Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in economics. It is usually interpreted to mean that when individuals all operate according to their own self-interest, their actions somehow combine to create a well-ordered, well-functioning society "as if guided by an invisible hand".
To be fair, this statement about the "invisible hand" (from the Theory of Moral Sentiments) does seem to mean exactly that:
[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…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.This should have been challenged long ago on the lack of counterfactual evidence. It is an assertion, not a fact. Nonetheless, despite the glaring inequalities in our world today, it could be true. The history of the command economies of the 20th century is not a happy one: attempts to equalise the distribution of resources created poverty for (nearly) all, and the natural human desire to seize resources for oneself at the expense of others was inevitably strongest among those tasked by the rest with ensuring equitable distribution. No socialist revolution in history has succeeded in raising the living standards of all by killing off the rich: but the last 20 years, in which "communist" states have adopted capitalist practices and the number of billionaires in developing countries has risen to an all-time high, has seen the greatest rise in living standards for the world's population in recorded history.
The problem with Smith's statement is that it gives the impression that equitable distribution is not only possible, it is inevitable. The "invisible hand" guides the human species ever closer to complete equality of distribution. Marx would have been proud of him. But I don't think this is what Smith meant. I think he meant that the best distribution of resources we can have as a species is achieved when each individual pursues their own self interest. Unequal distribution of resources is inevitable, but because it is not possible for the rich to hoard everything they have - since ultimately, hoarding is death - the poor benefit from the selfishness of the rich. That is the implication of this paragraph from Smith's better-known work, The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.The poor are fed not in spite of, but because of the selfishness and greed of the rich.
But that is only half the story. This, also from The Wealth of Nations, is the other half:
Every individual... neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... 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.For Smith, self-interest is inevitably benevolent in effect, whatever the intention. He does not consider the possibility that self-interest could have malevolent effects. Nor does he consider the possibility that short-sightedness and stupidity may have unexpected consequences. And this is because he is thinking in aggregates. Smith's "invisible hand" applies not to the individual, but to the group. The individual does whatever he wants: but the collective actions of thousands or millions of individuals together bring about a better society.
Here is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" at work:
(YouTube link for this video is here)
Beautiful, isn't it? Millions of individuals all looking for dinner. They are all pursuing their own gain, but they look as if they are organised and directed to create wonderful patterns. They fly as if guided by an "invisible hand". Note that we can see those patterns, but they, individually, cannot.
For Smith, people are like starlings. People pursuing their own self-interest fly as if directed by an "invisible hand", and together, unknowingly, make beautiful patterns. Individually, we cannot see the pattern of which we are part: but when we look back through history, we can see how patterns form and shape themselves from the actions of our forbears. Smith's observation is positive, optimistic, and for a swarming species like humans, accurate. So long as the majority of people are peacefully pursuing their own gain, the outcome for society must be beneficial.
But this is also the "invisible hand" at work:
(YouTube link for this video is here)
Millions of individuals, all looking for dinner - but this time, they make not a benign, beautiful pattern, but a terrifying, destructive one. Locusts are not the only species that can ruin an entire economy when they swarm. Some birds do, too. A small bird known as the "quelea" is feared all over Africa because it arrives without warning in huge flocks and eats everything in sight. The now-extinct "passenger pigeon" was a swarming bird that was feared by farmers in the American Mid-West for the same reason.
This is the part of the story that Smith omits. Humans are a swarming species. Swarms can be benign - or they can be destructive. And importantly, people do not know when they are swarming. Even if they are part of a very large movement of people that is feared by those in its path, they are still pursuing what they perceive to be their own self-interest. It's worth remembering, too, that when people swarm, an individual's own self-interest is to stay with - or join - the crowd. It is a brave person indeed who defies a crowd. And when people are caught up in a swarm, they behave in uncharacteristic and sometimes destructive ways. The "madness of crowds" drives berserker behaviour.
Malign swarms are deliberately whipped up by powerful individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest: the most destructive form of malign swarm is imperialist expansion (think of the Golden Horde, for example). But some swarms are destructive without being malign. The transatlantic credit bubble was a case in point: it was not deliberately whipped up to bring down the financial system, but it very nearly did so anyway. Everyone was pursuing their own interest, but collectively, their own interest, far from being benign as Smith assumes, was highly destructive. We do not see the patterns of which we are part.....
We do not yet know what triggers human swarming behaviour, though research is continuing in this area. But whether a human swarm is benign or destructive is a matter of perception. We don't see the starling swarm as destructive, because we are not being eaten. But the insects that the starlings are eating might (correctly) see the murmuration as a terrifying destructive force that aims to wipe them out. Similarly, people in China don't fear their annual migration home for New Year, which is the largest movement of people on the planet: but people in the West fear the influx of migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries.
The swarms we fear are those we believe could destroy our means of survival or wipe us out. And we have reason for our fear. Humans are a swarming species, and swarms can be destructive. Even though individually we may only be looking for a better life, the "invisible hand" is capable of guiding us to destruction.
Here is why economics is built on a monumental mistake - Evonomics
The Invisible Hand is dead! - Evonomics
The Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith
The Theory of Moral Sentiments - Adam Smith
Twitter storms and the madness of crowds - FT
Thanks to Matt and AFP for the videos, and Evonomics for the header image.
I have corrected the mistaken attribution of the quotations in an earlier version of this post.