Why fear the Invisible Hand? Because the invisible hand is evil. As construed by those conservatives currently in power, it is the economic equivalent of the Devil.
This conclusion is going to come as a shock to many conservatives, because they give homage to the invisible hand as though it were the Fourth Person of the Holy Quartet.
Before going further, let’s consider the literary origin of “the invisible hand.” The phrase was coined by Adam Smith, as recounted by Wikipedia:
In The Wealth of Nations and other writings, Smith claims that, in capitalism, an individual pursuing his own self-interest tends to also promote the good of his community as a whole through a principle that he called “the invisible hand”. In detail, a free competitive market ensures that those goods and services perceived as most beneficial, efficient, or of highest quality will naturally be those that are most profitable. Thus, self-interest striving for profit has the side-effect of benefiting everyone by increasing standards. Smith saw the mechanism for this as being the free price system.
Conservatives have grabbed this metaphor of the invisible hand as though it were both descriptive and prescriptive. The current use of the phrase by conservatives is admittedly more expanded than Adam Smith’s original use. The modern conservative claim is not only that the invisible hand controls the economy. They also claim that the invisible hand should be in charge. They believe that millions of private purchasing decisions are automatically and deftly coordinated by the omniscient and omnipotent Invisible Hand. We do the bidding of the Hand. We benefit “the good of the community as a whole” when we buy our whiskey, our triple cheeseburgers, our stacks of gambling chips, our Barbie Dolls and our Hummers.
Conservatives are convinced that the Hand orchestrates all of our private local urges into decisions that are also “best” for our communities and our world. When we race out to buy anything at all, then, the Invisible Hand allegedly smiles Its approval. To violate the Will of the Invisible Hand would be to contravene the will of God, for conservatives. Lucky for us, however, even our most impulsive seemingly-irresponsible purchases cannot, by definition, violate the Will of the Invisible Hand. Everything we buy is pre-approved by the Invisible Hand. Foolishness is the equivalent of intelligence, by the grace of the Invisible Hand.
To be socially responsible (according to conservatives), we don’t need to give any thought to our purchase decisions. Nor does government need to regulate any industry. It’s all taken care of by the Hand. “The Free Market will take care of it,” conservatives assure me, “no matter what it is.” It is the Government that screws up the economy; the remedy is to stay out of the way of the healing powers of lassie faire, they say, i.e., kill government spending. When we stay out of the way (by not interfering with the Majesty of the Hand), the Invisible Hand watches out for us, takes care of us and solves all problems in an utterly perfect way. That’s what conservatives claim, even though they dramatically and irresponsibly increase government spending.
I disagree. It’s time to judge the Invisible Hand by the damage It has wrought. It’s time to be irreverent, even blasphemous. It’s time to mock the Hand and then kill it.
Under the Hand’s reign, we have seen our forests, soil and air contaminated. The Hand has repeatedly given Its approval when we frivolously waste non-renewable resources like oil and fresh water. The Hand has is conspicuosly silent now, however, in light of the total loss of commercial quality fish from most of the North Atlantic. The Hand approves that we are spending big money on foolishly while many of our schools are desperate for funds. The Hand has allowed pesticides and toxins spread far and wide, despite the fact that we have almost no idea how these chemicals are affecting the health of humans. Our individual spending decisions are making us fat and sick and stupid, but that’s all OK by the Hand.
All of this can only lead to one conclusion. The Invisible Hand is not benevolent. Based on the waste, pollution and reckless spending allowed by the Hand, it is clear that the Hand is evil. It’s time to publicly acknowledge the Hand’s evil and destructive intent so that we can make some big changes. What’s the biggest change?
We’re going to have to start thinking for ourselves when we make purchases.
We can’t depend on the Invisible Hand to keep us “helping” our communities in blissful ignorance anymore. No purchase should any longer simply be presumed to be beneficial–many purchases are damaging to the community and to our environment. There needs to be a counter-weight to private decisions to consume and confiscate. No purchase should any longer be considered completely local–many products have wide-ranging damaging effects. Nor should purchases any longer be presumed, in the absence of evidence, to be community-enhancing or amoral. Many private purchases are destructive and immoral. We need to acknowledge that dollars are not fungible and that every purchase has moral consequences.
We need to start thinking more when we make purchases, or else we will continue to crap up our planet to such an incredible extent that the next generation will curse us every day for our failure to think.
It’s time to kick the fiction of the Benevolent Invisible Hand out of our lexicon. But first, it is time to expose the Hand for what it has become for too many people who currently hold political power: The Invisible Hand is an excuse for our collective refusal to think, our failure to care about others and our failure to care about even our own future.
The current version of the Invisible Hand amounts to a total abdication of responsibility. It is a license to hurt others and destroy our own future. It’s time to kill the Hand before it kills us.