George Walford: Before That Hand

‘Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. 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 not part of his intention.’ (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations) [1], A classic statement, and one often taken to express the primal attitude. There cannot be, it is widely felt among people who think about such matters, anything more basic than this. It stands, however, two stages removed from what ‘every individual necessarily’ does.

Every individual necessarily obtains what is needed for their bodily maintenance. For much the greater part of the time humanity has been around they have done this, not by labouring to increase the social revenue but by taking what nature provided. Some communities still live mainly in this way, while wealthy people, the unemployed and all young children live without labouring, taking what society provides.

The next stage entails identification with existing social practices. Those who move on to this (not all do) follow, in the main, one of two paths: to do as others tell us and accept (within limits) their allocation of the product, or to attempt domination of the labourers and control of distribution.

The condition Smith presents as basic forms the third stage. Here all labour in pursuit of their own interests, and those in superior positions are assumed to enjoy their privileges by virtue of their more valuable contribution.

We all begin life with the first tendency, some move on to the second and some of those to the third. The outcome is that a modern society exhibits all three modes of behaviour, the diminishing numbers having the effect that the second, and still more so the third, remains partly aspiration rather than achievement. Development beyond that point consists largely in the appearance of further aspirations. [1] quoted by Matthew O’Keefe in The Folly of Industrial Policy. Economic Notes No.48. Libertarian Alliance, [address]).

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.