Instincts and the Invisible Order: The Possibility of Progress

The intro to Jonathan Wight’s chapter.

The invisible hand means a variety of things to modern writers, who use the phrase loosely to imply the market, the price system, efficiency, laissez-faire, greed is good, and so on (Samuels et. al., 2011; Medema, 2009; Rothschild, 1994). In some circles the invisible hand is referred to with reverence and in others with mockery. What Smith wrote, and meant, is quite different from current constructions. At first reading, Smith’s three references to an invisible hand appear to be unconnected turns of phrase. One can find ample reason for agreeing with Kennedy (2009) that the expression’s current use has been blown out of all proportion to its author’s original intent and any reasonable extrapolation thereof. On the other edge of the spectrum are authors like Klein and Lucas (2011), who argue that the invisible hand is the central concept of Smith’s work and that Smith consciously placed it at the exact physical midpoint of both his books as a rhetorical pièce de résistance, the most nourishing part of the meal. This proposition is implausible on many levels. If there were such an intended dialectical message it is curious that it remained hidden from all of Smith’s friends and closest colleagues. It is possible to argue a middle ground, however, as in this essay, that the concept behind the invisible hand is central to Smith’s work, but that the phrase itself is only one of many spread out through his work, and that the placement, as well as the exact phraseology, are non-issues. In the wider context of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, the “invisible hand” represents those unseen instincts of human nature that motivate and direct behavior. When channeled through appropriate human institutions, the invisible hand can generate a spontaneous order that in many cases produces a beneficial social outcome.

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