislature.”  Domestic monopolies, he says, are advantageous for specific industries, but not for the “general industry of the society.”  If there were no import restrictions, however, the merchant would still prefer to support domestic industry, in the interest of “his own security.”  He will thereby promote the interest “of the society”: “He is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” [6]

The three uses of the invisible hand have posed problems for historians of economic thought.  The hand is assumed to have an “altered role” between the first and the subsequent uses; for A. L. Macfie, “the function of the divine invisible hand appears to be exactly reversed,” transformed from a “capricious” to a providential and “order-preserving” force.  The change must be explained, in Macfie’s view, as a matter of literary taste; Smith, who “enjoyed pithy, forceful phrases,” simply remembered the invisible hand of Jupiter, but “reversed its relation to the natural order.” [7]

My suggestion, instead, will be that Smith’s attitude to the invisible hand was similar, and ironical, on each of the three occasions.  He is amused by the polytheists who believe in the invisible hand of Jupiter in the “History of Astronomy”; in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations he is amused by the individuals who are led by the invisible hand (the hand they cannot see, or the hand behind their backs).  He is also amused by philosophers who believe in systems of divine order.  There is even an element, in the latter case, of self-irony, or of self-recognition in the depiction of the philosopher, entranced by a beautiful and imaginary order.

The evidence for this interpretation is indirect.  Smith himself does not seem to have attached great importance to the invisible hand, and his


three references to it are all cursory. [8]  Commentators on Smith, too, mentioned the invisible hand only infrequently prior to the twentieth century.  It was not singled out, for example, in Dugald Stewart’s memoir of Smith’s life and work, or in Playfair’s or McCulloch’s editions of the Wealth of Nations; nor was it invoked in the major political celebrations of the centenary of the Wealth of Nations in 1876. [9]  It was indeed to a great extent Smith’s historicist critics, toward the end of the nineteenth century, who first made much of the invisible hand.  For T. E. Cliffe Leslie, the assumption of a “beneficent constitution of nature,” expressed in Smith’s comments on the invisible hand, is a doctrine by which “the mischief done in political economy ... has been incalculable”; for John Kells Ingram, following Cliffe Leslie, it is evidence of a “secret substratum” of doctrines in Smith’s work, “half theological half metaphysical.” [10]  Carl Menger, by contrast, does not mention the invisible hand in his extensive defense of Smith in 1891; he in fact berates Smith repeatedly for his defective understanding of the unreflective social structures which were for later commentators a synonym for the invisible hand. [11]  It is interesting that even the phrase “invisible hand” was hardly familiar at the beginning of the twentieth century; Alfred Marshall, defending Smith against his historicist critics, refers in 1923 to Smith’s observations on “the unseen hand.” [12]

It will be necessary, in these circumstances, to consider whether the invisible hand is the sort of idea that Smith would have taken entirely seriously.  Smith is a famously troublesome subject of intellectual history (and biography), and his ideas of social order are especially elusive. [13]  They are influenced, as will be seen, by his opinions of revealed and natural religion, and by his desire to avoid the unreasonable curiosity of others about these opinions.  They are ironic in a Humean way.  They reflect both his desire for “quiet,” or the absence of public controversy, and his wish to convince the public of the value of his proposals.  Like d’Alembert, excusing himself to Voltaire in 1757 for having published “bad articles about theology and metaphysics” in the Encyclopédie, Smith sought no conflict with official censorship; like d’Alembert, he seems to have believed that “time will make people distinguish what we thought from what we said.” [14]  But posterity, for Smith, has also been an enemy, or at least an untrustworthy friend.

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Tremble, Unfortunate King!

The earlier intellectual history of invisible hands turns out to be generally grim.  The most famous invisible hand in Anglo-Scottish literature is that


of Macbeth’s providence. “And with thy bloody and invisible hand,” Macbeth apostrophizes the night in Act III, in the scene immediately before the banquet and Banquo’s murder; he asks the darkness to cover up the crimes he is about to commit:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

And with thy bloody and invisible hand

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale. [15]

Smith, who lectured on Shakespeare’s use of metaphor, is likely to have known Macbeth well.  He was certainly familiar with the Edinburgh theater of the 1750s, where West Digges in 1757 put on a celebrated performance of Macbeth with “the characters entirely new dressed, after the manner of the ancient Scots.” [16]

Smith was a great admirer of Voltaire’s tragedies, and Voltaire, too, invokes several invisible and disagreeable hands. [17]  In his Oedipe of 1718 - which is, in Voltaire’s own description, free of the “coarseness” and multiple imperfections of Sophocles, and which begins with the arrival in Thebes of Jocasta’s former lover - Oedipus is threatened twice by invisible hands.  “Tremble, unfortunate King,” the High Priest says in Act III; “an invisible hand suspends above your head” the menacing sword of vengeance.  In Act IV, Oedipus recounts the memorable day in Corinth when, as he arrived at a temple with offerings to the gods, the altar began to shake, a terrifying voice was carried to him by the winds, and “an invisible hand pushed away my presents.” [18]

There is an earlier invisible hand which is even more unpleasant, and which Smith probably also knew; it appears in one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the hero (the warrior Caeneus, who is at the time surrounded by centaurs, one of whom is taunting him because he had been born a woman, Caenis) “twisted and plied his invisible hand, inflicting wound within wound.” [19]  The hand is invisible here because it is behind the victim’s back, in the edition of Ovid which Smith owned there is an illustration, as a frontispiece to this particular book of the Metamorphoses, of a gloved hand stabbing a soldier between the shoulder blades with a long spear. [20]

The history of invisible hands does not improve when it is decomposed into its constituent ideas, or into ideas of invisibility and of large disembodied hands.  The “exceeding mighty hand” of Zeus shoves Hector from behind in the Iliad; the Greek word chirokratia, or the rule of the hand,


later meant government by force. [21]  The hand of Jupiter, in Roman iconography as in the Latin writings familiar to Smith and his contemporaries, is an auxiliary of secular force: “The normal relationship in the Emperor’s life is that illustrated by the coins, which show a gigantic Jupiter holding a protecting hand over the diminutive Emperor.” [22]

In Christian writings, the hand of God was later a source of consolation for the devout.  (The unfortunate Banquo announces, shortly before he is murdered on Macbeth’s orders, “In the great hand of God I stand.”) [23]  But in the secular writings of Smith’s contemporaries, large hands were generally oppressive.  Condorcet accused Pascal - whom he greatly disliked, and whom Smith described as a “whining and melancholy moralist” - of wishing to make man feel that “he is under the hand of an all-powerful being,” and, “feeling the weight of this all-powerful hand,” to find Christian religion. [24]   Turgot said that in large societies men could become “no more than a blind instrument in the hands of a leader”; in war, Kant said, men were “instruments in the hand of another (the state).” [25]  Joseph de Maistre, in 1797, imagined an invisible hand even bloodier than Macbeth’s. “The human species can be considered as a tree which is being pruned at all times by an invisible hand,” he wrote in Considerations sur la France; the violent destruction in the aftermath of the French Revolution was to be considered salutary, in that the human soul, softened by incredulity and excessive civilization, could recover only by being “plunged again into blood.” [26]

The word “invisible,” too, was often disagreeable.  It is an epithet which had been used of God, at least since Lactantius and Saint Augustine. [27]  Smith, like Hume, uses it principally either of the objects of superstition or of the events which fill up the empty space in scientific systems.  The first use is characteristic of Hume’s Natural History of Religion, written at about the same time as Smith’s essay on astronomy; Hume associates the invisible with “idolaters” and “absolute ignorance,” and “invisible powers” with “fairies, goblins, elves, sprites.” [28]  In his lectures on rhetoric, Smith identifies “invisible” beings with “fairies, Nymphs, Fawns, Satyrs, Dryads and such divinities.” [29]  In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, as in his reference to the invisible hand of Jupiter in the “History of Astronomy,” he invokes a “powerful and invisible being” when he is discussing “ancient heathen religion”; he also criticizes Socrates for “fancying that he had secret and frequent intimations from some invisible and divine Being.” [30]

The second, scientific use seems to be associated for Smith with the first.  He speaks on several occasions in the “History of Astronomy” of what he

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describes as the “chain of intermediate, though invisible events,” by which philosophers and others connect the jarring or disjointed occurrences of nature. [31]  The effort to organize events into an orderly, coherent, and continuous system - a system with no empty spaces in it, or no domains of ignorance - is indeed for Smith the “end of philosophy.” [32]  To describe these consoling intermediate events as invisible is evocative of ancient physical theories. [33]  But the intermediate events which are invisible tend, even in this scientific use, to be those of which Smith is most suspicious: the “invisible effluvia” of Descartes, or Kepler’s “invisible chain” of “immaterial virtue.”  The two uses in fact converge: in “civilized societies,” Smith says, people are “less disposed to employ, for this connecting chain, those invisible beings whom the fear and ignorance of their rude forefathers had engendered.” [34]

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Intentions and Interests

Adam Smith’s exiguous published essays include a long discussion of the word “but,” and he was in general a most circumspect writer. [35]  He and Hume, in Macfie’s description, were “careful, cool, patient, very wily thinkers,” who “could laugh at themselves.” [36]  Smith’s words are to be taken seriously, that is to say, as evidence of his ideas.  They are chosen with extreme care, at least in his published and extensively revised writings.  But he is also a great rhetorical writer; he chooses the words, or the style, that he thinks will persuade one audience or another.  It is possible, therefore, that he used words which were to him slightly comical, or slightly unpleasant - the words “invisible hand” - to describe an idea which was of profound importance to his theoretical system.  The words were a way of convincing the unconvinced. [37]

The idea of the invisible hand can thus be distinguished, as far as is possible, from the words in which it was described.  It consists, in the Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments, in three main notions: that the actions of individuals have unintended consequences, that there is order or coherence in events, and that the unintended consequences of individual actions sometimes promote the interests of societies.  This idea (or set of ideas) recurs, in different forms, at several points in Smith’s work.  It corresponds, more or less, to the invisible hand of subsequent social thought; to the hand which is “one of the great ideas of history.” [38]  It is this multiple idea, therefore, which should be compared to the rest of Smith’s thought, and about which one might reasonably ask whether it is


the sort of idea with which Smith would have been pleased.  The evidence is complex, as will be seen; there are some respects in which the ideas expressed in the image of the invisible hand were the sort of thing Smith liked, and others in which they were very much what he disliked.

