The Invisible Hand of God in Adam Smith
Abstract Adam Smith is revered as the father of modern economics. Analysis of his writings, however, reveals a profoundly medieval outlook. Smith is preoccupied with the need to preserve order in society. His scientific methodology emphasises reconciliation with the world we live in rather than investigation of it. He invokes a version of natural law in which the universe is a harmonious machine administered by a providential deity. Nobody is uncared for and, in real happiness, we are all substantially equal. No action is without its appropriate reward – in this life or the next. The social desirability of individual self-seeking activity is ensured by the ‘invisible hand’, that is, the hand of a god who has moulded us so to behave, that the quantity of happiness in the world is always maximised.
collective rationality individual rationality providentialism
Adam Smith invisible hand
JEL Classification numbers A13, B12, B31, B40
Contact details Andy Denis
City University, London
London EC1V 0HB
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7040 0257
Fax: +44 (0)20 7040 8580
Karl Marx classed political economists into a ‘classical’ or scientific group, on the one hand, with Adam Smith and Ricardo representing the pinnacle of this group, and a ‘vulgar’ or apologetic group, on the other, comprising, roughly, all the mainstream economists after Ricardo (Marx, 1972: 501). I want to argue here, however, that there is a very significant apologetic aspect to Smith, and that this apologetic aspect is intimately concerned with Smith’s conception of the articulation between micro and macro levels, between individual actions and social consequences.
The purpose of this paper is to examine Adam Smith’s view that the hand of God would invisibly, ‘by that eternal art which educes good from ill’ (TMS I.ii.3.4), ensure that uncoordinated individual actions would always lead to desirable social consequences, ‘the greatest possible quantity of happiness’ (TMS VI.ii.3.1), and to show how this is related to his philosophy as a whole. The starting point of the paper is that the ‘invisible hand’ concept in Smith is an unambiguously theological category. It is by no means a matter of making a case for a new and radical reading of Smith: the theological interpretation is the first and most obvious meaning to strike the reader of what Smith actually wrote. It is the non-theological interpretation, the interpretation which says that, in spite of what Smith wrote, he actually meant something different, which requires demonstration. There is a huge literature on the interpretation of the invisible hand in Adam Smith, to review which would require another and much longer article, which would not change the verdict reached here.
It is of course easy to point to specific passages in Smith and throw up one’s hands at the ease with which he satisfies himself that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – and just as easy to dismiss such passages as obiter dicta unrelated to his basic theme. Here, for example, is a famous passage, the second, in fact, of the three occasions on which Smith makes explicit use of the notion of an ‘invisible hand’:
“The rich ... 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. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.” (TMS IV.1.10)
So the poor should be content with their lot – they are just as well off as the rich in the things that really matter. Perhaps the typical reaction on reading this is to dismiss it as a vulgar aside, a mere personal prejudice, having no bearing on Smith’s scientific researches. This, however, would be profoundly mistaken. The thesis of this paper is that Smith’s whole system of thought can be best understood, not as a scientific project aiming at discovery of the world, but as a rhetorical one aiming at reconciliation with it – indeed, he plainly says as much – and the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ lies at the heart of this rhetorical project.
The next section, on The History of Astronomy, argues that in his major methodological work Smith presents a view of science as an activity aimed, in the first instance, at reconciling us with the world, rather than at theoretically apprehending it. Section 3 presents Smith’s conception of the world as a harmonious machine operated by a providential deity. This conception first arises and is presented with great clarity in The Theory of Moral Sentiments; and subsequently underlies the social world in The Wealth of Nations. Section 4 sets out Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ as an expression of the activity on our behalf of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent deity. The following section establishes the links between Smith and his contemporaries, showing how profoundly in tune he was with the Zeitgeist of the second half of the eighteenth century. The penultimate section discusses Smith’s failure to deal with some critical contradictions in his system. The conclusion notes two possible responses to Smith: that an evolutionary mechanism can replace a providential deity as a mechanism ensuring that macro optimality corresponds to micro rationality; and, alternatively, the recognition that there is no such automatic mechanism behoves us to construct one ourselves.
2 Smith’s methodological stance
Denis (1999) argued that Smith’s policy prescription was one of freedom for capital, freedom for the individual, that is, in so far as he is the bearer of property. The present paper argues that Smith adopts a providentialist rhetorical strategy to underpin that policy prescription. However, not only does Smith attempt to sustain a policy recommendation of laissez-faire by invoking a providential invisible hand mechanism, but he announces clearly though in general terms beforehand that this is what he will be doing. For Smith, scientific activity has a clear purpose and tendency, namely reconciliation to what is. The purpose of this section is to establish Smith’s general programme and his conception of science as a rhetorical enterprise.
