Monday, November 27, 2006

The Invisible Hand versus the Hidden Hand

How do you choose to explain what goes on in the world? Are events stuff happening or do the authorities carefully orchestrate our reality and circumstances? My general inclination is to stress the former overall, and in cyberspace, at least, this puts me in a minority group.

In his highly interesting book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick made a distinction between the invisible hand and the hidden hand. The invisible hand, of Adam Smith fame, is in some ways a terrifying prospect to confront. Its existence (or lack of one) means that in our everyday comings and goings the great changes that happen in our society are not the result of conscious thought and effort but instead the inevitable force of the market.

The hidden hand has connotations that can seem far more sinister. The idea is that the state or some evil demon is controlling our day-to-day lives. This is Winston Smith territory and Big Brother is watching you. Our worst fears about anti-terror legislation, ID cards, the Masonic cult of the ruling classes and perhaps a deity that deliberately allowed suffering and evil to exist are played out in this kind of scenario. Our own underachievement, worldwide hunger and the inexorable desolation of our planet through carbon emissions are because those in power refuse to share it with anyone, because agricultural companies seek a profit over providing affordable crops and because the executives of Exxon Mobil prefer Foie Gras today to saving tomorrow.

What seems clear is that hidden hand scenarios can sometimes briefly take the ascendancy. The perfect dictatorship would lead to those in charge of the party machine controlling the actions of everything that goes on in their country. For example, the Russian people seem to have been repeatedly victims of meticulous rulers who tried to control everything that went on in that huge country. Yet even Stalin’s iron grip softened on his death and Putin’s attempts to revive Pravda and the KGB will fail eventually.

This is the insight that should be taken from the way we see the hidden hand lurking behind injustice. The actions of the few are often the cause of great pain and suffering for many. The decisions to go to war in Iraq or to fly planes in to the World Trade Centre will shape our age, yet what must be conceded is the thoughts in Rumsfeld’s or Bin Laden’s head, whatever they may have been, have taken and will take shape in ways that they could not control.

So if, as it can sometimes seem, we are gradually marching towards an environmental and perhaps nuclear apocalypse, remember it won’t have been because of the nasty figures who dominate the front pages of our newspapers with their attempts to puppeteer the rest of us. It will have been the far more alarming failure of all of us to coordinate our actions in such a way that our sophisticated race can curb our pursuit of momentary pleasure. How can we stop the general orgy of destruction before it is too late? If the invisible hand explanation of events is true it may turn out to be far more worrying than the idea of conspirators controlling our lives because it may also be the case that we cannot control what happens to us in the future. Ironically most of us view the fable of Winston Smith as the worst case scenario for human existence, yet perhaps it is the case it is Adam Smith whose way of explaining events is the most scary because if the lack of control he emphasises is true then there is seemingly little we can do to change our fate. Perhaps, however, we will continually evade our worries. If so it is far more satisfying to live in a world with no possibility of one group taking over the reins of power. Hopefully life will continue to surprise those who attempt to control us as they continue to fail in their attempts to keep the population of the world in check.


zola said...

Toby : Did you once call me an optimist?

Toby Lewis said...

Were you implying I was or wasn't an optimist? I think I may have done.

YellowDuck said...

Hm. In Holland we like to say "Hello Hand" in the evening. But that is a subject more suitable for Szwagier's blog perhaps....

On this topic: the invisible hand is best applied in pop culture: X-files, 24, Operation Enduring Freedom. Great stuff, but completely fictional.

In the real world shit just happens. And when it does: it tends to hit the fan.

On a different note. I presume I am not the only one that is amused at the double meaning of the words Enduring Freedom.

Suppose Rumsfeld never did read Ian McEwan.

Toby Lewis said...

Please explain the Dutch greeting.

I agree with you but it seems clear to me there are plenty of people/groups who would attempt to be hidden hands or conspicuous hulking fists for that matter. What do you think?

Maybe freedom has to be endured. Rumsfeld was playing it straight that time.

On to McEwan, what do you think about the accusations of plagiarism this weekend/ I'm doubtful or perhaps he was just being postmodern. But his article in the Graun this monday seemed to imply he wasn't trying to be clever. Did you ever read the original "Sunday paper" that slurred the poor man? The Guardian seemed frightened to reveal where the source actually was, presumably in case they ended up defaming them.

anticant said...

Hi Toby, like your site!

It's always some of each. Lots of stuff just happens, and there are always plenty of would-be controlling hidden and not so hidden hands. Stuff happens to them, too - look at what happened to Hitler.

Who's a terrorist and who's a freedom fighter? How do you suggest we co-ordinate resistance? Join the Maquis?

