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Invisible Hand

Yeah right

I've been slowly going through Michel Foucault's very interesting lectures from 1979 presented in The Birth of Biopolitics. It is a study of what he calls neo-liberalism which is basically contemporary capitalist society. He does a pretty good job of explaining the rationale for neoliberalism in an informed and non-judgemental way.

In the lecture I'm reading now (28 March 1979) he is discussing what he calls 'homo economicus' (economic man) and Adam Smith's idea of the invisible hand. This is quote from Adam Smith explains the idea of the invisible hand (courtesy of Wikipedia).

"By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain,and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."

Homo economicus is "someone who pursues his own interest, and whose interest is such that it converges spontaneously with the interests of others". "Homo economicus is someone who accepts reality."

"Rational conduct is any conduct which is sensitive to modifications in the variables of the environment and which responds to this in a non-random way, a systematic way and economics can therefore be defined as the science of the systematic nature of responses to environmental variables" (TBOB p269)

This raises a paradox for Foucault. "From the point of view of a theory of government, homo economicus is the person who must be left alone" But if homo economicus is someone who responds to modifications in the variables in the environment he is manageable. As someone who "responds systematically to systematic modifications artificially introduced into the environment, homo economicus is someone who is eminently governable."

So the paradox is that the man who has to be left alone so that the invisible hand can do its good work, is also easy to manipulate.

And who is it that is manipulating homo economicus?
Is it the State?

Basically, what we call the State is just the sum total of the state of affairs we find ourselves in. There is no State with an essence driving it in this direction or another. So, the government is not the State, but clearly the government, inasmuch as it acts in a unified way, can artificially modify environmental variables.

But other agencies can modify those variables too for instance powerful business interests, political groupings, co-operative groups, and even noisy neighbours. So homo economicus is to be left alone in the sense that nobody tells him what to do, but everyone tries to manipulate him in their own interest. We discussed paradoxes and it seems that paradoxes are useful in that they reveal flaws in our assumptions. What might be the flawed assumption involved in our paradox today?

One of the biggest flaws is actually pretty glaring its the assumption that all players in the market are equal, or at least start off equal. Plainly this isn't true there are in fact huge differences in the power of various players in the market.

Some players have so much power that its easy for them to modify the environmental variables that homo economicus responds to. And some players have so little that they can barely respond in the market at all the market has no place for them.

Another assumption is that the market is always beneficial all the talk is about how everyone benefits if everyone just pursues their own self interest without being concerned with social good.

Again this is plainly not the case there are many people who are not well served by the market. Neo-liberals claim that a when economic activity is guided by the invisible hand the outcome is the greatest good for the greatest number. And they further claim that we have to let the invisible hand work because in fact there is no way to figure out how to maximize the social good because there are two many unknown factors.

But that begs the question; how do we know that our present state of affairs actually is the greatest good for the greatest number? How do we calculate the greatest good, and how do we calculate the greatest number? If 51% of people are happy and prosperous and 49% living in poverty the greatest good for the greatest number?

Certainly neo-liberal countries are awash in stuff more stuff than any society in history but is the most stuff really the greatest good?

We may also have the least free time of any society in history. After all, often both parents in a family have to work at jobs to afford that stuff in lots of family. Is that really the greatest good? Neoliberals cut public support for education so much that now its unaffordable for lots of people, and a major lifetime investment for many more. With the result that education has switched from enabling intellectual growth to being training for scare jobs.

Is that really the greatest good?

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.