Rescuing Adam Smith from Wikipedia

I just made a small edit to the wikipedia page on Adam Ferguson. Ferguson was a contemporary of Adam Smith, and another major figure in the Scottish enlightenment. The wikipedia page claimed that Ferguson, Hume and Smith were all theorists of “spontaneous order” and referenced Smith’s “invisible hand”. As readers of this blog may know, I’m with Gavin Kennedy: the invisible hand in Smith’s work is a metaphor for unintended consequences, not a theory of spontaneous order and certainly not a theory of how “private vices” create “public virtues” (in Mandeville’s terms). Whether or not you think Smith and Ferguson were spontaneous order theorists of some variety – in other words, that they believed that social order was emergent from lots of little unplanned interactions rather than the result of some grand design* – we can agree that the invisible hand metaphor is not a theory of markets, and we should dissociate the two. Connecting the invisible hand to a theory of markets makes it seem like Smith believed markets just worked if left to their own devices – the laissez-faire position. Of course, that’s not what Smith thought, as a casual reading of the entirety of Wealth of Nations would show – or a casual reading of Gavin Kennedy’s excellent blog.

So, now, if I see the invisible hand discussed in a misleading way on wikipedia, I’m going to edit it. It might not work, but it’d be nice if economics students 50 years from now were slightly better informed about Smith than the past couple generations.

* Both Ferguson and Smith do highlight how the modern order emerged from the unplanned actions of all kinds of people. But neither Smith nor Ferguson argues that the modern order is any way optimal or efficient, nor do they argue that this order would be more optimal or efficient if in every case government let individuals do their business unimpeded. Smith opposed many regulations – like those on what occupations someone could pursue – but supported others – such as regulations on bank lending and the creation of money. See Viner 1927.

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3 Comments

  1. joshmccabe

     /  September 21, 2010

    Dan, I’m with you on the part about what Adam Smith was really talking about with the invisible hand, but isn’t it a stretch to claim Smith was anything more than broadly classical liberal?

    • Have you read “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” or all of “The Wealth of Nations”? I think it’s a hard sell to think of Smith as a classical liberal, unless you want to expand that notion dramatically. Check out also Rothschild’s newish book on Smith and Condorcet.

      • joshmccabe

         /  September 22, 2010

        I have read both and I still see him as a classical liberal. Mind you, classical liberals weren’t against ALL regulation of the economy, but would be against 95% (or 90% if we want to be broad) of what we have today.