BTW I am amused by your choice of quote from Arthur Koestler, seeing as how he raped Jill Craigie, Michael Foot's wife. [Stuff happening?]

Toby Lewis said...


Your first paragraph is my point.
I find it satisfying that people try to gain control but find themselves being pulled along by the tide of history in to insignificance. Blair is experiencing this at the moment, as his bullish, controlling, legalistic, media-managing premiership has been shown to be superficial over the course of time and he will retire to fade like Thatcher on to the sidelines.

I think the best way is to stick to our principles, try to think clearly and try to deny injustice.

The Koestler quote was about colonialism but I guess that information lends a certain resonance to the quote. Isn't it odd how people we can respect and admire can do such horrible things? Koestler's rape is stuff happening but I'd say his responsibility for the act should still be recognised. We are responsible for our actions but many of their unknown consequences should not be condemned. Stuff like rape though seems fairly clear-cut as exploitation of another and so should never be tolerated.

I like your site, as well, I'll try to comment there at some stage.

billstickers said...


The Deity did not and does not deliberately allow suffering and evil to exist. The Deity has granted free will to human beings and they have used that free will to promote suffering and evil.

Since the nature of Man is basically evil, how would the Deity disallow the suffering and evil he (Man) causes, even if He wanted to, without entirely wiping us out?

Don't blame the parents.

anticant said...


How did you become so intimately acquainted with the intentions of the Deity?

billstickers said...

By reading His Word. He so states His intentions therein. I'll forward a copy if you ask nicely.

anticant said...

There are about twenty translations/versions of the Bible in this house already, but thanks all the same! I find the Skeptic's Annotated Bible the most useful. It's on line, so check it out.

Toby Lewis said...

I thinked I timed my passing reference to theodicy nicely in time for the unexpected arrival of Bill.

"The Deity has granted free will to human beings and they have used that free will to promote suffering and evil."

If for a moment we accept that human action over a mass scale causes suffering and evil simply as a by-product of our activity, then our free will (if we have it) is the cause of misery. What though is a place for a benevolent deity in all this who stands back and watches it all unfold to cause such destruction? What about natural disasters?

anticant said...

Nice kind of Deity, isn't he/she/it?

YellowDuck said...

Chaos theory.

The answer to everything.

God does play dice.

billstickers said...

Thanks Anti, but where would we be if all our books were subject to skeptics' annotations?


First and foremost, I expect you'll grant that, if an omnipotent deity did exist, it would be more likely than not that we humans would not fully understand all that he did.

Second, The Bible tells us that God's ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. What you see as "suffering" may be necessary purification or growth or some other necessary stage we must pass through. A human-level analogy might be the "suffering" undergone at the dentist's surgery, or the suffering undergone by a mother in labour. Why are these "sufferings" not lumped together with the word "evil"? Not all suffering is unnecessary. The fact that you don't understand why the doctors had to cut your legs off in no way makes their legitimate decision evil or unwarranted or uncaring.

Perhaps, if we could think as God thinks, and know His ways, we would see that our "suffering" is just a necessary part of claiming our inheritance. Something akin to our letting our children live outside of a cotton wool wrapping in order that they are capable of fully entering into adulthood when the time comes.

Just because we don't know the reason behind our being exposed to suffering doesn't mean God hasn't our best interests at heart.

Evil, on the other hand, comes directly out of the heart of man. Man has been given a free will. He doesn't have to exercise his evil nature.

God has in no way tried to disguise the fact that we are being tested.

billstickers said...

"What though is a place for a benevolent deity in all this who stands back and watches it all unfold..."

The first step toward understanding anything about God and His ways is to admit that He probably can't be viewed at all in human terms, and that, therefore, we can know nothing about Him, except for the glimpses of His majesty we get through contemplating His creation.

So, rephrase the above quote for an non-human God, removing the human terms of "benevolent", "stands back" and "watches".

anticant said...

Where would we be? A damn sight better off, with less cant - which I'm anti - and fewer equivocating obfuscations like those in the remainder of your last two posts.

billstickers said...

Anticant, are you saying then that skeptics necessarily expose and eliminate, or discourage, cant?

I hope not, because I'm a little skeptical of your writings. How much cant can an anticant cant if an anticant cant cant.

Oh, and I dont do veiled references. You'll have to out with your grievances in full.

anticant said...

billstickers, anticants would rather de-cant. Preferably a bottle of vintage red.

My grievances are legion. If I ever do meet that "God" of yours, I shall look at him/her/it reproachfully, and say: "How COULD you?

billstickers said...

But, he didn't! We did. Go back and read that Adam and Eve thing. This time without prejudice and with a view to discovering its meaning.

It's such a great plan.

(Oh yes, you'll require the help of the Holy Spirit.)

anticant said...