The first sort of evidence is strongly in favor of the invisible hand, or in favor of the interpretation that Smith favored it.  It is that the theory of the invisible hand is aesthetically delightful.  “We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system,” Smith says of public policy in the paragraph immediately following his reference to the invisible hand in the Theory of Moral Sentiments; political economy, as much as astronomy, is an exercise in soothing and pleasing the imagination.  The passage in which the invisible hand occurs is indeed a digression between two descriptions of aesthetic sentiment, in a chapter of which the subject is beauty and utility: vistas of private opulence, Smith says, “strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful ... The same principle, the same love of system, the same regard to the beauty of order” serves to recommend public policies as well. [39]  It is interesting that Dugald Stewart, too, invokes sentiments of beauty when he speaks of an invisible hand, without reference to Smith: “So beautifully, indeed, do these passions and circumstances act in subserviency to [nature’s] designs,” that even when primitive man “follows blindly his instinctive principles of action, he is led by an invisible hand, and contributes his share to the execution of a plan, of the nature and advantages of which he has no conception.” [40]

The “lovely quality” of invisible hand explanations, in Robert Nozick’s description, consists in their capacity to yield an understanding of “some overall pattern or design,” of a sort which is especially imposing because it does not include a reference to the pattern itself. [41]  The contrast is between the explanation of, for example, a military march (that everyone is marching in step because they are trying to march in step), and the explanation of an at first sight jarring and discordant scene, which the theorist succeeds in depicting as an orderly and coherent progress.  Smith’s theory is “poetic,” for Arrow and Hahn, because it shows that a social system moved by independent actions “is consistent with a final coherent state of balance.” [42]  These ideas of understanding are indeed distinctively Smithian.  They correspond rather closely, in fact, to Smith’s ordering of scientific systems in the “History of Astronomy”: “how far each of them was fitted to soothe the imagination, and to render the theatre of nature a more coherent, and therefore a more magnificent spectacle, than otherwise it would have appeared to be.” [43]

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The second sort of evidence, to do with moral psychology and moral philosophy, is unfavorable.  One reason to suspect that Smith was not entirely enthusiastic about theories of the invisible hand is that these theories are extremely condescending about the intentions of individual agents.  Smith’s three uses of the phrase have in common that the individuals concerned - the people who fail to see the invisible hand - are quite undignified; they are silly polytheists, rapacious proprietors, disingenuous merchants.  The classical Latin word which is translated by “invisible” is caecus, which in its literal sense means “blind.” [44]  If X is invisible to me, then I am blind in respect of X.  The association persists in modern theory.  “An invisible hand explanation,” Nozick says, shows that facts arise “from some blind mechanism,” although “what arises via a blind process need not itself be blind.” [45]  It is interesting that Smith’s contemporary Adam Ferguson comments, in a passage identified by Friedrich Hayek as the locus classicus of the doctrine of unintended consequences, that “every step and every movement of the multitude … are made with equal blindness to the future”; this is in a chapter of Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society of which the title is “The History of Subordination.” [46]

Smith is thought of, rightly, as a great defender of individual freedom.  He is a defender of enlightenment, in the sense of the disposition of individuals to be independent and to see through projects; he sees the people as the best judges of their own interest (like Turgot), or as “a society of reasonable beings” (like Condorcet), and not (like Necker and like Ferguson) as a multitude who “in all this immense space which is called the future… never see more than tomorrow.” [47]  But the subjects of invisible hand explanations are blind, in that they cannot see the hand by which they are led.  They are unenlightened.  “General light, or general darkness; there is no middle course”; “lumière generale ou aveuglement general”: this is Jeremy Bentham’s eulogy to the enlightened public, in his defense of freedom of understanding and freedom of the press. [48]  The enlightened disposition, for Smith as for Condorcet, is a more uncertain condition.  But it is a disposition, at least, to reflect on one’s own and other people’s choices; to theorize; to think about the future.

The subjects of the invisible hand are also foolish, in that their intentions are puny and futile. [49]  It is interesting that in his very last writing, Smith himself introduced a new, visible, disembodied hand.  The systematic reformer, he says (a reformer much like Frederick the Great or the Emperor Joseph II), imagines that he can “arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different


pieces upon a chess-board”; he does not realize that in real societies every single piece has a principle of motion of its own. [50]  This independence and idiosyncrasy of individuals is what Smith seems to be deriding in his account of the invisible hand; it is in this sense an un-Smithian idea.

The idea of the invisible hand has been associated, as will be seen, with Smith’s purported “Stoicism.”  It is evocative, in some respects, of the comments of the Stoic Epictetus about the unintended social consequences of self-interested actions; Jupiter had so ordered human reason, Epictetus said, that “it can no longer be regarded as unsocial for a man to do everything for his own sake.” [51]  But Epictetus, Smith says, feels “the most sovereign contempt of human life.  He never exults so much, accordingly his eloquence is never so animated as when he represents the futility and nothingness of all its pleasures and all its pains.”  Smith is himself anything but contemptuous of human pains and human intentions.  The great tension at the heart of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is indeed over the morality of intentions and the morality of consequences (or “tendencies”): over the “irregularity of sentiments” in which we judge both the consequences of actions and the “sentiments, thoughts, intentions” which are their causes; over our interest in the “distress of Oedipus and Jocasta.” [52]  To be contemptuous of individual intentions, to see them as futile and blind, is to take a distinctively un-Smithian view of human life.

The invisible hand is un-Smithian, thirdly, in that it is founded on a notion of privileged universal knowledge.  It presupposes the existence of a theorist (if not of a reformer) who sees more than any ordinary individual can.  “Men are fond of paradoxes, and of appearing to understand what surpasses the comprehension of ordinary people,” Smith says of the Physiocrats or Economists; the arrogance of the man of system, as of the Stoic philosopher in Lucian’s “Philosophies for Sale,” “is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth.” [53]  The disembodied hand is invisible to its millions of petty subjects, but it is visible to “us”: to theorists.  The sequence is in fact an inverted version of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, with the Emperor as the hero: the subjects in the streets think that the Emperor has no clothes, and that there is indeed no Emperor; but the Emperor himself, or his economic advisers, knows that he is actually there, invigilating their wills.

This knowingness of the theorist is characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctrines of unintended consequences.  It is the complicity, characteristic of the sect of enlightenment, of which Condorcet said that Voltaire had been disabused when he visited England: he saw that

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“truth is not made to remain a secret in the hands of a few philosophers, and of a small number of men of the world instructed, or rather indoctrinated by the philosophers; laughing with them at the errors of which the people are the victim.” [54]  It was the spirit of Kant, too, especially in his earlier writings.  The characteristic of individual actions, for Kant in his “Universal History,” is “folly and childish vanity,” in which individuals “are unconsciously promoting an end which, even if they knew what it was, would scarcely arouse their interest”; the role of the philosopher, by contrast, is to discover the “purpose in nature” which is hidden from individual agents. [55]  The philosopher is enlightened, here, and the objects of his observation are blind.  When Hegel talks of the cunning of reason - which “lets the passions work for it,” and for which individuals are the means to an end - he is also talking of his own cunning; die List der Vernunft is die List Hegels. [56]

Smith’s cunning is different.  The Wealth of Nations is full of anecdotes of secret self-interest, in which the pursuit of material gain is uncovered, behind the “mysterious veil of self-delusion.” [57]  But the anecdotes are directed, above all, against the wise and the great; against emperors and theorists (including the theorist who whispers in the ear of the reforming emperor) far more than against the individuals who are their objects and subjects.  Kant distinguished, in one of his early works, between finer, conscious souls and the self-interested multitude who pursue the common good without intending to do so:

Most men are among those who have their best-loved selves fixed before their eyes as the only point of reference for their exertions, and who seek to turn everything around self-interest as around the great axis.  Nothing can be more advantageous than this, for these are the most diligent, orderly and prudent; they give support and solidity to the whole, while without intending to do so they serve the common good, provide the necessary requirements, and supply the foundation over which finer souls can spread beauty and harmony. [58]

Smith’s rhetoric is virtually the opposite.  His principal examples of self-interested behavior, in the Wealth of Nations, include manufacturers in incorporated towns, parish worthies, dukes of Cornwall, medieval kings, proud ministers, established clergy, and university teachers. [59]  His principal example of the unintended, undesirable consequences of public policy was the depression brought about in France by the regulations of Colbert (“instead of allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way,


upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”) [60]  It is the wisdom of authority which Smith seeks to unveil, or the wisdom of finer souls.

The notion of a true or universal interest, unintended by individual agents, was indeed invoked as much by the eighteenth-century opponents of liberal reform as by its supporters.  One modern claim made for the invisible hand is that it suggests ways to devise institutions and policies “which harness self-interest” for the social good; that its “relatively simple motivational precepts” are such as to “leave agents open to manipulation by authority.” [61]  Much the same claims were made by Smith’s and Turgot’s opponents.  Smith, like Turgot, was criticized for his touching faith in the wisdom (or the heroism) of individual millers and bakers.  It was Smith’s opponents, rather, who had faith in the wisdom of authority, including the ability to harness individual exertions.

In the Lit de justice held in Versailles for the registration of Turgot’s ill-fated economic reform edicts, the unintended consequences of individual exertions were invoked in support of established and corporate institutions. [62]  Turgot’s main opponent in the proceeding, the advocate-general Seguier, defended the regulations of the apprenticeship guilds, and the policies of Colbert (“so wise, so hardworking, so foresighted”), against the dangerous freedom in which every worker and every artisan would be free to pursue “the thirst for gain” and “the discrepancies of an often disordered imagination.”  To “abolish regulations,” Seguier said, is to threaten commerce itself, since all subordination would be destroyed.  But in support of regulation he used the very language of unintended and unwilled effects.  It is only within restrictive corporations and guilds or communities, he said, that the interests of individuals coincide with those of the society: “Each member, in working for his personal utility, necessarily works, even without willing it, for the true utility of the entire community.” [63]

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Political Influence

A fourth sort of evidence, which again suggests that Smith did not take the invisible hand entirely seriously, is that the theory of useful self-interest abstracts from several of the problems with which he was most preoccupied in his political economy.  These problems, of political influence on commerce, are indeed the principal subject of the chapter in Book 4 of the Wealth of Nations where the invisible hand makes its fleeting appearance: they include the errors of merchants about their own interests, the influ-

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ence of merchants over political regulations, and the particular difficulties of periods of transition from one regulatory regime to another.  The invisible hand appears, in fact, in the middle of a powerful description of the propensity of merchants to pursue their objectives, successfully, by influencing restrictions on imports.

