Mr. Ridley: oh dear

Now we know that Matt Ridley reads this at least sometimes. And we\’ve found out that he has a new book out.

In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls \”bubble-up\” evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism.  I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.  A flood tide, not an ebb tide.

That basic idea being entirely reasonable,

However, naughty, naughty Mr. Ridley.

The conjunction of Adam Smith with \”an invisible hand\”.

Sigh….invisible hand appears three times in Smith\’s writing. Once about astronomy, the second I cannot remember and the third in the way that merchants prefer to invest at home rather than abroad. None of which are actually about that \”invisible hand\” that is currently used as a shorthand for the market.

You\’ll have Gavin Kennedy shouting at you soon enough you know.

6 thoughts on “Mr. Ridley: oh dear”

  1. Philip Scott Thomas

    But you have to admit, the Shakespeare allusion is rather nice.+

    Tim adds: The Shakespeare Illusion….is that where you produce the Earl of Oxford out of a hat?

  2. Ah, but Smith gave us the phrase. And the mark of good literature is that it gives us things which get out of control: just like Shakespeare and the Bible have some of the more memorable phrases quoted inappropriately, so also is Smith’s invisible hand.

  3. Hey!

    In Theory of Moral Sentiments, he uses the phrase in a way that is very parallel to Darwin’s use of `natural selection’, namely emergent order, which was my point. Compare:

    Smith: “The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. ”


    Darwin: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals directly follows.”

    By the way, the book is not out for 3 months so Tyler Cowen jumped the gun a bit.

  4. Philip Scott Thomas

    The Shakespeare Illusion….is that where you produce the Earl of Oxford out of a hat?

    LOL. No. “…there is [therefore an inexorable] tide in the affairs of men “. That’s from Julius Caesar, that is.

  5. This is the most famous usage. Perhaps its the third one that you forgot:

    “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.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *