Bryan Caplan  

The Malevolent Invisible Hand

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Lately my colleague Dan Klein has presented new evidence that the "invisible hand" was more central to Adam Smith's thought that most scholars now believe.  Perhaps that's why this passage from Will and Ariel Durant jumped out at me.  It's a discussion of the ultramontanist philosopher de Maistre:
"War is divine, since it is a law of the world" - permitted by God through all history.  Wild animals obey this rule.  "Periodically an exterminating angels comes and clears away thousands of them."  "Humanity can be considered as a tree that an invisible hand is continually pruning, often to its benefit... A great deal of bloodshed is often connected with high population." [emphasis mine]
I was curious about what the Durants left out in the ellipses.  It makes de Maistre sound worse!  "In truth the tree may perish if the trunk is cut or if the tree is overpruned; but who knows the limits of the human tree?" [emphasis original]  I can almost hear him cackling with maniacal glee.   Who knew the invisible hand metaphor would have such broad appeal?

P.S. I'm reluctant to bring up Hitler again, but the similarity to Mein Kampf's Malthusian rationale for war is hard to miss.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Gavin Kennedy writes:

Hi Bryan

I am curious as to what exactly you mean in this sentence:

"Lately my colleague Dan Klein has presented new evidence that the "invisible hand" was more central to Adam Smith's thought that most scholars now believe."

Is it "that" or "than"?

"Most [modern] scholars" certainly believe that Smith meant a great deal when he used the metaphor of "an invisible hand", which is in itself a strange story, given its relatively recent (post 1950s) invention.

I would be cheered if Dan Klein had found something to contradict the few scholars (myself included) who do not believe that Smith meant by his use of the metaphor what "most scholars" on the contrary now believe, if you get my drift.

Dan has to be congratulated for his detective work, to which I shall respond shortly after I have completed pressing and unavoidable domestic obligations.

Gavin Kennedy

FGH writes:

I'm curious as to the context of this quotation. Are the Durants citing this passage as a justification of the "necessary" slaughter experienced under totalitarian regimes "on the way to utopia?"

Steve Roth writes:

It points out rather nicely how de Maistre and modern Smithians succumb to the naturalistic fallacy, and how de Maitre understood he was doing so while not understanding that it's a fallacy.

I'm not sure modern Smithians know either one.

Ryan Vann writes:

"I'm not sure modern Smithians know either one"

Either one what?

Anyway, I think Smith's invisible hand gets far too much attention. It is certainly one of his most poetic metaphors in Wealth of Nations, but I think it gets misconstrued as some appeal to naturalism. This distracts from the purpose of the work, which, in my view, is to explain how people are conditional cooperators (ie people respond to incentives). The implications of this is that a system, allowing for conditions conducive to cooperation, creates more wealth.

SydB writes:

"P.S. I'm reluctant to bring up Hitler again, but the similarity to Mein Kampf's Malthusian rationale for war is hard to miss."


The Nazis were also obsessed with the idea of intelligence and the master race, another justification of their war.

I think bringing up these loose connections and false analogies does more harm than good and should not be part of intelligent discussion.

Jowana Bissaif writes:

Ultramontane is one of the few words in the English language that gives me the creeps whenever I see it. I'll never forget the following nugget from a decree or encyclical from the Pope in 1888, entitled "Libertas" (liberty). It makes the 20th century totalitarians look liberal by comparison.
"The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence.... A doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State.... It follows that it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional [or promiscuous] freedom of thought, speech, writing, or religion". You can read the whole thing at the Vatican website (www.vatican.va).

How Grow Taller writes:

Very great info. I’m really happy to I found this post. Thank you for writing great articles.

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