Tut,tut. Please don't be so patronising.

billstickers said...

I'm not being patronising. It's obvious that you have missed a lot of even the surface points of the Bible if you believe that God (according to Christianity) could be responsible for anything evil.

I am here to argue that, from a Christian Biblical perspective, God does not "deliberately allow suffering and evil to exist", as Toby suggested. That is, according to the Christian "game rules", God can't be accused of that. You can't reasonably enter into a faith-based environment, in a state of non-belief, inventing psuedo dilemmas.

You have no evidence for the non-existence of God, yet you insist upon telling us that you don't believe in Him. Frankly, your belief or non-belief in God could only, and does only, concern you. His existence does not depend on your belief or lack of belief.

I wouldn't attempt to argue God's existence. Given that Christians must necessarily maintain faith in God, any facts that sprang up, one way or another, would spoil the point of the exercise.

anticant said...

Oh dear, you are priceless! I shall write a blog about this on my own site. Am thinking of calling it "The Ostrich Position".

billstickers said...

Yes, scurry off to your burrow and write your blog, or do whatever it is you do in burrows. I've made my position very clear and you have failed miserably to defend yours - whatever it was.

Here's my position again.

1. There's a faith-based system (if you like, I'm having trouble coming up with an adequate word) called "Christianity".

2. Christianity holds, and Christians believe, that God cannot be responsible for evil.

3. It's pointless for non-believers to take a stance one way or the other.

To explain, I don't believe in leprechauns. It's therefore pointless for me to take a stance either way on whether or not they can grant three wishes to people (or whether they are benevolent, etc.). I must leave that argument to those who believe in leprechauns. If leprechaun believers follow the teachings laid down in a certain leprechaun faith book, and that book says that leprechauns do indeed have the power to grant three wishes to people (and that they are indeed benevolent), it would follow that any "believers" who admitted a belief to the contrary would necessarily not be leprechaun believers at all (see top).

anticant said...

How do you know that I have "failed miserably" to defend my position when you admit you don't know what it is?

You are failing miserably as a debater, by being so bloody condescending as well as illogical.

You appear to be saying that the opinions of non-believers in leprechaunism are irrelevant because only believers have any interest in, or knowledge of, or legitimate concern with, the matter. That simply isn't true of Christianity, or Islam, or any other faith. What believers are motivated to do as a consequence of their beliefs affects every single person on earth, alas. Just look around you. By their fruits ye shall know them.

billstickers said...

You've failed miserably simply by not showing up.

You can't bring the "the consequences affect me" argument in here. We're discussing the basic point of what Christianity says about God's "Deityality".

Again, I'm saying that non-believers' (or even believers') OPINIONS on the matter count for diddley squat and are pointlessly opined.

You do, however, have recourse (as many before you have) to inventing your own religion or belief system and setting up a deity that meets your own personal requirements as far as his being a very naughty boy, etc. However, naming your deity "God" will probably only add to the already rampant confusion.

Note: Why not address the "effects of religion on me" in that blog you were going to do in your burrow?

anticant said...

There's a story about the Duke of Wellington being accosted by a stranger with the greeting "Mr Jones, I believe?" to which the Duke replied "If you believe that, you'd believe anything". That seems an appropriate response to your latest broadside.

As for my promised bog, kindly allow me to do it in my own time. It won't be tomorrow, as I have a hospital outpatients' appointment which will consume most of the day.

anticant said...

I meant to say 'blog', but it may well turn into a bog.

billstickers said...

"It won't be tomorrow, as I have a hospital outpatients' appointment which will consume most of the day."

Oh ye of little faith.

anticant said...

Whatever that's supposed to mean, I don't find it amusing. Was I supposed to?

billstickers said...

I would never presume to guess what you should or would find amusing.

I think the comment fits in nicely with our discussions on your burrow.

anticant said...

I find you quite amusing [though with rapidly diminishing returns]. It's better than allowing myself to be exasperated by your slippery ways of arguing.

billstickers said...

No. It gets better. I'm not slippery but like slippers. You have to wear me in.

Besides, the arguing is my gift of thought to you. I don't win anything.

anticant said...

Arthur Ransome wrote "Swallows and Amazons" in exchange for a pair of slippers. Please don't expect me to write a best-selling 12-volume saga for you! Don't know about wearing you in, but if you hang around my burrow too much I may wear you out.

billstickers said...

Why, Mistah Anticant, I daclare you say the most romantic things!

anticant said...

OK Tar Baby.

ScarlettBloodyO'Hara said...

I'm Scarlett bloody O'Hara, and you bloody well know it.

anticant said...

Frankly, my dear, I couldn't give a damn. A rose by any other name....

But you're still banned from my burrow.

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