Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Invisible Hand

"Happiness never lays its finger on its pulse."
Adam Smith

Whoops! Wrong quote. But I think that's brilliant. Must be from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I got it from BrainyQuote and they never footnote anything.

Here's the one I meant:
[An individual is] led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

People who quote that (including me) like this one, too:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

That Wikipedia article is well worth reading.


The probligo said...

"Wealth of Nations" actually Al.

Second thing is that many of the popular quotations from Smith are taken out of context; and quite badly so.

You could read through this set of very brief notes which will give a better context.

Adam Smith was in fact pretty darned close to the economic trail followed by Karl Marx. In fact, both came from fairly similar backgrounds as I recall.

The probligo said...

Oh, and for once wikipedia is worth reading as well.

Al said...

You don't have to read very far into the book to pull those quotes. Although I still don't know where that first one came from. How come nobody ever quotes anything from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, dammit?

As far as the Smith-Marx connection goes, I've said as much myself.

The probligo said...

Perhaps it is because gave us a message that, while palatable in his time, tastes somewhat bitter in these times. For example -

"It is thus that man, who can subsist only in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made. All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries.


Society, however, cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another. The moment that injury begins, the moment that mutual resentment and animosity take place, all the bands of it are broke asunder, and the different members of which it consisted are, as it were, dissipated and scattered abroad by the violence and opposition of their discordant affections.

The probligo said...

I think this is what I had in mind in my previous post...
"in times of public discontent, faction, and disorder, those two different principles may draw different ways, and even a wise man may be disposed to think some alteration necessary in that constitution or form of government, which, in its actual condition, appears plainly unable to maintain the public tranquillity. In such cases, however, it often requires, perhaps, the highest effort of political wisdom to determine when a real patriot ought to support and endeavour to re-establish the authority of the old system, and when he ought to give way to the more daring, but often dangerous spirit of innovation.

Foreign war and civil faction are the two situations which afford the most splendid opportunities for the display of public spirit. The hero who serves his country successfully in foreign war gratifies the wishes of the whole nation, and is, upon that account, the object of universal gratitude and admiration. In times of civil discord, the leaders of the contending parties, though they may be admired by one half of their fellow-citizens, are commonly execrated by the other. Their characters and the merit of their respective services appear commonly more doubtful The glory which is acquired by foreign war is, upon this account, almost always more pure and more splendid than that which can be acquired in civil faction."

Now, that last sentence could have been Bush's (or Cheyney's?) mot du monde taken out of context. N contex, it is the opposite of what Smith is saying. It is his warning against the propensity of governments to use war as a diversion ("wag the dog").

The probligo said...

It took a while but I found it...

Your first quote apparently comes from " Dreamthorp A Book of Essays Written in the Country " where Smith is discussing the transitory nature of pleasure. (I only know this from the reference I found through google).

Now I have some serious modelling to do.

Head down; bum up!!

Anonymous said...

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Al said...

Wow, Prob! You really did some digging there. Thanks.

Now I can buckle down and pay attention to those parts of the book. Prob'ly won't, though, I just got nine silly novels at the used book store.

LibertyBob said...

It's fun to apply the Invisible Hand to the academic environment. Though many teachers will claim to be altruistic in their endeavors, most of them either fear real work or simply want other to think of them as "smart". There are some exceptions who are trying to accomplish something else, but they are, as I said they are exceptions.

I always recommend that people read Smith's works, but to keep in mind the historical context and that we've learned more stuff since then.

The probligo said...


"...keep in mind the historical context..."
Absolutely and undeniably. At the same time, there is the small matter of Smith being "ahead" of his time, and in particular with his thoughts on "utility".

"... and that we've learned more stuff since then."

Yep, we sure have. And we have also ignored a great deal of what we have learned.

At the same time, I must return that thought to the "utility" that Smith propounded.

It is a sad world indeed in which we have to strive in order to satisfy wants that go far beyond the essentials, in pursuit of happiness that we are told can only be achieved through the accumulation or consumption of more unneccessary material possessions.

It is significant that all of those mentioned in Smith's epigram are "necessary" occupations. The likes of chirurgeons, madams and priests do not get mention.