The Invisible Hand: Who Was Adam Smith?

In a recent essay for Adbusters, Douglas Haddow posited that algorithms are the new “invisible hand” guiding our capitalist system. But before Haddow got to that conclusion, he explored the original idea of the invisible hand, and the man behind the phrase:

If we want to interrogate the true nature of these numbers, the wizard behind the ghost in the machine, we need to look no further than Adam Smith, that dour Scot who lived with his mum and accidentally created the modern world.

Smith was neither a modernist nor a cosmopolitan. He was an absent-minded hermit who never married, had few friends, suffered from alternating fits of depression and hypochondria, travelled outside Britain on just one occasion and demanded that all his personal writing be burned upon his death. He was the supreme king of unintended consequences, a humble and misunderstood moral philosopher who became the patron saint of greed.

Most famously, and most tragically, Smith was an ambitious writer who got a bit flowery with his language on occasion, and, as a result, his entire legacy was reduced to two words: invisible and hand. As in, the Invisible Hand — that mysterious market force that secretly and surreptitiously guides all our actions and decisions. Or so we’ve been told.

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