Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 7 No. 2 (Spring 1993)


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Retrospectives: Ethics and the Invisible Hand

Article Citation

Evensky, Jerry. 1993. "Retrospectives: Ethics and the Invisible Hand." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7(2): 197-205.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.7.2.197


As modern economists, we use Adam Smith's "invisible hand" metaphor confident that we all know what it means in our discourse: it reflects our admiration for the elegant and smooth functioning of the market system as a coordinator of autonomous individual choices in an interdependent world. But in Adam Smith's moral philosophy, the invisible hand has a much broader responsibility: if individuals are to enjoy the fruits of a classical liberal society, the invisible hand must not only coordinate individuals' choices, it must shape the individuals into constructive social beings—ethical beings. I begin by presenting the philosophical basis for Smith's invisible hand, describing the sense in which the hand is invisible and whose hand it is. I then describe the story Smith tells of the invisible hand creating and maintaining a constructive classical liberal society and show how Smith's story evolved as his faith in the ability of the invisible hand to shape an appropriate ethical foundation waned. I conclude with some thoughts on the legacy of Adam Smith and of our predecessors in economic inquiry more generally.

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Evensky, Jerry (Syracuse U)

JEL Classifications

A13: Relation of Economics to Social Values
D63: Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement


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