The main rhetorical force of the invisible hand, in the Wealth of Nations, is to persuade legislators that they will best achieve their own objectives - the objectives “of the society,” or of the “public interest” - if they permit individual merchants to employ their capital as they themselves (the merchants) think most advantageous.  But Smith explains in the same chapter that merchants not only consider themselves to derive advantage from monopolies and other regulations, but also do in fact derive such advantage.  Merchants and manufacturers, he says, “are always demanding a monopoly against their countrymen,” and they “are the people who derive the greatest advantage” from it.  “In the mercantile regulations,” Smith says at the very end of Book 4 of the Wealth of Nations, “the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to”; “the boasted liberty of the subject,” in restrictions on exports, is “sacrificed to the futile interests of our merchants and manufacturers.”  The peroration of Book 1 is similar: the interest of the order of merchants and manufacturers, Smith says, “is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.” [64]

The success of the invisible hand will depend, in these circumstances, on whether individual merchants choose to pursue their own interests by political influence, by the use of force, or in other ways.  As Séguier pointed out, in his criticism of Turgot, “honesty is not always the most secure means to fortune.” [65]  William Playfair comments that Smith is indeed inconsistent in describing the restrictive interests of merchants as futile: “Dr. Smith, who, in so many instances, is for confiding in the sagacity of individuals, ought not in this case to set it entirely for nothing.” [66]  The invisible hand, that is to say, requires both good institutions and good norms, whereby individuals pursue their interests within the rules of well-defined games, and not by seeking to influence institutions and rules.  On one view, these good institutions are the outcome of policy: the invisible hand, for Lionel Robbins, “is the hand of the lawgiver, the hand which withdraws from the sphere of the pursuit of self-interest those possibilities which do not harmonize with the public good.” [67]  On another view, as will be seen, they are the outcome of custom: institutions are good if they are themselves the unintended consequence of individual self-interest.


There is indeed something oddly ingenuous in Smith’s sudden invocation of the timid, virtuous merchant, led by the invisible hand to pursue only harmonious interests.  The merchant or manufacturer in the invisible hand passage is continually studying his own advantage.  But he does not, for example, seek to collect together with other merchants to obtain special privileges for home production.  He simply prefers home production because he has a comparative advantage in it: “He can know better the character and situation of the persons whom he trusts”; he knows the laws; he is averse to the “uneasiness” which he would otherwise feel “at being separated so far from his capital.”  It is interesting, too, that in a chapter mainly concerned with British restrictions on imports, Smith’s ingenuous merchant is described as a resident of Amsterdam, trading in corn from Königsberg and fruit from Lisbon; he is a cosmopolitan figure, far less tempted than any English merchant to pursue his own advantage through political influence. [68]

Smith is ingenuous, too, in his counsel to statesmen as invigilators of the public interest.  He was preoccupied, throughout the Wealth of Nations, with what he described as “the clamour and sophistry of merchants and manufacturers,” and with their influence on the commercial system.  The “invisible hand” chapter itself begins with a chronicle of existing restraints on imports, and ends with Smith’s famous description of the intimidating standing army of monopolists.  The prospect of a legislature “directed, not by the clamourous importunity of partial interests, but by an extensive view of the general good” appears as a remote, unlikely possibility.  In disputes over commerce, as in disputes over the regulation of wages, when the legislature seeks to determine policy, “its counsellors are always the masters.” [69]  Yet it is this prospect - of government in the public interest, or of unimportune merchants, or both - to which the invisible hand is directed in the Wealth of Nations.

The idea of a commercial system, with its complex, changing relations between merchants and statesmen, is central to Smith’s political economy, as it was to policies of economic reform in the 1770s and 1780s.  Statesmen pursue their own self-interest, and merchants make the error of pursuing their self-interest through political influence.  “To narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers,” as Smith himself said of merchants and manufacturers, and it “must always be against” the interest of the public. [70]  Smith’s criticisms of government and of established institutions are essential to his economic thought; it is most unlikely that he would have forgot them in a grand theory of the social good.


Index or Notes

Clerical Systems

The fifth kind of evidence is about Smith’s religion.  The invisible hand has been understood by historians of economic thought, at least since Cliffe Leslie’s denunciation of “the clerical system of deductive reasoning,” as the expression of Smith’s religious, or deistic, or Stoic-inspired beliefs.  It is for Jacob Viner one of the “teleological elements,” or “religious ingredients,” in Smith’s system; for Macfie it is the hand “of the Christian Deity.”  This view poses evident problems for modern exponents of the invisible hand, whom Viner chides for considering Smith’s religious opinions to “have only nuisance value.” [71]  The suggestion here will be that the theology of the invisible hand would have posed very serious problems for Smith as well.

Smith’s religious opinions were the subject of public controversy from the time of his famous letter of 1776 about Hume’s death.  “You would persuade us, by the example of DAVID HUME Esq,” George Home wrote in his anonymous response to Smith, “that atheism is the only cordial for low spirits, and the proper antidote against the fear of death.” [72]  Comments on Smith’s irreligious views, and on his friendship with Hume, were conspicuous in the English obituaries after his death in 1790, as has been seen.  One of the concerns of his supporters, in the 1790s, indeed seems to have been to divert attention from discussion of his religious opinions.  Dugald Stewart in his “Account” of Smith’s life thus presented a prudently edited version of a letter from Hume to Smith, in which Hume congratulates Smith on the number of bishops who had bought copies of the Theory of Moral Sentiments; the deleted passages include Hume’s description of the bishops as “these Retainers to Superstition,” and of Candide as a sprightly “Satyre upon Providence.” [73]

The most plausible understanding of Smith’s Christianity is that he became, in the course of his life, “considerably more sceptical (or considerably less discreet).” [74]  Of his three major undertakings in preparing work for publication, the first edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is fairly full of references to a deity of a Christian sort, although attended with circumlocutions, indirect speech, and frequent use of the verb “to seem.” [75]  The Wealth of Nations is almost entirely free of explicitly religious thought, and is frequently critical of established Christian religion. [76]  The extensive additions and revisions which Smith incorporated in the sixth edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments form a work which is strikingly less Christian than the parts of the book remaining from earlier editions. [77]


In several well-known passages, Smith is apparently marking his differences with Christian doctrines. [78]  In other passages, he seems to be proposing a subtle and profound description of the psychological difficulties of disbelief.  His account is similar to Hume’s, in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, and in some respects more understanding, or more sympathetic.  He describes the tragic choice of the person who is without faith: to believe in something (some providence) which one knows to be unbelievable, or to believe in the frightening eternity of “a fatherless world.” [79]

It seems quite unlikely, in these circumstances, that Smith thought of the invisible hand as a device of Christian theology in any straightforward sense.  The Christian connotation of the word “invisible” is a reason, rather, to suppose that Smith did not take it entirely seriously.  If it had indeed been serious, it would have been close to unique, as a theological element, in Smith’s writings on commerce. [80]  It would also have been in striking conflict with the secularization of natural philosophy which was at the center of Hume’s and Smith’s understanding of natural law.  For Smith’s empirical and psychological version of natural jurisprudence, as much as Hume’s, was in opposition to eighteenth-century “Newtonianism”; to experimental science in which the principles of motion could be deduced from nature, because they had been placed in nature by God. [81]

The friendship of Smith and Hume was conspicuous in the contemporary debate over Smith’s religious opinions, and it is of interest, too, in trying to understand Smith’s use of theological expressions. [82]   “Various circumstances have brought suspicion on the religious principles of Dr Adam Smith,” the devout son of Smith’s acquaintance Sir John Sinclair wrote in 1837, and prominent among them was his relationship to Hume: “His intimacy with Hume was not only greater than ordinary courtesy, Christian charity, or literary friendship required; but was of that fraternal character which seemed to intimate coincidence of opinion and identity of sentiment.” [83]  My own view is that Sinclair’s intuition was right, and that Smith’s and Hume’s religious opinions were indeed quite close. [84]  What is more important, for our present purposes, is that Smith’s expressions, in his correspondence with Hume and in much of his published (and posthumously published) writing on religion, are extremely close to Hume’s celebrated irony.

Smith was evidently interested in irony as a literary form.  He praises Swift, with “his severe ironical manner,” and says of Swift and Lucian that they together form a “complete system of ridicule.”  Of Lucian, the great

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ironic critic of providence, and Hume’s “favourite author,” Smith says that “there is no author from whom more meal instruction and good sense can be found.” [85]  “For Hume, irony is pervasive, virtually a way of life,” Ernest Mossner writes, [86] Smith’s own literary system was far more diverse.  He was more “sensitive” than Hume (to use Turgot’s expression), and he wrote, of the use of irony, that the mole of sentiment is to judge “how far an agreeable irony may be carried, and at what precise point it begins to degenerate into a detestable lie.” [87]  But he was certainly ironical from time to time, and especially, following Lucian, in his descriptions of “grave” or “solemn and respectable characters, as Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Senators.” [88]  If Hume (or Lucian) had spoken of an “invisible hand,” one would be entirely confident that one was in the presence of irony.  It seems to me to be difficult, in the case of Smith, to be confident that one is not.

Index or Notes

Smith’s “Stoicism”

There is one remaining, and more important point to be made about Smith’s “natural religion.”  The invisible hand has been seen, even by those who are skeptical of Smith’s Christianity, as the expression of Smith’s faith in a Stoic providence.  Toward the end of his life, it is suggested, Smith “was coming nearer to natural religion - the Stoic Nature - than to the personal God of revelation.” [89]  “Adam Smith’s ethics and natural theology are predominantly Stoic,” Raphael and Macfie write in their introduction to the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Stoic doctrines correspond to Smith’s “own views” and “own opinions.”  Smith accepted the “broad outline” of the Stoic system, Macfie says; the invisible hand can be seen, thereby, as one expression of a great philosophical and theological system which was indeed Smith’s “own.” [90]

Smith’s moral and metaphysical writings, like Hume’s, are an extended colloquium with Roman philosophy, and especially with Cicero. [91]  This makes the pursuit of Smith’s own opinions often difficult.  He himself did what he could to obstruct the pursuit; he seems to have thought, like Cicero in De natura deorum, that “those however who seek to learn my personal opinion on the various questions show an unreasonable degree of curiosity.” [92]  The historian of ideas must look for these views in the reflections of Smith’s prudence (his desire for a quiet life); of his decency (his belief that to live a quiet or tranquil life was itself virtuous, and that one of its requirements is to desist from disturbing the tranquillity of others); and also of a collective or childhood understanding of classical texts -


a common knowledge - which are understood now in quite different ways. [93]

