The Invisible Hand

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“No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.” 
Adam Smith

Adam Smith

Adam Smith, born 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, was destined to write the book that would be considered the first fundamental work of classical economics and one of the most influential books ever written. I confess that I had a vague idea of who he was but paid little attention until I decided to take an economics course.  Adam Smith was the name that came up on the first day of class.

Adam Smith’s ideas were as revolutionary as the age in which he lived. It was the time of the Scottish Enlightenment when the Scots were among the most literate citizens in Europe boasting an estimated 75% level of literacy.   Over a nine year period, he worked tirelessly on his book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (usually shortened to The Wealth of Nations),  which was published in 1776, the year the United States adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Adam Smith is best known for his one phrase – “the invisible hand,” which signifies that self-interest guides the most efficient and effective use of resources in any economy.  He argued that each of us tries to gain wealth, but we must exchange what we own or produced with others who sufficiently value what we have to offer.  Hence, by division of labour and a free market, the public interests are rewarded.

Adam Smith has been given the well deserved title “Father of Economics.” He once said that “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.”  His understanding of economy was framed by his profound belief in the value of individual effort.

“… the typical worker who through the whole of his life…pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility…It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” 
 Adam Smith

30 thoughts on “The Invisible Hand

  1. Hi Rebecca

    What an interesting post. Knew a bit about Adam Smith but not that he was Scottish. The Scots have a reputation for being, shall we say “careful” with their money so perhaps not surprising that the father of economics was himself a Scot.

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    • Oh Corinne, one of Adam Smith’s quotes fits with your comments:

      “There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

      Thanks for stopping by – much appreciated!

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  2. When my daughter was about sixteen, In the evenings we would sit together on the couch and I read this out loud as we sat together. Ha – did I mention my daughter is very patient, there was some rough going there….

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    • The two of you are amazing! I just downloaded “The Wealth of Nations” on my Kindle tonight to skim through it again. It is difficult to skim – lots of info! Your daughter is very, very, very patient!!! 🙂

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  3. Thank you for exploring the idea of A Smith, about the “deception” of your second quote, the notion is interesting and very true. However in the video, I don’t quite get why the speaker (or if Smith?) undermines if not ‘negates’ the paramount importance of natural resources that any country possesses, does fundamentally change the ‘fate’ of its people and the economy of the country as a whole, especially we live in so-called market and commercial societies globally. Numerous examples could explicate that, typical one perhaps it’s those oil resources or reserves certain countries possess….

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    • Thank you for adding so much to the discussion. Adam Smith lived, as you know, during the rise of the Industrial Revolution. He started the economic debate that continues to be hotly discussed to this very day. His theories have been expanded, modified, transformed over the years, but what I especially appreciated was that he valued the hard efforts of all people, not only a chosen few. We work within a global enterprise where all of our purchases and career decisions make a difference. Sharing resources is key to our survival. The questions are profound and sometimes overwhelming. Who will share the water? the food? the housing? the energy? the educational resources? But I believe that there is always hope; that is why these conversations, conducted in good faith, are so vital.

      You always make my day!!! Thank you, dear friend.

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      • Thanks Rebecca, the video probably is too short hence incomplete (haha), since A Smith quite loudly speaks against the “division of labour”, its monstrous nature since individuals are deprived of creativity with those tedious jobs days-in-and-out, the drawbacks of the whole concept of “division of labour” is laid in his later part of the book (perhaps from page 400). I just think the video itself speaks a limited view of Smith, probably a misleading view, the full theory is not as such! Well, the devils are always in the details ….

