Liberalism and the Invisible Hand

Adrian Vermeule:

The “invisible hand” as a phrase, as a shorthand for this characteristically indirect approach to the good, is of course associated with Adam Smith. Smith uses it first in a treatise on astronomy in an explicitly theistic way, then in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finally in The Wealth of Nations.9 The phrase’s background, however, is an enormously rich tradition of providentialist theorizing about politics and society that anticipates many of the ideas and problems of liberal theory.10 It even anticipates some of liberalism’s conclusions. Consider, for example, that Theodoret of Cyrus argued in the mid-fifth century AD that all are better off with a society featuring a division of labor, differences of wealth, and a division into rulers and ruled than they would be in an unspecialized and egalitarian society.11 Theodoret, of course, justifies his conclusions on entirely different grounds than liberal theorists would over a millennium later. For him, the social benefit represents a regulation instituted by divine Providence for the benefit of mankind, rather than a (solely) mechanical system-level consequence of decentralized self-interested interaction. The history of liberalism’s adaptation of the invisible hand, then, is a history of putative secularization, in which the superintending design of Providence is replaced by mechanisms in which system-level goods emerge without anyone necessarily intending that they do so.12 Later I will question the extent to which this arc is best described as “secularization” at all. In Smith, the secularization process is barely even underway.13