There are good reasons, all the same, to suppose that Smith was quite skeptical about a great deal of the Stoic system.  He was influenced by different Stoic doctrines; he was not himself, in some sense, an eighteenth-century Stoic.  Within the overall Stoic system, moreover, or the conjunction of Stoic doctrines, it is the idea of a providential order - the idea of which the invisible hand is supposed to be the expression - to which Smith was most opposed.  He was eclectic in his use of Stoic ideas; the leading modern scholar of classical influences on Smith, Gloria Vivenza, speaks of his “alchemist’s’ use” of ancient ideas (the sympathy of the Peripatetics, the propriety of the Stoics, the prudence of the Epicureans, Aristotle’s moderate virtues). [94]  He was in evident sympathy with much of the Stoic view of virtue, as he presented it; with the view of Zeno (shared by Plato and Aristotle) that virtue, including the virtue of self-command, is something to be valued in itself. [95]  But he disliked the Stoic’s indifference to consequences and circumstances, and the Stoic’s concern “not about the event, but about the propriety of his own endeavours.” [96]  He rejected Stoic views of evil (as part of a universal order), of suicide, of astronomy, of paradoxes of truth and honor, and of the happiness of the wise man.  The Stoic wise man is for Smith a prig and a “coxcomb,” who consoles himself with the “complete enjoyment of his own self-applause.” [97]

The “stoical apathy and indifference,” above all, is odious to Smith, and especially so when it impinges on the “private and domestic affections.”  Richardson, Marivaux, and Riccoboni, he says, are here “much better instructors than Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus.” [98]  “Submission to the order of providence” is the “fundamental doctrine” of Stoic morality, in Smith’s description. [99]  But it is “altogether different” to the “plan and system” of nature.  The “indifference” of the Stoic to the consequences of his actions, including the consequences for himself and his friends, is contrary to nature. [100]  His submission to the cosmic direction of his conduct - to the direction of Jupiter, Smith says - is contrary to duty, and thus to morality. [101]

Smith’s ethics is founded on his description of moral sentiments; on the emotions we feel for our friends and “our nearest connections,” but which are in turn the sentiments by which entire societies are united.  The virtuous individual, he suggests, will strive to do what is proper and what is kind, in the circumstances in which he finds himself.  He is not directed by the great superintendent of the universe; he tries to direct his own con-

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duct, in his own department of life.  This is the opposite, in Smith’s description, of Stoic positions.  The sentiments which the Stoics seek to repress become for Smith the foundation of ethics (and even of politics); the Stoic concern with the “greatest possible quantity of happiness” of the universe is seen as a delusion, altogether different to the plan or system of nature. [102]

Smith’s descriptions of Stoic doctrine should be read, it seems to me, with much the same discrimination as his descriptions of Christian religion.  He uses the same language of psychological explanation: the Stoic providence is an object of “contemplation,” and a source of “consolation.”  His periphrases – “the director of this spectacle of human life,” “the Superintendent of the universe,” the “great Physician of nature,” the “all-wise Architect and Conductor” - have the same overheroic sound. [103]  His Stoicism has the same prudential utility as his theology; it identifies him with a set of beliefs sanctioned by the devout Samuel Clarke, and it precludes suspicions of infidelity, or licentiousness, or Epicurean influence. [104]

Smith’s Stoicism, like his Christianity, is revised and modified in the sixth edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments.  The passages he adds about Stoic doctrines are critical; the passages he deletes, much like the description of the doctrine of atonement which he also removes, are solemn expositions of Stoic convictions, in the Stoics’ own words. [105]  There may in fact be a tone of irony, or of gentle mockery, even in the first edition of the Theory.  This was at least the impression of Edmund Burke, who was then still unknown to Smith; he congratulated Smith on the varied style of the book, and particularly on the “fine Picture of the Stoic Philosophy towards the end of your first part which is dressed out in all the grandeur and Pomp that becomes that magnificent delusion.” [106]

The Stoic origins of the invisible hand, in these circumstances, provide little evidence for the view that Smith took the invisible hand seriously.  The Stoic Jupiter, in particular - the Jupiter of the first invisible hand, in the “History of Astronomy” - is indeed for Smith the sign of a joke.  Smith liked Lucian for his “gaiety” as well as for his irony, and Jupiter is Lucian’s essential comic device: Jupiter trying to explain providence; Jupiter complaining of his thunderbolts; Jupiter looking for a Stoic who is intelligent enough to dispute with the followers of Epicumus; Jupiter worrying about being turned into a bracelet. [107]  For Smith, too, Jupiter is a ridiculous figure; “the thunder bolt falling from his hand,” or wrapping everything up “in a universal conflagration.” [108]  But the Stoic doctrine of providence is also, for Smith, a tragic delusion.  It was suggested earlier that the idea of


the invisible hand is un-Smithian in that it is condescending about the intentions of individuals, and in that it presumes the existence of an all-knowing, all-seeing superintendent.  These are in fact Smith’s most serious charges against Stoic doctrines; against the Stoic wise man, both self-absorbed and impossibly, irresponsibly self-denying, and against Epictetus himself, exulting in the futility of human life. [109]

Index or Notes

Order and Design

The orderliness of the universe was a subject of inexhaustible interest in the disputes over natural religion of the eighteenth century.  Like the character of human nature - as in disputes over whether all sentiments are to be derived from self-love - it was a condition so well examined as to have become a sort of mnemonic.  Hume uses the same, slightly etiolated language in speaking of both sets of quarrels.  “There is much of a dispute of words in all this controversy,” he wrote of the discussions among philosophers about whether public spirit and private friendship are the expression of self-interest or self-love.” [110]  “There enters somewhat of a dispute of words into this controversy,” he wrote of the discussions about cosmic order, in the voice of Philo in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. [111]

The condition of orderliness, in these discussions, is of importance, above all, because of its consequences for religious belief.  It provides incontrovertible evidence, for the religious and Stoic philosophers with whom Hume took issue, of the existence of God.  If we see a beautiful house, the Stoic Balbus says in De natura deorum, we do not think that it could have been built by mice and weasels. [112]  “An orderly world, as well as a coherent, articulate speech,” Cleanthes says in Hume’s Dialogues, will “be received as an incontestable proof of design and intention.” [113]  These disputes provide the overall setting for Smith’s observations on natural order and invisible design.  His first invisible hand of the polytheist,, in the “History of Astronomy,” is described in words which are close to those of Balbus.  In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, the invisible hand is evoked in the course of a description of “the beauty of order,” in the accommodation of the rich and in public institutions. [114]  In the Wealth of Nations, the invisible hand of “society” is the occasion for one of Smith’s two references - the other is in his discussion of the French Economists, with their metaphysical paradoxes - to the “greatest possible” outcomes which are so characteristic, in his description, of Stoic delusions of universal order.

The refutation of the inference from the orderliness of the universe to

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the existence of God was for Hume a matter of deep and continuing conviction.  There is less evidence, in what remains of his philosophical writings, to suppose that Smith took a great interest in this particular religious question.  It is most unlikely that he believed, like Balbus and Cleanthes and Lucian’s Timocles, in the existence of an all-ordering providence, whose invisible hand was visible only in the orderliness of the cosmos.  It is more likely that he believed, like Hume, that the universe could be orderly without having been ordered.  But the possibility of orderliness without  order, or without the existence of superior intention, was also of political importance, and this was for Smith a matter of much greater interest.

There was a resemblance, in particular, between arguments about divine design and arguments about the designs of sovereigns.  This resemblance was recognized by Samuel Clarke in his correspondence with Leibniz; those who contend that the world proceeds without divine direction, Clarke said, will tend “to exclude God out of the world,” just as those who think that “in an earthly government things may go on perfectly well without the king himself ordering or disposing of any thing, may reasonably be suspected they would very well like to set the king aside. [115]  Smith had no interest in doing without kings.  But he was convinced - it was one of his deepest convictions - that things go along encouragingly well without the disposition, by the king, of the industry of individuals.

Smith’s use of the metaphor of the invisible hand is ironic, in these circumstances, in its intimation of the existence of an all-ordering providence.  It is serious, and unironic, in its intimation that there can be order without design; that a society can be prosperous without being conducted by an all-seeing sovereign, just as the universe can be orderly without being conducted by an “all-wise Architect and Conductor.”  But in a different and deeper sense, Smith is once more ironic.  For the intimation of the invisible hand is that society will in fact turn out to be prosperous, or orderly, in the absence of government direction.  It is this promise, as will be seen, which was at the heart of the invisible hand’s twentieth-century renown.  It is not a promise that Smith expresses in any explicit way.  It is little more, in an important sense, than a hope, or a hint.

The existence of order does not imply the existence of design, Smith can be seen as asserting.  This is the serious and unironic use of the invisible hand: the efforts of individuals can be successful, and can successfully promote the interests of the society, without being subject to the direction of sovereigns and legislators.  Smith suggests, even, that such direction is likely to be unsuccessful.  The existence of design, in the sense of govern-


ment direction of industry, is likely to impede economic order.  But Smith does not suggest, in the Wealth of Nations or elsewhere, that the nonexistence of design is in itself sufficient to ensure order, or prosperity.  The nonexistence of design does not imply the nonexistence of order.  But nor does it imply the existence of order: that there will in fact be order; that laissez-faire will ensure prosperity.  This is Smith’s deeper irony.  It is the irony of a Stoic orderliness, as the outcome of an unordered cosmos.

Index or Notes

A Persuasive Device

There is one reason, to summarize, for supposing that Adam Smith liked the invisible hand: on grounds of its loveliness.  There are three reasons for supposing that he found it either uninteresting or uncongenial: on grounds of the disregard it implied for the futility of individual lives, the reverence it implied for all-wise theorists, and the conflict it suggested with his own description of the political pursuit of self-interest.  The religious connotations of the invisible hand - its evocation of the Christian God, or of the Stoic providence, or of the existence of divine order - provided a further reason, it was suggested, for skepticism as to Smith’s intentions.

The difficulty which remains, in these circumstances, is of how to understand Smith’s own, to some extent conflicting, views.  We have been concerned with evidence for a negative proposition: that the invisible hand, like the conception of providential order of which it seems to be the expression, is not particularly important in Smith’s thought. [116]  On the one hand, there is reason to suppose that Smith would not have spoken of the invisible hand in an entirely serious way.  On the other hand, the conception of the invisible hand, if it were intended seriously, would have been in conflict with several of Smith’s most profound convictions about individual sentiments, individual responsibility, and the intentions of individual merchants.

