Irrationality is the real invisible hand

The real force behind our markets.

Posted May 08, 2009

Adam Smith first coined the term "The Invisible Hand" in his important book "The Wealth of Nations." With this term he was trying to capture the idea that the marketplace would be self-regulating. The basic principle of the invisible hand is that though we may be unaware of it, an unseen hand is constantly prodding us along to act in line with what's best for the whole economy. This means that when this invisible hand exists, when we all pursue our own interest, we end up promoting the public good, and often more effectively than if we had actually and directly intended to do so. This is a beautiful idea, but the question of course is how closely it represents reality.

In 2008, a massive earthquake reduced the financial world to rubble. Standing in the smoke and ash, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank once hailed as "the greatest banker who ever lived," confessed to Congress that he was "shocked" that the markets did not operate according to his lifelong expectations. He had "made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders."

We are now paying a terrible price for our unblinking faith in the power of the invisible hand.

In my mind this experience has taught us that Adam Smith ‘s version of invisible hand does not exist, but that a different version of the invisible hand that is very real, very active, and very dangerous if we don't learn to recognize it. Perhaps a more accurate description of the invisible hand is that it represents human irrationality. In terms of irrationality the hand that guides our behavior is clearly invisible - after all recent events have demonstrated that we are largely blinded to the ways rationality plays in our lives and our institutions. Moreover it is also clear that irrationality does shape our behavior in many ways, pushing and prodding us along a path can lead to destruction. Whether we're procrastinating on our medical check-ups, letting our emotions get the best of us, or letting conflicts of interest and short term time horizon ruin the financial market, irrationality is certainly involved.

In Adam Smith's world the invisible hand was a wonderful force, and the fact it was invisible made no difference whatsoever. The irrational invisible hand is a different story altogether - here we must identify the ways in which irrationality plays tricks on us and make the invisible hand visible!

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