Adam Smith & the Invisible Hand

In response to a comment by David Chester regarding Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand, I am reproducing the section in the paper which deals with this issue. This answers his question about how what is attributed to Adam Smith differs from what he actually said.
[Excerpt from the paper: Failures of the Invisible Hand]

Section 6: Recent Vintage of the Invisible Hand

The main goal of this section is to show that the modern interpretation of the IH is relatively recent. The idea that Mankiw (together with other modern economists) attributes to Smith is not actually present in Smith’s writings. In fact, modern writers borrow the authority of Adam Smith to provide weight to a very dubious idea of recent coinage.

We first note that modern interpretation of the “IH” is radically different from any interpretation of this concept that existed before the second half of the twentieth century. There is a growing body of literature (e.g., Grampp, 2000; Minowitz, 2004) which insists that the metaphor used by Smith was never meant to be anything more than a metaphor, and that the meanings inferred from Smith’s idea of IH by the modern economists support only their own interpretation of economic policies. Kennedy (2009) shows that three leading modern economists laud the IH as the “profoundest” and “most influential” contribution of Adam Smith. Nonetheless, their interpretation of the term and its significance is not supported either by Adam Smith or by readers of Adam Smith until the late nineteenth century.

In a corpus of over a million words, the terms IH appears only twice in the economic writings of Adam Smith. It is used only once in the Wealth of Nations in very limited and narrow context. Rothschild (1994) analyses the controversy surrounding the meaning of IH and concludes that what Smith meant by this metaphor was only a “mildly ironic joke.” Blaug (2007) also shows that Adam Smith cannot be blamed for these ideas. He cites other references which state that:

Some economists regarded the Arrow-Debreu results [on the existence of general equilibrium] and the fundamental theorems of welfare economics as the modern expression of Smith’s invisible hand . . . . But Smith would be surprised at what is attributed to him today . . . . On careful reading Smith does not say that selfish behavior is praiseworthy, is bound to pay, or necessarily promotes the best interests of society . . . . The passage containing the invisible hand metaphor is not about general equilibrium theory: its purpose is to explain why merchants would continue to buy British products even if tariffs were removed.

Ashraf, Camerer, and Loewenstein (2005) make a detailed analysis of Smith’s pioneering work The Theory of Moral Sentiments to conclude that “For Adam Smith, a mixture of concern about fairness . . . and altruism played an essential role in market interactions, allowing trust, repeated transactions and material gains to occur.” In sharp contrast to the modern economists’ unwarranted understanding of the IH metaphor as a sanction for selfish behavior, Smith explains that justice is in fact only a rational behavior. Fear of retribution is likely to deter the people from committing injustice. He says: “Nature has implanted in the human breast, that consciousness of ill-desert, those terrors of merited
punishment which attend upon its violation, as the great safe-guards of the association of mankind, to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty.” See Smith (1759, p. ii, iii, 125). Realizing the crucial role of justice, especially in ensuring just behavior, he believes that justice is the “main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society . . . must in a moment crumble to atoms.” Fairness and justice have only recently attracted the attention of economists as providing justifications for many observed human behaviors in conflict with standard utility maximization theories, see Karacuka and Zaman (2012) for a brief survey.


Ashraf, N., Camerer, C. F., & Loewenstein, G. (2005). Adam Smith, behavioral economist.
Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19, 131–145

Blaug, M. (2007). The fundamental theorems of modern welfare economics, historically
contemplated. History of Political Economy, 39, 185–207

Grampp, W. D. (2000). What did Smith mean by the invisible hand? Journal of Political
Economy, 108, 441–465

Kennedy, G. (2009). Adam Smith and the invisible hand: From metaphor to myth. Econ Journal Watch, 6, 239–263

Minowitz, P. (2004). Adam smith’s invisible hands. Econ Journal Watch, 1, 381–412

Rothschild, E. (1994). Adam Smith and the invisible hand. The American Economic Review, 84, 319–322

  1. Yes. Adam Smith thought that markets, to be effective and efficient, needed to exist with a moral and legal framework. Indeed, that framework acted as an ‘invisible hand’ on the ability of market actors who engaged in unrestrained behaviors which diminished the well-being of populations and the effectiveness of markets. Also, important to note is the absence of anything resembling the ‘consumer’ in his writings. For him, the people were just that: simultaneously the producers and the beneficiaries of what they produced.

    The idea of IH adopted by neoclassical economists was accomplished by ignoring people. ‘Welfare’ became ‘consumer surplus’ enjoyed only by those with an ability to pay; and the simple mathematics behind that construction left all moral/ethical frameworks as something that should not be allowed to influence so-called economic analysis. This, BTW, was why what had been ‘Political Economy’ was replaced by “Principles of Economics” with the market itself becoming the Invisible Hand.

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