The conclusion is that the invisible hand was an unimportant constituent of Smith’s thought.  The idea of the invisible hand, like the words in which it is described, is un-Smithian, and unimportant to his theory.  Several modern scholars of Smith’s ideas, from Jacob Viner onward, have expressed disquiet of one sort or another about the invisible hand; about what Macfie calls the “strange contrast, if not conflict,” between the invisible hand and other parts of Smith’s work. [117]  The invisible hand is of energizing power in Smith’s system, Macfie says, but it is also in conflict with this system.  The objective of historians of economic thought has been to

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question the second premise, or to try to reconcile the invisible hand with Smith’s other ideas (of individual responsibility, or of empirical investigation).  The objective here is complementary; it is to question the first premise, of the seriousness and importance of the invisible hand in Smith’s overall scheme.

Smith’s view of the invisible hand is on this interpretation one of mildly ironical (and self-ironical) condescension.  He saw it as the expression of a system which soothes the imagination, and which might or might not correspond to relations in society.  “It is very indifferent,” Hume says, where we locate the “original inherent principle of order,” whether “in thought or in matter.”  It is difficult, Smith himself says in the “History of Astronomy,” to speak of scientific systems as “mere inventions of the imagination,” and not to “make use of language… as if they were the real chains [of] Nature.” [118]  This ontological nonchalance was indeed a familiar position in the later eighteenth century.  Kant locates order in thought when he speaks of the understanding as “itself the lawgiver of nature”:  “The order and regularity in the appearances, which we entitle nature, we ourselves introduce.  We could never find them in appearances, had not we ourselves, or the nature of our mind, originally set them theme.” [119]   Smith’s language, in the invisible hand passage, is even more than usually cautious, as Richard Schüller, one of the critics of Smith’s nineteenth-century historicist critics, pointed out.  The individual “generally” does not intend to promote the public interest, Smith says; he “frequently” promotes the interest of the public more efficiently by pursuing his own interest. [120]

The invisible hand is a sort of trinket, for Smith; it is not a discovery of inherent order.  But its very beauty - its loveliness to the imagination - is thereby of political importance.  Smith is preoccupied, throughout his work, with the idea of persuasion, and the invisible hand is a way of persuading people, of appealing to their love of system. [121]  The passage in which Smith introduces the invisible hand in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is a digression, as has been seen, between two passages about the love of system and the beauty of order, at the end of which Smith returns to his interrupted argument: “the same principle, the same love of system.”  In the first passage, the imagination is charmed by the orderliness of consumption goods (trinkets, houses, and other contrivances), and in the second passage, by the beauty and orderliness of political systems.  “You will be more likely to persuade” public men, Smith says, if you appeal to their love of beautiful and smoothly functioning political schemes; to their “love of art and contrivance.” [122]

The system of general economic order is such a scheme.  It may or may


not yield the “greatest possible” value of the industry of the country, or the most equitable distribution of the country’s wealth.  But it will at least work better than the visible hand of universal regulation.  Its political importance consists, in fact, in its public loveliness, or in its potential to dissuade statesmen from the use of other, more oppressive hands.  Smith’s concern, at the point where he introduces the invisible hand in the Wealth of Nations, is to persuade legislators that they should desist from imposing restrictions on imports.  It is not particularly easy, as Condorcet observed, to convince officials of the attractions of doing nothing. [123]   It is easier, perhaps, to convince them that to do nothing is to cooperate in a great system of public order.  The invisible hand is thereby a contrivance, and also a sort of obviating device; it crowds out weightier, mightier hands.

Smith is gently ironical, it seems to me, in his description of the susceptibility of public men; of their propensity to be led by the imagination, or by the love of beauty and order.  But his irony is also Selbstironie.  People “give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination,” he says; “even we” are delighted by our systems, and are “drawn in” to seeing them as “important and sublime truths.” [124]  It is in this sense, at least, that the invisible hand is a thoroughly Smithian idea.  It is an ironic joke, and it is also a joke on himself.  It is a joke, in any case, on his immense posterity as well.

Index or Notes

Explanation and Understanding

There is one remaining difficulty, if the proposed interpretation is convincing.  It is to understand why the invisible hand has been so overestimated; why this one “great idea” has seemed, so often, to express all that is most important in Smith’s work.  There have been imposing changes of intellectual taste in the study of Smith’s economic thought, and Smith is perhaps peculiarly susceptible to the history which consists of idées-clé, or of single principles which are thought to epitomize his entire theory.  But the taste for the invisible hand has over the past century been both obdurate and resilient.  It is of some interest, therefore, to see what it is - in the modern invisible hand, if not in Smith’s - which has been of such moment, to so many economists, and so much economic policy.

Of the three conditions which together constitute the modern conception of the invisible hand - to do with the unintended consequences of actions, the orderliness of the ensuing events, and the beneficence of the unintended order - it is the third which has been of the greatest public

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importance.  The first condition, as Karen Vaughn says in her entry for “invisible hand” in the New Palgrave, “must have been obvious” for a very long time. [125]  (It was obvious to Telemachus in the Odyssey, in Bernard Williams’s account.) [126]  It is present, certainly, in Smith’s idea of the invisible hand; one of his preoccupations in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is with what he describes as the “good or bad consequences of actions upon the sentiments both of the person who performs them, and of others.”  It is interesting, however, that Smith’s most forceful illustration is of unintended consequences which are not good but frightful; this is the discussion of the “piacular guilt” of Oedipus, Jocasta, and others, who “without design” - or in “undesigned violation” - do things which would, if intended, have justly been seen as deeply wrong. [127]

The second condition, of orderliness - of orders which could have been designed, in Vaughn’s description, or which are “understandable” - is more obscure.  The question of whether a cosmic order could have been designed was of intense religious interest in the eighteenth century, as has been seen.  But there is little reason to expect that it would have been of similar importance in twentieth-century economics.  The modern interest, if any, is of a different sort.  The theological argument takes the modal form of asserting that if a set of events is orderly, then it is not possible that these events are not the product of design.  It is this argument with which Hume and other eighteenth-century opponents of natural religion took issue.  The modern, secular assertion seems to be that if the set of events is orderly, then it is possible that they are the product of design. [128]  This proposition is in itself as crushingly uninteresting as the assertion of unintended consequences.  It is possible that the events were designed, or that they were not designed, or that they were chosen by mice, and so forth.  What was of greater interest, apparently, in the twentieth century as in the eighteenth century, was the implicit politics of the modal proposition.

In its modern version, the argument about design thus takes the form of suggesting that if the world, or the economy, is so orderly that it could have been designed by a sovereign (or a planning commission), then there is no need for actual designs (or commissions).  The outcome could have been planned; as it happens it was not; why therefore should we have a planner?  Like Samuel Clarke’s suspect philosophers, the enthusiasts of the invisible hand might very well like to set aside the sovereign.  The suggestion in this form is reminiscent of Smith’s own efforts to persuade statesmen that the outcome of doing nothing would be a contrivance as beautiful and systematic as the outcome of regulation.  But it is thereby a


variation of the third condition, about beneficence; the proponent of the invisible hand must show that the order which is not the result of design is also an order which is either beneficial or beautiful or both.

The other element in the order argument, that the unintended order is “understandable,” is of more general interest.  Vaughn, following Hayek, says that “without some notion of an invisible hand in human actions, social science would be impossible,” and Arrow and Hahn, too, see the invisible hand as the principal contribution of economic thought “to the general understanding of social processes.” [129}  All phenomena, for Hayek, should be divided into three classes: the natural, the artificial (or those that are the “product of human design”), and the “distinct middle category comprising all those unintended patterns and regularities which we find to exist in human society.”  It is this third class of phenomena which constitutes the subject matter of social science, and “which it is the task of social theory to explain.” [130]  P.-J. Proudhon, in his Système des contradictions économiques of 1846, said that a quasi-theological orderliness is the condition for the scientific study of society; that the “preamble of any political constitution” must be “There is a God; which means: society is governed with counsel, premeditation, intelligence.  This judgment, which excludes chance, is thus the foundation of the possibility of a social science.” [131]

The interest of social science in independent, individual actions begins, in Vaughn’s description, with the discovery that these actions give rise to “an understandable and orderly social process.”  But to suggest that events must be orderly or coherent - that they must exhibit “patterns or regularities” - if they are to be understandable is to reject Smith’s own view of science.  In Smith’s and Hume’s (and Kant’s) conception of the understanding as the lawgiver of nature, the point of scientific enterprise is to impose a coherent order on otherwise jarring events; it is to imagine a system (or one system after another) which makes sense of the world, and not to discover that the world in fact makes sense.  Orderliness is for Smith a quality which is “bestowed” upon phenomena. [132]  Our ideas are (or can be) coherent in much the same way as statements are coherent or consistent; the coherence of individual acts, like the consistency of individual choices, is less like the coherence or consistency of statements. [133]  Their order is one that “we ourselves introduce,” in a Kantian fashion.

The more profound question of social understanding, or understandability, has to do with tastes in explanation.  There is an evident sense in which intended outcomes are not particularly interesting as the subject of social investigation.  If I am watching a game of cards, to extend one of

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Smith’s own examples, I can feel quite giddy if I look at “every single stroke”; I am not greatly interested, however, when all is explained to me in terms of “the nature and rules of the game.” [134]  If individuals do only what is ordained by God, or what they have been ordered to do by the national planning commission, then the search for social understanding is limited and uninviting.  The consequences of their actions can be understood, or explained, but the explanation is of little or no interest to the social theorist.

One claim on behalf of “invisible hand explanations,” made by Robert Nozick, is essentially aesthetic, as has been seen, and very much in Smith’s spirit; it is that they are “lovely” or “satisfying.” [135]  But there is a different, and stronger, claim made by Hayek, in which the analysis of unintended actions is not only a contribution to but a condition for social understanding.  The doctrine of constructivism associated with the Continental enlightenment, Hayek says, “has no room for anything which is ‘the result of human action but not of human design’ and therefore no place for social theory.” [136]  Spontaneous ordered structures not only are “superior to conscious action,” but also are coextensive with social life, or with the realm of social theory; “indeed, any social processes which deserve to be called ‘social,’ in distinction to the action of individuals are almost ex definitione not conscious.” [137]

The difficulty here is that the Hayekian social theorist is at risk of finding herself in much the same position as was taken, earlier, to be distinctively un-Smithian: a position of disregard for individual and futile intentions, and of reverence for the all-seeing theorist.  Actions are attended, in general, by intentions, and by consciousness.  The theorist, in invisible hand explanations, simply discards most of these intentions.  The individual participant in social processes is depicted as someone who thinks.  But she thinks about her own petty interests and not about the process of which she is a part; she thinks locally and not universally; she does not think theoretically.