The fragment commonly known as Smith’s ‘History of Astronomy’ is more properly called, in full, The Principles which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy; by the History of the Ancient Physics; and by the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics. The full title makes clear that Smith’s intention is to set out his conception of scientific method. For Smith, in his discussion of successive schools of thought in these Histories, the purpose of a system of thought is not to disclose the truth of how the world is, but to soothe the imagination, previously agitated by wonder at the marvels of the world.
At the level of appearances, Smith says, the world throws up phenomena which appear incoherent and therefore disagreeably inflame the imagination with a sense of wonder. The job of a science is allay wonder and to soothe the imagination by suggesting connections between things, and by tracing the unknown back to the familiar, so that the observer may regain his tranquillity:
“Philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature. Nature ... seems to abound with events which appear solitary and incoherent ... which therefore disturb the easy movement of the imagination .... Philosophy, by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances, to allay this tumult of the imagination, and to restore it ... to [its former] tone of tranquillity and composure ... Philosophy, therefore, may be regarded as one of those arts which address themselves to the imagination”. (Astronomy II.12)
Again, ‘the repose and tranquillity of the imagination is the ultimate end of philosophy’ (Astronomy IV.13); ‘it is the end of Philosophy, to allay that wonder, which either the unusual or seemingly disjointed appearances of nature excite’ (Astronomy IV.33).
Smith, therefore, is not concerned with the truth or otherwise of the findings of a science – what matters is its success or otherwise in ‘smoothing the passage of the imagination betwixt ... seemingly disjointed objects’ (Astronomy II.12). It is this criterion alone, he says, which we should bear in mind when considering the sequence of schools of thought in a science such as astronomy:
“Let us examine, therefore, all the different systems of nature, which ... have successively been adopted by the learned and ingenious; and, without regarding their absurdity or probability, their agreement or inconsistency with truth and reality, let us consider them only in that particular point of view which belongs to our subject; and content ourselves with inquiring how far each of them was fitted to sooth the imagination, and to render the theatre of nature a more coherent ... spectacle”. (Astronomy II.12)
It is striking that Smith concludes his discussion of Newton’s system of astronomy by confessing that it is so compelling that he had, despite himself, been seduced into speaking of the latter’s system as if it embodied real knowledge of the world:
“even we, while we have been endeavouring to represent all philosophical systems as mere inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phaenomena of nature, have insensibly been drawn in, to make use of language expressing the connecting principles of [Newton’s philosophical system], as if they were the real chains which Nature makes use of to bind together her several operations.” (Astronomy IV.76)
And this is a measure of the success of Newton’s system. The implication is, as Raphael and Skinner (1980: 19-21) point out, that it would be mistaken, or at best off the point, to regard Newton’s connecting principles as ‘the real chains’ of Nature.
‘It may well be said of the Cartesian philosophy’, Smith says, ‘that in the simplicity, precision and perspicuity of its principles and conclusions, it had the same superiority over the Peripatetic system, which the Newtonian philosophy has over it’ (EPS: 244).
“We need not be surprised ... that the Cartesian philosophy ... though it does not perhaps contain a word of truth ... should nevertheless have been so universally received by all the learned in Europe at that time. The great superiority of [Descartes’] method ... made them greedily receive a work which we justly esteem one of the most entertaining romances that have ever been wrote” (cited in EPS: 244 editorial footnote 3)
Although completely untrue, a romance, the principles and conclusions of Descartes’ narrative are to be regarded as constituting an improvement over previous approaches equal to Newton’s, because it provides simple, precise and perspicuous ... entertainment. Descartes’ vortices successfully soothe our imagination, and reconcile us to our world, even though ‘these pretended causes of those wonderful effects, not only do not actually exist, but are utterly impossible, and if they did exist, could produce no such effects as are ascribed to them’ (TMS VII.ii.4.14).
