Journaltalk - In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes

In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes

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  • Dan Klein, Brandon Lucas
Keywords Adam Smith, invisible hand, Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments, middle, center
Pages online journal without pagination
File URL In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes
Publication year 2009

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Grouping social sciences
Categories sociology

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  1. Aside: I did count the pages, and did notice that the “in a word or two, placed in the middle” section comes in at the halfway point on page 12, halfway through the 24 page paper. Coincidence? I think not.

    I find myself, in general, agreeing with the possibility of a phrase in the middle being of extra-importance, somehow, to Smith, but I do find some of the arguments for that importance to be somewhat lacking, even to one inclined to be supportive of the notion, to say nothing of how a reader unsympathetic with the priority of the Invisible Hand in Smith would take the arguments.

    The Invisible Hand is certainly an important idea, especially to those of us sharing libertarian/free-market priors, but I am not convinced that its location in the book is much more than a divined pattern where no pattern exists. If our minds are predisposed to see stories where no story exists, could this not likely be one of those instances?

    There seem to be two main cases discussed in the paper for why smith would put something so central in the middle (contrary to the general inclination of putting the important at the beginning or the end). Either Smith was intentionally obscuring his controversial views from the censors/casual readers, and leaving that controversial view to be found by those with eyes to see, or he saw a certain aesthetic value in having his most important thought in the middle. If he was being intentionally obtuse, what was Smith hiding from? Religious persecution? Doubtful. Political outrage/maintaining his cultural royalty position? If that were the case, aren’t there enough other other relatively incendiary/anti-government-intervention passages in the book that would succeed in pissing someone off if they were going to get pissed off by the idea of an invisible hand doing better at organizing markets than their own machinations? If “economics is a challenge to the conceit of those in power,” then isn’t that challenge made clear elsewhere? Why bother with esoteric writing when so much of it is exoteric? I realize that, having still not read any leftist understandings of Smith, I may still be laboring under the false notion that Smith’s pro-market, anti-governmental-intrusion (by and large) is plain to any fair-minded reader encountering WN and TMS. Perhaps I already have had the blinders lifted, so to speak, and I would be labeled a loon if I were to explicate Smith with my modern eyes in 1780. In what ways would Smith’s Invisible Hand be a challenge to the status quo, that he would need to obscure its centrality?

    Additionally, with regard to the idea of esoterica in Smith, I don’t really see the application of the Minowitz’ point on eso- and exoteric meanings, as the Klein/Lucas paper even states that Smith was not necessarily creating “a deep dramatic difference between exoteric and esoteric,” so we are not dealing with any hidden meaning, to be divined by those with eyes to see. I can see a possible weak defense by Smith of, for instance, the small-notes-issuer prohibition elsewhere as an apparent support of the status quo, while actually setting the reader up to “take Smith to task” (as Bentham did), with Smith giving a knowing smile as the critique is lodged. I don’t see the same sneakiness (for lack of a better phrase) employed with regards to the Invisible Hand, because the apparently clear meaning of the efficiency of markets is so clearly brought out elsewhere, while governmental planning would “nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.” If Smith is going to be so explicit here, why be implicit elsewhere, and on such a related matter?

    As to the idea of it being aesthetically pleasing to be in the middle, at least the TMS passage (TMS, 179) quoted seems to say more about the pleasingness of symmetry than it does about middleness. To really employ that passage as support, one would want to see how IH was not just in the physical center of the book, but was somehow a mirror between two halves of theory, or was an anchor between windows of equal forms. Granted, one does walk through the door to get into the house, but a door all by itself is worthless without the pleasing symmetry of the rest of the house to actually be in.

    Incidentally, when is the first recorded/known instance of someone really talking about Smith’s Invisible Hand? I know, on a related note, how important early church writings are in understanding the intent of scripture, especially of New Testament scripture, because it gives us a chance to see what the closest available contemporaries thought of the writings, especially as they were so culturally similar to the original authors. A seminary professor of mine regularly stressed the importance of not working with/stressing individual verses or words (heaven forbid someone should employ the all-too-common method of building an entire sermon around the tense of a verb in the original Greek)—his phrase for this was “preaching from snowshoes, not stilts.” On stilts, you sink through the snow, because your base isn’t broad enough, and all your weight goes on one little point, while you can walk through the broad verities on snowshoes. I realize that this paper is meant to be a supplement to the vast discussion on Smith’s “real intentions” in WN and TMS, but I’m not really convinced that it adds much, especially from the eyes of someone not already on the liberty team.

    posted 23 Apr 2010 by Shawn Reed

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