This posture of the theorist, looking down like the Stoic emperor on the “feasts and mournings and markets” of the world, on its particular intentions and particular ways of thinking, is in conflict with much of Hayek’s thought, as well as with Smith’s. [138]  For Hayek was himself critical of the objectivist position which tries to look at other men from the perspective of “somebody who was not himself a man,” or “as we observe an ant-heap or a bee-hive.” [139]  Even Condorcet, at the dizziest moment of his faith in the limitlessness of enlightenment, in his “Discours de Reception” of


1782 at the Académie Française, insisted on the difference between the moral and the physical sciences: “Everything would be equal between them for a being who, a stranger to our species, would study human society as we study that of beavers or ants.  But here, the observer is himself part of the society he observes, and truth can only have judges who are either prejudiced or seduced.” [140]  It is just this distant view which is characteristic of invisible hand theories.  The people, Necker wrote in his Sur la legislation et la commerce des grains, are like children, who act “without reflecting, but enlightened by their instinct.” [141]  For Dugald Stewart, in the observation quoted earlier, to be the subject of the invisible hand is to be unenlightened, to act out of instinct and not out of intention, to be like a bee:

When, like the lower animals, he follows blindly his instinctive principles of action, he is led by an invisible hand, and contributes his share to the execution of a plan, of the nature and advantages of which he has no conception.  The operations of the bee, when it begins, for the first time, to form its cell, convey to us a striking image of the efforts of unenlightened Man, in conducting the operations of an infant government. [142]

Invisible hand explanations, in Nozick’s description, tend to work less well to the extent that the realms or patterns to be explained are associated with “reflective thinking.”  They are not notably successful, in particular, in providing an explanation of ethics; they encounter the “substantial stumbling block” of “consciousness, language, and self-consciousness.”  They work best when the activities in question (such as bartering one sort of commodity for another) are relatively unreflective, and relatively unencumbered with social theorizing (such as thinking about the emergence of money).  They work least well when the activities are reflective, self-conscious, and concerned with universal theories; activities, for example, such as deciding whether to pursue one’s interests by buying and selling commodities, or by influencing the political rules under which commodities are bought and sold. [143]

The difficulty, for invisible hand explanations of economic life, is that economic activities are often highly reflective.  If buying and selling is a debate (as in Turgot’s description), or a form of rhetoric (as in Smith’s), then it is a cognitive, self-conscious sort of activity.  It may involve thinking or talking about economic theories and rules, as well as about economic interests.  Deciding how to pursue one’s self-interest, or discussing one’s de-

142 Index or Notes

cisions with other people, is a part of economic life, and it is also similar to much that happens in political life, or in moral life.  There are occasions, that is to say, when it is a characteristic of economic agents, as of Nozick’s moral agents, to “notice how we are behaving, decide to have our behavior conform to general principles of behavior, produce reasons for and against our beliefs and critically discuss them.” [144]  There are other occasions when it is reasonable to disregard all this reflectiveness, as being of only minimal importance in the lives of economic agents, no more than “futility and nothingness.”  The social (or economic) theorist needs different kinds of explanations for these different occasions; the invisible hand is a style of explanation, and not a condition of social understanding.

Index or Notes

Greatest Possible Values

It is the third condition of the invisible hand, whereby the unintended order turns out to be beneficial for the people whom it orders, which has contributed most to the modern renown of the invisible hand.  Vaughn distinguishes two ways of thinking about spontaneous orders and their desirable consequences.  In one, the system is “self-organizing in some way within the context of a set of social rules”; the rules or constraints in the system, as in Lionel Robbins’s description of the invisible hand as the hand of the lawgiver, “could well be set by human design and can work for good or ill.”  In the other, the spontaneous orders are seen as “evolved orders where the rules themselves are the unintended products of human actions”; the “economic institutions of a society,” like the beneficial consequences of these institutions, are the “unintended by-products of self-interested economic behaviour.” [145]  The two conceptions - the equilibrium and the evolutionary versions of the invisible hand - correspond to different economic theories, and to different views of economic policy; both have been of very significant importance in modern economics.

The invisible hand in the first conception is Arrow’s and Hahn’s “poetic device” of the general competitive equilibrium of twentieth-century economic theory. [146]  There is a general sense in which this body of theory is indeed Smithian.  It corresponds to the criterion of loveliness; it is as close as anything in modern economics to Smith’s idyll of “a more coherent, and therefore a more magnificent spectacle.”  It is reasonable to assert, counterfactually, that Smith would have been pleased (or soothed) by the modern theory of general economic equilibrium.  But it was not a theory that he knew, or of which he was in any precise sense the precursor.  Smith


was in fact quite reticent in using the metaphors of celestial and fluid mechanics.  He avoids the Stoic-Epicurean word “equilibrium,” which was by the 1770s a well-known figure of speech in political economy, and with which he was almost certainly familiar in its economic uses. [147]  (The word appears only once in the Wealth of Nations, in an account of doctrines of the exact balance of trade, than which, Smith says, “nothing, however, can be more absurd.”) [148]

Smith is similarly cautious in his references to maximization, at least with respect to aggregate or social quantities.  In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, the idea of an order, or an “immense machine of the universe” such as to sustain “the greatest possible quantity of happiness,” is a sublime object of contemplation, but one which should not serve as a distraction from humbler and more domestic duties. [149]  It is only in the passage about the invisible hand, in the Wealth of Nations, that he refers in any sustained way to “greatest possible” quantities; he speaks four times in a few lines of “the greatest value” of production, and also mentions the “greatest possible value” of production, and the “greatest quantity” of money or goods.  But the production to be maximized is in each case the product of the individual’s own industry or his own capital.  The maximand is an objective of individuals; it is what “may” or “is likely to” result from the individual’s efforts.” [150]

The invisible hand was for Smith an obviating device, as has been suggested.  To rely on the self-interest of individuals was simply less bad for national prosperity (and less unjust) than to regulate their activities.  But this was an extremely general prescription, consistent with Smith’s skepticism about “exact regimens.”  The difficulty begins - the disparity between the poetic, logical invisible hand and the invisible hand which was of public importance or influence in the twentieth century - with the application of the prescription to economic policy.  For the conditions of real commercial societies are strikingly different, as Smith and many others recognized, from conditions of perfect economic competition.  The theorist can set up the conditions of his system in whatever way he likes, much as Smith’s merchant in the invisible hand passage is identified as a cosmopolitan citizen of Amsterdam, with very little power to influence policy in Portugal or the Baltic.  The statesman, advised by the theorist, has the additional possibility of trying to improve the conditions of real societies, and to make them more like conditions of free and perfect competition.

Smith’s account of the invisible hand is oddly ingenuous, as has been seen, with respect to the propensity of entrepreneurs to pursue their own

144 Index or Notes

interests by influencing the political regulation of industry and commerce.  “Every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him,” Smith says in the passage in the Wealth of Nations about the invisible hand.  But the local situation is often a political situation.  The local knowledge which is characteristic, in Smith’s and Turgot’s slightly condescending descriptions, of individual entrepreneurs is among other things a knowledge of local regulations, local vexation, and local lawgivers. [151]  Smith describes the interests of merchants as futile, as Playfair observes.  As Playfair also points out, he objects to the spirit of monopoly: Smith, “who thinks that trade should be left to itself, because individuals understand best their own interests, complains in unusually bitter terms of that desire of monopoly which is, and which must be, the concomitant of a desire to accumulate and become rich.” [152]

The difficulty, for the modern theorist of the invisible hand, consists in the deduction, from the theory of general economic equilibrium, of principles of economic policy. [153]  Smith’s ontological modesty (his unconcern with whether orderliness is a condition of the mind or of the world) corresponds to a modesty with respect to policy, in which he simply averts his gaze from the great public objectives of improving entire societies.  This is a possibility for the modern theorist, as well: to insist that the system of general competitive efficiency is no more than a set of definitions, without explanatory or normative consequence.  But the invisible hand is in these circumstances of little public importance.  Once it is seen as a guide to policy, then it becomes much less modest.  Policy must be concerned, for example, to restrict monopoly (and perhaps also, eventually, to restrict or restrain the desire for monopoly).  The pursuit of the public interest must consist not only in desisting from regulation, but also in establishing (and maintaining) an environment of free competition.  Even Hayek spoke, in The Road to Serfdom, of “planning for competition,” such that the role of the state was “to create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible.” [154]

Equilibrium is in these circumstances an ideal.  There is even (as Necker wrote) an “art of equilibrium.” [155]  The “system of economic freedom” will only work, in Lionel Robbins’s words, “if a conscious effort is made to create the highly artificial environment which is necessary if it is to function properly… [N]ot only the good society, but the market itself is an artifact.” [156]  As in Frank Hahn’s account, quoted earlier, the central claim for the invisible hand is that “the market system operates on relatively sim


ple motivational precepts which, in principle, leave agents open to manipulation by authority... [l]t suggests ways in which institutions and policies might be devised, which harness self-interest and render it socially acceptable.” [157]

The hand which manipulates individual agents, here, is heteronomous, in Kant’s sense.  It treats individuals as means and not as ends.  It is the hand of the sovereign; the individuals are something like horses, to be harnessed in the interest of their own happiness.  In Necker’s description of the art of administration, “the hand which encourages, which restrains, which restores, is no longer noticed, and one forgets its services.” [158]  The utility of every individual is an end, but it is not an end which the individual has himself devised or explained.  For the effort of “the hand of the lawgiver” in restricting “the sphere of the pursuit of self-interest” is itself a political project.  The government is not concerned, as in the mercantilist or regulatory regimes opposed by Smith, to enact laws directing citizens as to what they should sell, or import, or who they should employ.  Its responsibility, rather, is to enact and to enforce laws about laws; about the circumstances in which citizens seek to influence laws and the enforcement of laws.  It is concerned with corruption, intimidation, and political contributions, or with the transformation of money into political power.  It influences the norms of political influence: the choice, for example, of how to distinguish the ingenuously from the disingenuously public interest, and the licit from the illicit exercise of political power.