For Smith, science starts off, as indeed all science must, with the level of appearances: but then, instead of penetrating those appearances to reality, the truth, to the essence of the thing, science remains at the level of appearances, merely contrasting one set of appearances with another. In place of a congeries of apparently incoherent, isolated phenomena, Smithian science gives us a coherent and interconnected vision of the world. But, for Smith, that vision is no more real, no less apparent than either the raw appearances or the connecting principles proposed by rival explanations. The criterion for choosing between these appearances is not their greater or lesser degree of truth, but a purely aesthetic consideration: which is the more pleasing? Thus a scientific explanation of a phenomenon is to be preferred to none, and a later system is preferred to an earlier one, because and to the extent to which they are able to provoke greater admiration (Astronomy II.12). For example: though much to be preferred to the earlier systems, there is no suggestion that the Newtonian system is more profound, indeed, it may well be replaced when an even more pleasing system is proposed. ‘Philosophy’ is to be traced, he says, ‘from its origin, up to that summit of perfection to which it is at present supposed to have arrived [with Newton], and to which, indeed, it has equally been supposed to have arrived in almost all former times’ (Astronomy II.12). In every period, Smith says, science is believed to have reached ‘the summit of perfection’, since the science of that period is just the scientific explanation the period finds most pleasing. Whether there is any progress in this is left entirely moot.
So is there an objective truth standing behind these appearances, these entertaining romances? For Smith, there is indeed objective truth, but human, finite minds cannot grasp, or even approach it: only the infinite mind of God can grasp all the ultimate ‘connexions and dependencies of things’. Smith adopts the Thomist view of an unbridgeable gulf between the finite and the infinite, between the human and the divine. This contrast forms the basis for the very restricted role of reason and philosophy (the sphere of finitude), relative to that of sentiment and religion (the sphere of infinity), in Smith’s system.
This section has set out the main lines of Smith’s methodological stance and suggested links between his methodology and his underlying intellectual goals. Smith’s writings on methodology set out a research programme which Smith then followed in his psychological (TMS) and economic (WN) investigations. He says in advance that the task of science is to allay the discomfort we experience from observing the world. In TMS and WN he sets out his entertaining romance designed to underpin his political stance.
3 Smith’s Weltanschauung
This section sets out the elements of the ‘entertaining romance’ that Smith tells to reconcile us to our world. The universe in this story is a machine administered by a deity, with the sole purpose of maximising happiness. All parts of that machine, including individual people, play their allotted roles. We do what we do because it is what we are led to do by the feelings implanted in our nature by the deity. Even human folly and weakness are part of God’s plan. Everyone has nearly the same level of happiness and we should therefore be content with our lot. The failure to realise this, mistaking wealth for happiness, leads people to be industrious: the economy depends on their being so deceived. Appearances, too, are part of the divine plan. People mistake wealth and good fortune for wisdom and virtue. This allows them to be reconciled to class distinctions and oppressive rulers. We like morality and dislike immorality only because we only see their proximate effects on human welfare. This weakness, too, is desirable as morality, particularly justice, is a prerequisite for society. This underpins an interpretation of the ‘invisible hand’ which is set out in the next section.
For Smith the universe is a machine supervised by an omnipotent, omniscient and beneficent, deity. The sole aim of the machine is the maximisation of happiness: ‘That divine Being[’s] ... benevolence and wisdom have, from all eternity, contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe, so as at all times to produce the greatest possible quantity of happiness’ (TMS VI.ii.3.5. See also TMS VI.ii.3.1). So the world is perfect: we do live in the ‘best of all possible worlds’ – Smith is a true Panglossian. Since the world is really perfect, our apparent troubles stem from our finite, partial view of the world, our failure to see ‘all the connexions and dependencies of things’:
“[Since the] benevolent and all-wise Being can admit into the system of his government, no partial evil which is not necessary for the universal good, [the wise and virtuous man] must consider all the misfortunes which may befal himself, his friends, his society, or his country, as necessary for the prosperity of the universe, and therefore as what he ought, not only to submit to with resignation, but as what he himself, if he had known all the connexions and dependencies of things, ought sincerely and devoutly to have wished for.” (TMS VI.ii.3.3)
For Smith, therefore, what is good is good, and what is bad is good as well: everything is for the best, so – whatever happens – rejoice, and accept. Though similar ideas can be found in the earlier editions, the passages above are taken from Part VI, a new section written by Smith, in the last year of his life, for the 1790 edition. Hence it cannot be the case that they represent a juvenile stage in Smith’s thought long passed by the time he came to write WN.
When Smith argues that what appears bad is actually good, but we don’t see it because we are only finite minds, ‘good’ refers only to ‘the good of the whole’ (TMS VI.ii.3.4) and says nothing about the good of the individual. For the system to seem attractive, Smith must show that, not only the total quantity of happiness is maximised, but its allocation to individuals is in some sense ‘fair’. Recognising this, Smith says explicitly that all our virtue and vice will be appropriately rewarded, if not here, then hereafter.
