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The Invisible Hand of Jupiter

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  • Alec Macfie
Volume Number 32
Issue Number 4
Pages 595-599
Publication year 1971

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Grouping social sciences
Categories social work

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  1. In The Invisible Hand of Jupiter (1971), Alexander L. Macfie provides an insight on Adam Smiths conception of the relationship between divine guidance, the system of nature and human behavior. The relationship that Smith conceptualizes as the invisible hand appear thrice in his writing. Macfie tries to explain what lead Smith to the reversal of the meaning while noting that, in fact, there is no inconsistency in Smith. The invisible hand of Jupiter is a capricious, energizing force that metaphorically fits the irregularities people have been observing throughout time. The invisible hand of Christian Deity is the order preserving social force that animates orderly development of societies through social individuals.
    While there is no inconsisteny, Macfie is still not satisfied by Smith’s effort to integrate the theological, jurisprudential, ethical and economic arguments. The invisible hand of Jupiter is the innovative force breaking loose of the status quo, whereas the invisible hand of Christian Deity is the conservative force that gravitates towards natural order disturbed by self interested individuals. The invisible hand of Christian Deity appears both in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and in the Wealth of Nations (1776). Whereas in the Wealth of Nations Smith is concerned with the economic mechanism of the order preserving force that appears in the obvious and simple system of natural liberty which, if perfect, makes itself out in the correspondence of natural and market prices, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith considers the mechanism of distribution of wealth. Smith’s logic is shaky, however, for in the Theory of Moral Sentiments the economic disparity is met by an ethical answer: “In the essentials all the different ranks should be nearly on a level.” While Macfie is aware that Smith distinguishes between benevolence – distributive and esteem justice – and justice – that is commutative justice – and opposes forcing out the levelling of the distribution of essentials, it is not clear whether and how the integration of theological, ethical and economic aspects of Smith’s doctrine bind together and how and whether the invisible hand leads the “rich only [to] select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable […] to make nearly the same distribution […] which would have been made had the earth been divided among equal portions among all its inhabitants (TMS 1759, p. 184).” For Macfie the invisible-hand passage in the Theory of Moral Sentiments remains only an effort, however excellent, to bind the theological ethical and economic arguments into one comprehensive system of thought.

    posted 15 Oct 2011 by Pavel Kuchař

  2. The main point of Macfie’s article, The Invisible Hand of Jupiter (1971), is to analyze, and attempt to reconcile, Smith’s various uses of the famous, yet mysterious, “invisible hand” metaphor throughout his work.

    The original use of the invisible hand is in Smith’s History of Astronomy, an early essay written by Smith, which was published posthumously. In History of Astronomy, the invisible hand belongs to the Roman god Jupiter, and is used by polytheistic “savages” to explain seemingly irregular natural phenomena that interrupt the status quo (e.g., lightning, thunder). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and Wealth of Nations (WN), the invisible hand, assumed by Macfie, among others, to belong to the Christian Deity, is a mechanism of coordination that guides people’s self-love in order to achieve universal benevolence.

    While the uses of the invisible hand seem contradictory, Macfie contends they are not. He suggests that the use of the invisible hand in History of Astronomy was merely where Smith first coined the phrase, and has no significant bearing on its later use in TMS and WN. Macfie interprets the invisible hand metaphor in TMS and WN to be Smith’s attempt to express “his own view as to the relation between divine guidance, the system of nature, and human behavior”, accordingly becoming the energizer of his entire system of thought (pp.598-99).

    While Macfie’s interpretation may be plausible, there is another way to interpret Smith’s use of his famous metaphor. I believe that Smith used the invisible hand metaphor when talking about things beyond human understanding. In History of Astronomy, the savage ascribes lighting, a natural occurrence that he cannot understand, to the mood swings, and invisible hand of Jupiter. In TMS/WN, Smith employs the same invisible hand metaphor when he talks about markets; in doing so, he suggests that people cannot understand why order emerges spontaneously when people pursue their own ends in free markets, but can merely observe that it does. Perhaps this emergent order in markets can be attributed to a benevolent Deity, but, if the use of the metaphor is consistent with its use in History of Astronomy, Smith argues that the cause of this order is outside the realm of human understanding. With this interpretation of the invisible hand, Smith’s seemingly contradictory uses of the metaphor can indeed be reconciled.

    posted 14 Nov 2012 by Erik Matson

  3. I hope to add to, and hopefully not just echo, what Erik has already pointed out.

    It would seem that Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” allegory in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is used to illustrate the edict of nature and society that direct economic activity. Whereas, in the History of Astronomy the “invisible hand” is used to explain the unexplainable— the events that are beyond the natural laws of the secular world. On the surface, the “invisible hand” reference takes on a slightly different connotation in the three Smith pieces mention above. In The Wealth of Nations it can be interpreted as the natural laws that manage markets and society; in The Theory of Moral Sentiments it can be seen as a divine set of universal rules directing a just and virtuous society; and, in the History of Astronomy it can take on the role of a divine authority overriding these rules and laws. I believe, as I deem Erik does, that the latter use of the “invisible hand” also shows up in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Consider the following few lines from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The rich…only consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life…had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants…”. Although “selfishness and rapacity” would seem to be characteristics that would not direct society in the way of justice or virtues, the industrious individual’s “natural” penchant to serve his own interest ultimately benefits society—the mean may not appear agreeable, but the end is. Is this “natural” penchant toward “selfishness and rapacity” not assumed to be put in place by a precocious, divine authority? It certainly can be interpreted that way. If we except that the “invisible hand” is the work of a higher authority, who has directed the butcher and the brewer to act in their own self interest, and who has provided society with nature ethics and virtues to govern themselves, and who makes it “lightening” and “thunder”, then the metaphor is consistent in all three of Smith’s works referenced above. Since this heavenly intention or intervention is not observable, Smith does not bother with a speculative explanation, simply calling it the “invisible hand”.

    posted 15 Nov 2012 by Francis Conlon

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