Index or Notes

Evolved Orders

The other way of thinking about the invisible hand - about desirable orders in which “the rules themselves are the unintended products of human actions,” in Vaughn’s description - is at first sight strikingly different.  Hayek explicitly denies, on behalf of the theory of the “spontaneous order of the market,” any objective of “maximising aggregate real social income.” [159]  The equilibrium version of the modern invisible hand corresponds to the utilitarian political objective of seeking to contribute, through the consequences of one’s policies, to the greatest possible happiness of individuals.  This utilitarianism, for Hayek, is a variation of the “false ‘constructivist’ rationalism” which was characteristic of the Continental European as distinct from the English enlightenment: a “constructivist particularist utilitarianism [which] rests on the belief that reason is capable of directly manipulating all the details of a complex society.” [160]

146 Index or Notes

It is the rules and institutions of an evolved order, more than its economic outcomes, which are in Hayek’s view subject to the invisible hand.  The English view of a liberal social order is founded, he writes, on “an evolutionary interpretation of all phenomena of culture and mind.”  The disposition of opportunities in the economy is ordered by an invisible hand.  But so too are the rules which order the dispositions.  So, in turn, are the rules which order the rules.  (So, even, is the theory of rules and of rules about rules; the liberalism which Hayek favors “is itself not the result of a theoretical construction.”) [161]  The life of individuals, with its mournings and markets, is overseen by an imposing sequence of invisible hands, stacked up, one above the other, like airplanes waiting to land.  The planes never land; they are not so much like airliners as like AWACS surveillance planes, suspended in a limitless holding position.

The outcome of all this surveillance, in Hayek’s description, consists in “institutions which are necessary conditions for the achievement of men’s conscious purposes,” rather than in institutions which contribute to “social welfare.” [162]  But the criterion of necessity is established after the event; institutions are necessary if they turn out to have been needed.  The criterion of success is to have succeeded, or to have survived.  The rules which prevail do so, Hayek writes, because “the groups who observed them were more successful.”  “Grown institutions,” together with “tradition and custom,” are the proper subject of esteem.  They have grown (as distinct from being planted, presumably when they were already large), and they have also been growing for some time.  “It is this submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional,” Hayek says, that “is in dispensable for the working of a free society.” [163]

The evolutionary version of the invisible hand is very far, here, from Adam Smith.  Dugald Stewart was concerned, as has been seen, to defend Smith against the charge of trying “to unhinge established institutions,” or of disputing “the unfathomable wisdom of the feudal ages.” [164]  But Stewart, too, had written of Smith that he “calls into question the utility of institutions”, Stewart himself was dubious as to “exaggerated conceptions  of the wisdom of long experience.” [165]  Smith’s description of traditional institutions m the Wealth of Nations - of the “barbarous institutions” of inheritance, or of “all the violence of the feudal institutions” - is strikingly lacking in reverence.  The respect of “ancient sages for the institutions of their ancestors” led them, Smith says, to “find much political wisdom in what was, perhaps, merely an ancient custom.” [166]


Smith’s definition of jurisprudence, at the outset of his unpublished lectures, is similarly rationalist, in Hayek’s terms: jurisprudence is “the theory of the rules by which civil government ought to be directed.  It attempts to show the foundation of the different systems of government in different countries and to show how far they are founded in reason.” [167]  In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, too, custom is the subject of very little esteem.  One of Smith’s most coruscating passages is indeed concerned with the authorization in ancient Greece, by “uninterrupted custom,” of the “exposition, that is the murder of new-born infants.”  Even philosophers, Smith says, were “led away by the established custom”: “When custom can give sanction to so dreadful a violation of humanity, we may well imagine that there is scarce any particular practice so gross which it cannot authorise.  Such a thing, we hear men every day saying, is commonly done, and they seem to think this a sufficient apology for what, in itself, is the most unjust and unreasonable conduct.” [168]

Carl Menger, whom Hayek identifies as the most important nineteenth-century source of the theory of spontaneous orders, said of Smith and his followers, as was seen earlier, that “the broad domain of unreflectively created social structures remains closed to their theoretical understanding”; that they can justly be charged with a “pragmatism, which in the main had only an understanding for positive creations of public authorities.” [169]  Menger has been criticized, on the basis of these comments, for an “unsympathetic interpretation if not monumental misunderstanding of Smith,” which is difficult to account for. [170]  But even Hayek concedes that other eighteenth-century thinkers expressed the notion of evolutionary institutions “much more clearly than Smith himself ever did”; he surmises, oddly, that Smith “may have seemed to treat it as too obvious that the order which formed itself spontaneously was also the best order possible.” [171]  This is unlikely, at least if Smith shared Hume’s and Voltaire’s sprightly view of best possible worlds.  As James Buchanan concludes, Smith’s view was that “there is nothing sacrosanct about those laws and institutions that emerge in what may be called the natural process of social evolution.”  “Smith differs from the position that seems to be taken by F. A. Hayek, who holds Smith up as one of the discoverers of the notion that efficient results need not be willed or planned,” Buchanan writes; but “Hayek extends this notion too far when he applies it to the emergence of law itself.” [172]

Smith’s theory and Hayek’s have in common a profound dislike of the official knowledge of the state.  The evolutionary version of the invisible

148 Index or Notes

hand is in this respect, at least, far closer to Smith than the equilibrium version.  Hayek’s distinction between the rule of law and arbitrary government - between “formal rules which do not aim at the wants and needs of particular people” and substantive rules which “provide for the actual needs of people as they arise and then choose deliberately between them” - has an evident affinity to Smith’s political thought (as indeed to the “Continental” thought of Turgot or Condomcet). [173]  The duty of the sovereign, for Smith, consists in “protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it.” [174]  The fluctuating regulation of people’s lives is itself a form of oppression.  The vexation and personal injustice which Smith describes are such as to flourish in an arbitrary regime of regulation; Hayek speaks of “oppression by means of economic policy.” [175]  For Smith, as for Hayek, the misuse of knowledge by the state is the most frightening of despotisms.

The deepest difference between Smith and Hayek has to do, by contrast, with the knowledge of individuals (or with the idyll of universal enlightenment).  There is very little in Smith which corresponds to Hayek’s esteem for the unconscious, the blind, the untheoretical, the imperfectly understood.  The most significant fact about the price system, Hayek writes, consists in its economy of knowledge, or “how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the might action.” [176]  They might even make better choices if they knew less, or at least if they had less knowledge of a reflective, theoretical sort.  Burke, more than Smith, is for Hayek the father of the “genetic” understanding of human institutions, and Hayek follows Burke in celebrating the littleness of individual reason.  Like Burke, he is unimpressed by the empire of light: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small.”  Like Burke, too, he sees in the cumulative or evolved knowledge of institutions a capital which is itself unknowable: a “latent wisdom,” a “wisdom without reflection, and above it a “great mysterious incorporation.” [177]  Max Weber described the disenchantment of the world associated with the scientific mind – “the knowledge or the belief that… there are in principle no mysterious, incalculable powers at work” - as a victory over something very close to Smith’s invisible hand of Jupiter: “One need no longer have recourse to magic in order to control or implore the spirits, as did the savage for whom such powers existed.” [178]   For Hayek, the invisibility or incalculability of economic order is itself an object of reverence.

The knowledge of individuals is often estimable, for Hayek.  But it is


knowledge of the local (and not the universal), of the fleeting (and not the persistent), of the untheoretical.  He is full of disdain for the “speculative or explanatory views which people have formed about.. such collectives as ‘society’ or the ‘economic system”; the role of social science, in his description, is to start “from the concepts which guide individuals in their actions and not from the results of their theorising about their actions.” [179]  There is something of this disdain in Turgot’s eulogy to the knowing local entrepreneur, who “alone has that experience which is the more sure because it is limited to a single object.” [180]  But for Smith, to know only a single thing is to be “mutilated and deformed” in an “essential part of the character of human nature.”  The “intellectual faculties” in every individual, for Smith, can be exercised in “rational conversation,” in sentiments, in “the ordinary duties of private life,” and in judging “the great and extensive interests of his country.” [181]

Reason, for Smith, as for Philo in Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, is “so bounded a principle.” [182]  But the reason so limited, or so misprised, is in general the reason of the great.  It is the reason of the pretentious; of the state, of established theory, of powerful merchants.  The projects of universal religious explanation tend to be disconcerted, like those of established science (even of Newton’s system, “the most universal empire that was ever established in philosophy”) [183]  So do the projects of the commercial or political statesman, in Hume’s description; when a man forms schemes in politics or economy, something is sure to happen “that will disconcert his reasoning, and produce an event different from what he expected.” [184]

The ordinary reason of individuals is more often the object of esteem, both for Smith and for Hume.  “The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reason and understanding,”  Smith says in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. [185]  In Hume’s description of civilized society, “profound ignorance is totally banished, and men enjoy the privilege of rational creatures, to think as well as to act.” [186]  Even the propensity to barter and exchange, the foundation of commercial society, is for Smith a consequence of the faculties of reason and speech.  The psychological inequality which is characteristic of the division of labor, in which the few have “an almost infinite variety of objects” while the lives of the “great body of the people” are “simple and uniform,” is for Smith the “great public evil” of civilized society.  But it can be prevented by universal public instruction, and by the “study of science and philosophy.”  The great body of the people can have multiple objects, or ideas with which to amuse themselves.  They can be-

150 Index or Notes

come more disposed to examine political projects; they can be “instructed and intelligent.” [187]

This is the disposition of enlightenment, once more.  It is the heroism of the millers, carters, and bakers, so admired by the French exponents of economic reform, and so derided by Galiani.  The “new conquering empire of light and reason” is in Burke’s description a purgatory of universal reflectiveness; a “monstrous fiction” of “inspiring false ideas and vain expectations” in men destined to obscurity.  It promises a tumult of multiple, competing theories, in which individuals are “hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved.” [188]  But Smith, unlike Burke, was a friend of enlightenment in this sense, as has been seen.  His views of instruction and ignorance were invoked repeatedly in the early years of the French Revolution.  He was unenticed by what Coleridge, writing against Burke, described as the “absurd opposition of Theory to Practice”; his view, like Coleridge’s, is that “the meanest of men has his Theory: and to think at all is to theorize.” [189]

Hayek’s rejection of “theorizing” - his lyricism of the unconscious and the imperfectly understood - is in this respect quite un-Smithian.  It also poses serious problems for the evolutionary version of the invisible hand.  The evolved order is considered to be beneficial, as has been seen, because it permits individuals to achieve their own purposes.  But to have conscious purposes, or to be guided in one’s actions by concepts, is to be conscious of one’s ends, and also of the means to these ends.  It is to be in a position to choose one’s means (as the subjects of the invisible hand choose between pursuing their ends by political and economic means).  It is also, and above all, to be in a position to evaluate, oneself, whether one is or is not achieving one’s ends.  To be this sort of person is to be unsubmissive to great mysterious incorporations.  It is to be in a position, at least, to call into question the wisdom of established institutions.