Firstly, if we look at the lives of individuals as a whole and in the long run, then we can in general expect everyone will get their just deserts.
notwithstanding the disorder in which all things appear to be in this world, yet even here [ie, in this world rather than the next one] every virtue naturally meets with its proper reward, with the recompense which is most fit to encourage and promote it; and this too so surely, that it requires a very extraordinary concurrence of circumstances entirely to disappoint it. (TMS III.5.8)
And if such an ‘extraordinary concurrence of circumstances’ should occur, as to frustrate the ‘natural’ process of rewarding every virtue in this life, then we may hope for a settling of accounts in the next one: “Our happiness in this life is ... upon many occasions, dependent on the humble hope and expectation of a life to come: a hope and expectation deeply rooted in human nature .... a world to come, where exact justice will be done to every man” (TMS III.2.33; see also TMS II.ii.3.12).
Smith combines the idea of justice in the hereafter with that of the limits to reason and the scope for religion and sentiment. To those such as the wrongly condemned man, Smith says,
“humble philosophy which confines its views to this life, can afford, perhaps, but little consolation .... Religion can alone afford them any effectual comfort. She alone can tell them, that it is of little importance what man may think of their conduct, while the all-seeing Judge of the world approves of it. She alone can present to them the view of another world ... where their innocence is in due time to be declared, and their virtue to be finally rewarded” (TMS III.2.12).
So reason is incompetent to tell us about the really important things, such as the afterlife and our ‘final reward’. Instead we must trust religion. Smith’s rhetoric weaves together elements of reason and belief, philosophy and religion, to present a seductive world-view within which he can then embed his policy proposals.
The world is a machine for the production of happiness. But this includes not just nature but also human nature. In Smith’s view the deity chooses the mental composition of individual persons, and hence leads them to desirable behaviours: ‘[God’s] wisdom ... contrived the system of human affections, as well as that of every other part of nature’ (TMS VI.ii.2.4). Smith’s argument here further illustrates his Panglossian view, firstly, that everything is predetermined by the deity, predestined to turn out for the best, and, secondly, that if we are misled by appearances, then this deception, too, is part of the plan and hence a Good Thing.
A major instance of the former concerns the predisposition to benevolence and the very much stronger one, not just to obey, but to enforce, the ‘sacred laws of justice’ (TMS II.ii.2.3), which God has placed in our personal make-up, what Smith calls ‘this constitution of Nature’ (TMS II.ii.3 title). Man, he says, ‘who can only subsist in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made’ (TMS II.ii.3.1). While it would be nice if everyone could cooperate from sheer love of one’s fellows, we can still live without society-wide benevolence; but not without justice: ‘Society may subsist, among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection ... but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it’ (TMS II.ii.3.2-3).
Nature has therefore endowed men with consciences in order that they may behave justly:
“Though Nature, therefore, exhorts mankind to acts of beneficence, by the pleasing consciousness of deserved reward, she has not thought it necessary to guard and enforce the practice of it by the terrors of merited punishment in case it should be neglected. It is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building, and which it was, therefore, sufficient to recommend, but by no means necessary to impose. Justice, on the contrary, is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society, that fabric which to raise and support seems in this world ... to have been the peculiar and darling care of Nature, must in a moment crumble into atoms. In order to enforce the observation of justice, therefore, 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.” (TMS II.ii.3.4)
It is clear that Smith is saying here that Nature, in order to preserve society, has placed in our personalities a desire for justice, even if it is unclear whether this is based on a love of justice for its own sake, or a fear of retribution. A sense of justice is an endowment of nature, but nature seen as an active force in the world, conscious and intentional.
Despite Smith’s claim that justice is fundamental for society, order is in reality of more basic importance to him. If there is any tension between the two, it is order which comes first. Speaking of the tendency for members of the different ‘orders and societies’ in the state to resist any diminution in their ‘powers, privileges and immunities’, he argues that
“This partiality, though it may sometimes be unjust, may not, upon that account be useless. It checks the spirit of innovation. It tends to preserve whatever is the established balance among the different orders and societies into which the state is divided; and while it sometimes appears to obstruct some alterations in government which may be fashionable and popular at the time, it contributes in reality to the stability and permanency of the whole system.” (
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