The Invisible Hand, Without Shame

That cynical men will exploit a human problem for their own petty advantage, without concern for ultimate outcomes beyond their own immediate gain, is obvious. This cynicism explains most of what is called “foreign policy,” most of what is called “medicine,” most of what is called “education,” most of what is called “entertainment,” and most of what is called “lawmaking.” But none of this should be mistaken as evidence that the problems being exploited do not exist. It merely indicates that all human life today is constricted and distorted by an ever-expanding web of greed.

The invisible hand theory, like all eighteenth and early nineteenth century variations on the theme of individual liberty, was never meant to describe the effects of self-interested choice made in a moral vacuum, i.e., without reason. On the contrary, the invisible hand, as a mechanism of material prosperity and the general welfare, was presumed to be viable only within a world conditioned and constrained by moral rules. This point is commonly misunderstood today, especially among so-called “defenders of the free market,” who mistake this qualification as a case for “compassionate capitalism,” or some such progressive distortion. It is no such thing. To say that Adam Smith and his ilk presupposed a society grounded in basic moral restraints is not to say that they expected men to “do good deeds” with regard to their wealth-getting activities, to “give back to society,” or what have you. Rather, it is to say that they presumed a realm of commerce and trade which, like any other arena of social endeavor, would be comprised predominantly of men whose lives in general were subject to dictates of conscience, whose thoughts or aspirations were limited by the ordinary norms of biblical and social rectitude, and whose financial aspirations were at least minimally exposed to the inherited light of decency, responsibility, and gentlemanly behavior that emanated through all aspects of civic life, with the general effect of moderating the darker excesses of human inclination which lead to more brutal and fraudulent forms of self-seeking.

Intrinsic to this implicit presupposition of the great free market theorists was the understanding that while economic liberty may include the freedom to act without shame, or without deference to the moral expectations of the society, it does not actively promote or demand such shamelessness and amorality. Hence, profiteering of a sort that shows no bounds of social acceptability or respect for public decency will, in theory, be limited to the status of an outlier or seedy underside, perhaps always present but usually hidden in dark corners — beyond the sight of naïve children and blushing maidens, shall we say.

Undermine or deteriorate the community’s structures of moderation and citizen responsibility, however — those normal social restraints provided by universally inculcated standards of public decency, protection of youthful innocence, and personal moderation — and one will suddenly find one’s invisible hand wandering around in all sorts of areas that its owner would previously have had enough shame, or at least enough pragmatic deference to public expectations of shame, to respectfully avoid. That is, in the early generations of our “capitalist world,” preexisting standards of public taste and individual propriety performed the understated, and perhaps underappreciated, task of restraining the invisible hand, by in effect serving as an invisible blush, or an invisible chastity belt if you will. Without this implicit, uncoerced, and more or less universal tether on the urge to material self-seeking that liberated wealth-getting naturally engenders, economic liberty could quickly become a society’s spiritual trap door, opening into a pure moral vacuum, a hellishly perfect marriage between a murky sea of shortsighted and cynical profiteering and the vortex of addictive pleasure-seeking that spirals perpetually toward the easiest and coarsest gratifications. 

And so we arrive at today, in which the combination of scientific materialism, nihilism, and general prosperity fosters a sensibility not only devoid of restraint, but hostile toward all restraint, perceiving it as a limit on freedom, where freedom is understood exclusively as license — license to act without concern for any interest higher than one’s own immediate gain or comfort, license to live without deference to any principles of good and evil, license to regard one’s own preferences and pragmatic advantages of the moment as the only standards of judgment. Having devolved from viewing economic liberty as a worthy adjunct of a moral society to viewing economic liberty in the manner of libertarian economists, namely as the defining substance of morality itself, the inevitable next step down — or at least the one we may easily infer to be inevitable from our own recent history — is to reduce liberty to the profit motive as such, in effect making the profit motive the golden rule.

Thus it is that today, unlike, say, a century ago, our wealthiest and most storied “businessmen,” the ones regarded as indispensable movers of social life, and even as government-protected public benefactors, are almost never those who produce the goods and services essential to a modern society, but rather those who tease and pimp the pleasures, distract the soul from its natural impulses and duties with ephemeral titillations and mindless obsessions of a thousand kinds, and in general promote the idleness, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness of a population immersed in nihilism, addicted to comfort and amusement at all costs, and both intellectually and morally incapable even of understanding what a free society would be, let alone desiring one.

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