What, exactly, is the “invisible hand”, a phrase attributed to Adam Smith? Is it a sound economic principle or a myth propagated by the misreading of Smith? All this continues to attract controversy. If you are interested, I recommend a lucid, 12-minute podcast on the topic. You can access it without charge, courtesy of The Guardian newspaper, at the link below.
When we asked you to nominate some intellectual cliches for this series earlier this year, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” cropped up repeatedly ….
In the third episode of The Big Ideas, Benjamen Walker discusses the meaning and uses of Smith’s concept with philosopher John Gray, academic Marianne Johnson, economist Eamonn Butler and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. ….
As we mention in the podcast, Smith himself only used the phrase “invisible hand” sparingly. ….
Benjamin Walker, “The Big Ideas podcast: Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’“, The Guardian Comment is Free podcast, 6 October 2011.
Smith did use the term ‘invisible hand’ quite sparingly. It appears only once in each of three published works, for a grand total of three times.
In The History of Astronomy (written before 1758, but published in 1811), Smith writes that there is no need to resort to the supernatural, to “the invisible hand of Jupiter”, to explain natural phenomena:
Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters. [Emphasis added.]
The phrase appears a second time in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in paragraph 10 of the first and only chapter of part IV:
The rich … 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, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. [Emphasis added.]
His third and last use of the phrase is in book IV, chapter 2, paragraph 9 of The Wealth of Nations (1776):
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, 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 no 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. [Emphasis added.]