The Invisible Hand Never Picks Up The Check

The Invisible Hand Never Picks Up The Check October 19, 2020

“The Invisible Hand never picks up the check” is a credited to both historian Naomi Oerskes and science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. It is a useful metaphor for exploding one the most pernicious beliefs about neoliberalism and morality. If consumers spend their money in morally preferable ways the market will follow. We can spend our way into a better world. It is nonsense, of course. I was shopping for office supplies the other day. I wanted tablets of paper for notetaking. One pack of eco-friendly recycled paper was available. This packet of 5 tablets sold for around $8. The not-so-eco-friendly pack of of 12 for $10 fit my budget better. The only incentive to be had by buying the more expensive pack is to feel righteous for doing it.

Smith’s Invisible Hand

Scottish Moral philosopher Adam Smith used the metaphor of the invisible hand to illustrate the connectivity of economic behavior. We spend for our own good. When people spend for their own good there is an incentive for producers to provide better products. Everyone benefits. Satisfying our individual interests becomes a “win-win” as both wealth and values increase. Societies and States benefit from it in increased revenue.

Yes. I oversimplified the explanation Smith’s massive tome An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. God is in the details of the book. Fascination with Smith’s observations has occupied the thoughts of thinkers from Jeremy Bentham to Karl Marx. I admit the elegance of the idea. But the invisible hand metaphor is just that. It is not concrete.

The Mysticism of the Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand is mystical. It is a mysterious reality. Something almost supernatural. Western Christian thinkers have confused it with the notion of divine providence. And divine providence always works because God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Two attributes the invisible hand is not supposed to be.

My earlier oversimplification is the dogma of neoliberalism. In The United States, the terms used are neoconservatism and libertarianism. They are two denominations of the neoliberal faith. The creed is essentially the same. And nothing is more infuriating to either group than to point this out. It is a fundamental faith. It is no wonder many American Christian fundamentalists believe it.

A Book Believed And Not Read

I was working on my undergraduate degree. I took a summer intensive Macroeconomics course to satisfy the core distribution requirements. The professor droned on about contracts and the needless laws for safety and minimum wages. I objected.

“Smith describes the condition of inequality before magistrates of employers and employees. Contracts cannot be enforced with equity because the magistrates often side with employers who are of their own social class.”

“That can’t be true,” he replied. Then indicating the charts on the board, “I understand Adam Smith invented all of this.”

I knew what I read.

“I don’t believe Smith said that. And that you didn’t read it.” He concluded.

I was pissed off. He questioned my integrity in front of the class. So, next class meeting, I produced my copy of Smiths book. It is the same copy I possess today. I showed him the passage and warned him never to do it again.

This professor of economics never read Wealth of Nations. He admitted his Doctor of Business Administration degree did not require it. He believed a book he never read.

A Familiar Situation

Oklahoma Christian University is a fundamentalist school. Often, the school touted their teachers held “earned doctorates” unlike State Universities. It should not come as a surprise that the economics professor was also a church leader. The administration of these types of “liberal arts” colleges consist of political and economic neoliberals.

The Bible is honored and even worshiped in these schools. Teaching consists of proving inerrancy and the historical reality of the record. But it is never read and taught for anything beyond these doctrines. There is no historical critical understanding given of the Bible. There is no cultural comparison of ancient middle-eastern writings. The message is clear. “Leave here believing what we tell you.”

No Moral Questions

Students leaving programs like the one I describe are not encouraged to think morally about the doctrine. And so we saw in 2008 and 2009 fundamentalist right-wingers claim bailing out the banks was “unconstitutional.” Bailouts violated a doctrine concerning another document that is often not read. There were no fundamentalist religious leaders talking about how a decade or two of deregulating the banking industry caused the problem

Moral questions about environmental impacts or climate change are discouraged by denial. If that does not work, then the solution must fit the dogma. Hence, spending our way into a better world becomes the solution.

Yet, the fundamentalist/evangelical response never considers why the poor are more affected by environmental degradation. Nor is there any discussion about why the “free market” never cleans up the financial or environmental messes made by it. Or even why the invisible allows the messes to occur.

The Biblical Claim

The Old Testament enjoins moral thought and behavior as key to increasing wealth and protect the fertility of the land. Fundamentalists never get this point. If anything, the idea proposed by James Watt that “the environment does not matter because the world will soon end” prevails in their thoughts. One may ask, “if this is the case, what response would God have to our lack of social and environmental stewardship?” The Babylonian Captivity is the time when the land receives it’s sabbaths.

C. Don Jones is Pastor of Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee You can read more about the author here.

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