Blawgletter adores the myth-busting thunderbolt hurling that goes on across the pond at Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy. Why just today we read the estimable Gavin Kennedy electrocute those who misuse Mr. Smith’s occasional invocation of the “invisible hand” figure of speech:

Nobody has yet accounted for the invisible hand in their use of it in markets, nor how it is alleged to operate as a disembodied body part, nor even what it adds to the theory of markets.

Adam Smith knew better than to make such a claim for the metaphor, which he used to a) describe as ‘pusillanimous superstition’ by pagan savages (History of Astronomy); b) to give literary flair to the behaviour of rich landlords feeding the ‘thousands they employed’ and their families (they could do no other and survive themselves) (Moral Sentiments), and c) to refer to the risk-avoidance by domestic merchants (Wealth Of Nations).

In none of the only three cases in which he used the metaphor of the invisible hand did he include its use in his theory of markets.


We must confess to a similarly imperfect understanding of the Smithean oeuvre. Who knew, for example, that Mr. Smith knew nothing of “capitalism” — a word that didn’t exist until almost a century after he published Wealth of Nations? Thanks to Professor Kennedy for keeping us on our metaphorical toes.