The difficulty, in general, is that there are different criteria for ordering “orders,” and that the different criteria may induce the theorist of the invisible hand to support different policies.  On one criterion, orders are good if they have become established over time.  On a second, they are good if they correspond to what the individuals who constitute the order (who are ordered by it) themselves think to be good.  On a third, orders are good if they can be shown to increase the possibilities for individuals to do what they wish to do (even when the individuals do not themselves have wishes, or opinions, about social orders).  On a fourth criterion, orders are good if they correspond to certain principles, such as the security


of individual might, and the non-recourse to force.  But the four criteria do not always coincide.  It is quite conceivable, and indeed familiar, that they will identify different orders, or policies.  Benjamin Constant, for example, turned the evolutionary rhetoric of reverence for established institutions against Burke’s own followers as early as the mid-1790s, when he argued that to overthrow the institutions established during the period of revolutionary reform would be to emulate the impetuousness of the Jacobin revolutionaries themselves.  The appropriate policy, rather, was to rely on a “system of principles”; to preserve those revolutionary institutions which were just, and which had popular support; which corresponded to people’s “ideas,” and to “principles” as distinct from “prejudices.” [190]

“The attitude of the liberal toward society,” Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.” [191]  This is one of the more charming metaphors of political power.  To potter among the rose-bushes is to be more enlightened and respectful, as a sovereign, than to keep sheep; than to be the sort of sovereign who thinks of one’s subjects, in Kant’s words, as “docile sheep, well fed, powerfully protected and led by a kind and understanding master, and [with] no lack of welfare to complain of.” [192]  But in the metaphor of the flower beds, too, there is an asymmetry of consciousness between the ruler and the ruled (the rosebushes of society, or the sheep).  It is the gardener, or the shepherd, who thinks, or who theorizes.  It is he, alone, who understands the “structure” of the invisible order, and whether it permits individuals to do what they wish to do.  In a liberal order, Hayek writes, “justice [is] conceived as something to be discovered by the efforts of judges and scholars.” [193]  The liberal is a scholar, a judge, a theorist who gives enlightened and respectful advice to the ruler; he is the only wise and worthy man, or the only man, in a bower of flowers.

The evolutionary version of the invisible hand, in these circumstances, is no more reverent with respect to individual wills than the equilibrium version.  The theorist is reluctant to provide advice on how to set the rules of economic institutions; he understands, nonetheless, how to make use of the wills of individual participants.  Society requires that “the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection,” Burke wrote in the Reflections, and there is something of this authoritarianism in theories of the invisible hand. [194]   The liberal order, Hayek says, is “a method of social control”; it is “deemed su-

152 Index or Notes

perior because of our ignorance of its precise results.”  It can “utilise the knowledge and skill of all members of society”; it resolves the problem of “how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.” [195]  The hand of the liberal sovereign, like the hand of Necker’s virtuous minister of finance, is no longer noticed.

The evolved order is even more heteronomous, here, than the equilibrium order.  It controls the wills of individuals, and the individuals do not know that they are being controlled.  They are not conscious of the social order; they cannot see it.  But they are subject, all the same, to its invisible authority.  They are even subject to its moral authority.  For the individual has a duty, Hayek writes, to “submit to the adjustments which the market forces” upon him.  His income is the “outcome of a mixed game of skill and chance,” and “once we have agreed to play the game and profited from its results, it is a moral obligation on us to abide by the results even if they turn against us.” [196]

The order of the market is thus something of which individuals are conscious (it is a moral order), and at the same time something of which they are unconscious (it is an invisible order).  In his lectures on jurisprudence, Smith argued against the theory of an original contract, following Hume, that individuals cannot be bound by duties with which they are “unacquainted,” or of which they do not have at least “some idea.”  The contract is not really a contract, at least for the posterity of the original persons; “they are not conscious of it, and therefore cannot be bound by it.”  It may be said, Smith adds, “that by remaining in the country you tacitly consent to the contract and are bound by it.  But how can you avoid staying in it?... And how can you get out of it?” [197]  This is the question for the subjects of the invisible hand as well.  They must submit, in Hayek’s theory, to something they do not, and could not, understand; they must give themselves up to the heteronomy of the elective will. [198]

Index or Notes

Two Shortcomings of Liberal Thought

Smith’s ideas have had long and turbulent lives in what Kant described as the universal exchange of thought. [199]  The invisible hand, in particular, was transposed, in the course of the twentieth century, into two enormous and opposing bodies of political and economic theory.  These theories are not Smith’s; all he did, it has been suggested, was to make a mild and ironic joke.  But the difficulties of the equilibrium and the evolutionary versions


of the invisible hand correspond to conflicts in Smith’s own thought, and indeed in all subsequent thought about liberal economic orders.  For Smith was being ironic, as on other occasions, about a deadly serious subject.  His ontological (and political) nonchalance is itself jarring; it has something of what he describes, in Stoic doctrine, as “apathy and indifference.”

The first conflict, or shortcoming of economic thought, is over the transformation of money into political power.  In Smith’s description of the invisible hand in the Wealth of Nations, the circumstance that individuals pursue their economic objectives by political means is largely ignored.  In the modern theory of general competitive equilibrium, as in the theory of evolved orders, these circumstances (or the existence of market power) were also ignored, or assumed to be absent.  The role of public policy, to the extent that policy consequences are associated with equilibrium theory, was to design efficient market institutions.  In evolutionary theory, existing institutions were the subject of greater esteem; the role of the theorist, if not of public policy, was to remind individuals of their moral obligations in respect of market games.

The difficulty, in all these positions, is that the liberal economic order - the system ordered by the invisible hand - is inefficient in the presence of extensive market power.  Individual participants in a market economy set out with different initial endowments; their endowments change over time; and they sometimes seek to use these endowments (of money, or of power) to influence the rules of the economy itself.  If they do so, on any substantial scale or with any substantial success, the invisible hand of economic freedom will be of little use.  But to prevent individuals from using their own endowments is itself a violation of freedom.  To prevent individuals from trying to influence public policy is to subvert political freedom.

The incidence of economic and political competition is thus of decisive importance for the liberal economic order.  Individuals have opinions about social orders, they have opinions about the means of achieving their objectives within a given social order, and they have opinions about how changes in social orders could help them to achieve these objectives.  Smith is a subtle observer of the condition which he describes as “the mysterious veil of self-delusion,” or which Condorcet called fausse conscience: of the process by which individuals come to believe that the outcomes which are best for them are also best for the society, or for other people.  To try to distinguish between false and civic consciousness - between the subversive and the innocent pursuit of self-interest, or between the petty- and the

154 Index or Notes

public-spirited exercise of political rights - is to impinge, through economic policy, on the foundations of political power.

Economic activity was for Smith a highly discursive and reflective way of life.  This is one reason, as has been seen, that it is an often unpropitious subject for “invisible hand explanations.”  Hayek’s classification - into the natural, the unintended, and the artificial - is indeed profoundly un-Smithian.  Even the natural and the artificial are interrelated, in the philosophical thought with which Smith (and Hume) were most familiar; nature, Balbus says in De natura deorum, quoting the Stoic Zeno, is an ignis artificiosus, a “craftsmanlike fire.” [200]  The relationship between the artificial and the unintended, above all, is for Smith at the heart of moral and social investigation.  If there were to be a task, or a subject of social theory, it would consist, for Smith as for Hume, in the investigation of the coexistence of intended and unintended effects, of the self-conscious and the unself-conscious activities of individuals, of the relatively reflective (the political and the moral) and the relatively unreflective.  These are among Smith’s most persistent preoccupations, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and in most of the Wealth of Nations; they are oddly absent in his description of the invisible hand, and of the policies about money and power which are (or should be) its complement.

The other shortcoming of liberal economic thought has to do with faith.  All versions of the invisible hand, those of modern economic theory as well as Smith’s, are the expression of optimism about the system of economic freedom.  The equilibrium version is the less dependent on faith or hope.  It is a deduction of consequences from conditions; its optimism, if any, is about the efficiency of economic policy in establishing the rules or conditions of economic institutions.  The “evolved order” version of the invisible hand, by contrast, has all the faith of evolutionary theory.  Institutions succeed if they survive, and the existent (or the surviving) is for that reason deserving of reverence.  Even the defects of institutions are the expression of unseen purposes which individuals, including theorists, are too ignorant to understand.  But all is in general for the best, “over a large number of individuals or over a long period of time.” [201]  The “new philosophy” of social science of the nineteenth century, in Proudhon’s description, with its exclusion of chance and its submission to “evidence,” “makes everything converge toward the theological hypothesis, as though toward the last of its problems,” and its “humanitarian atheism” leads, in turn, toward “the reconstruction or scientific verification of all the demolished doctrines.” [202]


Smith’s optimism, or the foundation for his belief in the liberal economic order, is different, and more profound.  There is little justification, as has been seen, for considering the invisible hand to be a theological element in his thought, or the representation of “a theory of ultimate natural harmony,” to be set, in turn, “in the wider context of [his] ultimate faith.” [203]  He has little or no confidence in the wisdom of economic policy (especially in respect of the transformation of money into power), and even less confidence in the timeless wisdom of institutions.  But he does have two reasons for confidence in the system ordered by the invisible hand.  One reason is not economic, in the terms of modern thought (or not to do with efficiency); it is that a system in which individuals make their own choices about how to live, or where to work, or how to use their money, is more just than a system in which these choices are the objects of government regulation.  The other reason - the argument about the obviating device, or the second worst outcome - is to do with efficiency, although it is less than resounding.  It is that the liberal system is not the worst of all systems; it is less inefficient, at least, than the system of regulation.

Smith, like Hume, lived in an imaginative universe of profound uncertainty.  Like Hume, he had come to tolerate a way of life, or a way of thinking, in which almost all judgments were incomplete, provisional, propositions to be discussed, and not to be convinced of.  His engagement with the question of disbelief - the tragic choice, described in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, between an impossible optimism and the “very suspicion of a fatherless world,” infinite and incomprehensible - left him relatively comfortable with the incomplete and the unresounding.  His indifference or nonchalance is in this respect quite unlike the indifference of the Stoics, secure in the paternity of providence; it is more like the security of the Epicureans, in Cicero’s description, endlessly discussing the meaning of terms in natural philosophy, and the pleasures of friendship. [204]

Smith was in a secular sense a man of faith.  As Macfie writes, “He was an essentially pious man.” [205]  But his faith, like Hume’s and Condorcet’s, is in the mildness and thoughtfulness of most individual men and women.  He is induced, thereby, to believe that they will usually not pursue their interests in grossly oppressive ways, and that they will usually wish to live in a society in which other people are not grossly oppressed or deprived.  They will wish to be decorous.  This, and little more, is the foundation of the system of economic freedom.  It is a pious hope, as well as a shortcoming of liberal economic thought.


Index or Notes

The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

January 2003

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