Home > Uncategorized > Adam Smith’s visible hand

Adam Smith’s visible hand

from Lars Syll

thmorsentHow selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

Wonder why I’ve never found this passage quoted in all those best-selling mainstream economics textbooks …

  1. Tom Welsh
    August 27, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Adam Smith had evidently not met the “greatest ruffians” we have today. As far as I can see, they are indeed “altogether without it”.

  2. gtg2013
    August 27, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    Well, it’s still a pretty crabbed, lame view of humans: Compassion as basically incomprehensible, extraordinary in some way, something to be explained; selfishness assumed as normal. The *assumption* of the selfish monad is the key point of the Smithian-bourgeois moral universe, what makes it so weird.

    • Alan
      August 28, 2017 at 1:28 am

      I think you’ve been reading some of “best-selling mainstream economics textbooks” if you believe that crap.

    • Alan
      August 28, 2017 at 8:11 pm

      See Self-interest is not selfishness.

      There is in Smith, as anthropolgsts have noted, an early version of a theory of exchange related to kinship distance. This is what you might expect from a moral philosopher; not an economist. With close kin one can rely on benovlence (i.e. gift exchange) but as kinship distance increases one must appeal to self-interest and market exchange. At greater distance, with those who are alien or even the enemy, there is no moral relationship at all.

  3. Garrett Connelly
    August 27, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Thank you

  4. August 27, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    Then again Adam Smith on occasion does not shine with insight into the human condition that we see in the above quote. For example we have the quote below from The Theory of Moral Sentiments as quoted in The Corruption of Economics, by Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:

    “When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mine, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”

    Oh my.

  5. Alan
    August 28, 2017 at 1:32 am

    The problem with Adam Smith is that pretty much from the point of his death people have been selectively quoting him to push their own particular agendas. There has been a lot of Smith scholarship over the last couple of decades that has poured large buckets of ice cold water over much of what economists have had to say about Smith.

    • gtg2013
      September 5, 2017 at 6:10 am

      Based on my reading of The W of N, I find the classical interpretation of Smith to be basically correct (as in correct **interpretation**, I strongly disagree with the assumptions made and the conclusions drawn by Smith and his followers). One can always find nuances, contradictions (of which there are many), etc. as with any major work, but basically he posits a model of society of individuals confronting each other in a market, that’s Smith’s basic position, and that’s what the “science” of economics basically has (must) assumed since. I don’t see any real way around it.

      • robert locke
        September 5, 2017 at 7:11 am

        There is a problem with individualism, of course. But basically individuals behave in the market place in different places and times according to cultural environment. Smith and his followers ignore culture, nation, and community in order to base human motivation on amoral individual self-interest. “Voila” le problem.

      • September 6, 2017 at 8:52 am

        I agree fully with Robert’s remarks. gtg2013 is correct that Smith “posits a model of society of individuals confronting each other in a market.” This model has at least two substantial difficulties. First, it is inconsistent with what is known about human cultures and their historical creation extending back through all human history. Second, it provides no review and seeks no understanding of the historical sources of the terms used and taken for granted by Smith: individual, market, society, among others. None of these exist outside of specific historic cultures. Within each of these cultures debate and struggle have taken place continually over whether individual humans exist and if they do what an individual is; whether society exists and if it does how is it created and maintained; and what are markets and how are they created and succeed and fail? Smith was a moral philosopher, as his book that preceded W of N makes clear – “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” In this light, it would be anomalous for Smith to propose theories that are a-historical or a-cultural. Consequently, I must conclude that the interpretations of Smith’s W of N by modern economists based on such must be incorrect. This is even more the case with Smith than the other moral philosophers of his day, since Smith intended to use “experiment” (experience) as his process for explicating morality. In this vein “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” begins with this statement,

        How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

  6. August 28, 2017 at 2:00 am

    Just to throw in a couple of one-liners from Petr Kropotkin:
    “Competition is the law of the jungle, but cooperation is the law of civilization.”
    and
    “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”

  7. Tom Welsh
    August 28, 2017 at 9:43 am

    I believe that cooperation and mutual aid are built deep into our human instincts. As are the need to follow one well-established leader, and to punish those who offend against custom.

    BUT.

    Those instincts work well for groups of up to 200 (Dunbar’s Number). With groups of thousands, millions and now billions, the mechanisms required to implement our instincts have never been successfully described or demonstrated. It is not clear to me that such mechanisms are even possible. How can we trust leaders whom we do not know personally, and about whom we are systematically misinformed by highly-paid experts in propaganda? How can we make fair decisions about millions of people whom we don’t know either?

    For anything like that to work we would need something like a world of Jeffersons and Voltaires and Lincolns. Instead of which, look what we actually have.

  8. August 30, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    For evolutionary biologists and anthropologists, “goodness” can be achieved only by creating the appropriate conditions. There are two pathways for evolutionary success, human survival. One involves exploiting other humans and the other involves working with other humans to achieve jointly beneficial outcomes. Humans can’t stop evolution but they can provide the cultural conditions that make evolution in the direction of “goodness” more common. Chiefly this involves creating more good groups, for even evil humans are forced to be good in good groups. It is in this sense that Richard Dawkins uses the term “selfish gene.” Genes are selfish that remain in the human genome. These are genes that “typically” survive and reproduce better than other genes. For “goodness” to win the genes for goodness must be selfish. And culturally speaking humans can improve the chances for that to happen by clustering goodness genes and evil genes into separate groups. This is a rather long -winded way of saying that in human evolution goodness (altruism, honesty, love, sacrifice, bravery, loyalty, forgiveness) tends to increase the survival chances of humans more than evil (selfishness, deceit hatred, avarice, cowardice, betrayal, spite) if humans are grouped so that goodness genes tend to replace evil genes. When it goes the other direction, we end up with a collection of psychopaths. As presently constituted, economics is creating a collection of psychopaths.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s