Adam Smith’s Famous Metaphor
| Peter Klein |
The indefatigable Gavin Kennedy explains, for the umpteenth time, that Adam Smith was ambivalent about market capitalism and that the famous metaphor of the “invisible hand” was not meant as a generalized defense of the market. As Gavin points out, Smith’s detailed analysis of the market economy appears in Books I and II of the Wealth of Nations, while the invisible hand metaphor appears only once, in Book IV, where Smith defends British merchants who, despite mercantilist export subsidies, preferred to keep their capital invested at home, to the benefit of the British economy. Notes Gavin:
So inconsequential was [Smith’s] use of The Metaphor that neither he, nor anybody else until the late 19th century, commented upon it. . . .
Moreover, it was only in Chicago in the 1930s that The Metaphor was generalised into Smith’s so-called “law” of markets. Paul Samuelson (1948, 1st edition), in his famous textbook, Economics (16 editions), publicised this invention with the inevitable affect on modern economics, as tens of thousands of his readers took it on trust as true.
To be sure, the relevant passage in Smith also includes the famous lines, “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,” and the remark that “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.” But Smith’s statements need to be understood in context; he is discussing the specific problem of trade monopoly, arguing against trade and industrial policies that subsidize particular markets or industries.