invisible man comic

Economics is the only course I ever failed. It was my freshman year at Rutgers and I only put it on my schedule because my one-day adviser the previous summer during orientation had said it was a good general  course. He taught economics.

We took our first semester as Pass/Fail (where “pass” meant a “C” or better). The twice-weekly lectures – in a lecture hall right out of the movie The Paper Chase – floated over my head. None of it made sense. Only a few things stuck in my memory. Supply and demand, macro and micro, Adam Smith – and the invisible hand.

The term “invisible hand” probably appealed to my ears because of a connection to The Invisible Man of H.G. Wells
that I read as a kid in comic form and then as a novel, and the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison that I was reading that semester.

I was disappointed to find that the invisible of the market is just a metaphor conceived by Adam Smith to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace. It operates as if an invisible hand guides it. That’s all I retained from the lecture

Like mathematics, I have come to enjoy economics more in my adult life. I haven’t made a serious study of either, but articles and books on those topics occasionally grab hold of me.

That invisible hand sometimes comes up in my reading.  Lots of conservatives like Adam Smith’s idea that individuals can make profit and maximize it without the need for government intervention.

Smith only used the phrase briefly a few times in his writings. I paid attention this time when the term was used.  I read that he introduced the concept in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759. It’s interesting that the book doesn’t even discuss markets and the word “capitalism” is never used.

Whatever we discussed about Adam Smith in that college course concerned his book The Wealth of Nations written in that important year, 1776.  The invisible hand guides markets automatically channeling self-interest toward socially desirable ends. This leads to a more laissez-faire (let them do it – hands off)  economic philosophy.

The concept made an odd connection for me recently when I came across the term “spontaneous order.” I find this idea of self-organization and the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos very appealing. It is as if an invisible hand is guiding physical, biological, and social networks, as well as economics.

The evolution of life on Earth, language, crystal structure, the Internet and a free market economy have all been proposed as examples of systems which evolved through spontaneous order.

I’m sure there are readers of this who don’t view what I am describing as any kind of theory – scientific, economic or otherwise. They see it as the hand of God.  This is especially true with natural systems, like ecosystems.

I am probably between these two view, since I see a belief in God and a belief in science as very compatible. I believe that God would want us to understand this amazing order, especially if it was God’s plan for things to evolve.

Moving from natural systems, spontaneous order is different with organizations and man-made systems that are hierarchical networks. Organizations are created and controlled by humans, but spontaneous orders are created, controlled, and controllable by no one.

Some “spontaneous order” is clearly the result of human actions, not of human design. Did someone say “climate change”?