The Invisible Hand Isn't Broken

The current economic crisis has led to any number of calls for us to rethink the market system. The meltdown in the financial sector, it is argued, constitutes proof that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" cannot do the trick. But people may want to think twice before leaping to the ostensible safety of the state.

The idea that the self-interested behavior could be good for the economy did not originate with Smith, but he provided the theoretical ammunition for this view and remains the historical figure with whom it is most closely associated. Smith's view of things was that businessmen do indeed pursue their self-interest, but that such behavior can redound to the best interests of society as a whole -- higher national wealth, lower goods prices for consumers, etc. -- if that self-interested behavior is encased within a competitive market environment. This, of course, is Smith's famous "invisible hand" argument, which has been championed by some as an argument for minimalist government and derided by others as a myth that has been disproved by events.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Business

Just In