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      • That is so very true! It is hard to put into a 3 minute video, a lifetime of ideas and work. It is a long, long, long book, packed with information. In the end, we continue to look for ways to generate fair and equitable outcomes for all, without exploitation. This is not easy, but there is much hope when we all come together to challenge, to debate, to celebrate. Thank you!!!! 🙂

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  4. The name Adam Smith rings a very dim bell. We sure do need some of his economic wisdom infused into our modern, yet archaic, distribution of wealth around the world. The quote is profound and appreciated. 🙂

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    • That’s exactly how I would describe it – his name rang a “very dim bell” to me, too! Although I am not an expert in economics, I am glad that Adam Smith made the linkage between prosperity and the value of the individual. Here is one of his quotes that you will like:

      “If [justice] is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society, that fabric which to raise and support seems in this world if I may say so has the peculiar and darling care of Nature, must in a moment crumble into atoms.”

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      • I had a little ah ha moment reading the quote. If there is truly justice then wouldn’t the economy for all be fair? Justice for all, not in the legal/criminal sense, but what is just and right? How can I sleep with the roof over my head, eat my meal, have access to health care, when the rest of the world goes without? Not the easiest thing to look at but I think one must. Then what, I’m not sure. Thank you.

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      • You are profoundly right – “not the easiest thing to look at but I think one must.” It is living in the moment, deliberately seeking choices that go beyond our need to consume or to waste. The other day the water was shut off in our building to accommodate minor repairs. And I forgot to read the sign that said to store water in our bathtub. It was only off for 4 hours, yet it was a stark reminder that there are millions of people without an adequate water supply. Thank you – I do enjoy our conversations. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Adin! Words have the power to cross centuries. Here is one that you and I can appreciate:

      No complaint, however, is more common than that of a scarcity of money.

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  5. What a visionary, sadly lost in recent times of financial chaos, greed and self-interest. We have much to learn from the great scotsman.

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    • As I was reading your comments, I thought of Lao Tzu! If all would embrace these four principles, our world would understand peace.

      “Manifest plainness,
      Embrace simplicity,
      Reduce selfishness,
      Have few desires.”
      ― Lao Tzu

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      • Lao Tzu was (and is) tremendously earthly, his good feet were firmly on the ground. And i like this modern update:

        “Life always gives us
        exactly the teacher we need
        at every moment.
        This includes every mosquito,
        every misfortune,
        every red light,
        every traffic jam,
        every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),
        every illness, every loss,
        every moment of joy or depression,
        every addiction,
        every piece of garbage,
        every breath.

        Every moment is the guru.”

        ― Charlotte Joko Beck

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      • Another treasure. I have never heard of Charlotte Joko Beck before – and now I have. I check out Amazon and found her books! Thank you so much! 🙂

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  6. I first came across Adam Smith when I studied Human Geography with the Open University – one of the elements we looked at was how the rich could live right alongside the poor and each element of society would accept each other – the division of labour – where you are a loud to focus on something (a task) which in turn will allow you to contribute to improve through your ingenuity a process – in essence that is where we have arrived at “lean fundamentals” the Toyota Paradigm or Continuous Improvement in modern management terms. What a small world we live in and although we have history to learn from often it is paid lip service.

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    • Well said!! Especially “although we have history to learn from often it is paid lip service.” Every generation seems to think that “our time” is somehow disconnected from “past time,” that different rules have to be drawn up to accommodate the “new time.” Yet the themes remain – generating and sharing limited resources, creating a sustainable and thriving community, understanding the complexities of the environment. I was listening to Norm Chomsky discuss Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and smiled when he noted that many people know about Adam Smith and his book, but very few read it.” Thank you for adding to the discussion – very much appreciated.

      “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” Noam Chomsky

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  7. “Allowing for individual ingenuity” A great insight to the progress of any individual, I believe. Looking for new ways to do things, new inventions that we discover for ourselves that help us in our daily lives. Exciting!

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    • I agree – it is very exciting. 🙂 🙂 🙂 To know that we can create, construct, generate, engineer, imagine new ways to do things, allows us the freedom to explore ways in which to participate within our communities.

      “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
      ― Maya Angelou

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    • Thanks Cindy! I have had that happen to me and then I read another blogger who recommended that I “unfollow” and then “follow again.” I am learning more and more about WordPress everyday! Sometimes, I have meant to “like” a post and then inadvertently “unfollowed” Thanks for stopping by – love hearing from you.

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