Self-interest, Sympathy and the Invisible Hand
From Adam Smith to Market Liberalism

Avner Offer


Adam Smith rejected Mandeville’s invisible-hand doctrine of ‘private vices, publick benefits’. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments his model of the ‘impartial spectator’ is driven not by sympathy for other people, but by their approbation. The innate capacity for sympathy makes approbation credible. Approbation needs to be authenticated, and in Smith’s model authentication relies on innate virtue, which is not realistic. An alternative model of ‘regard’ makes use of signalling and is more pragmatic. Modern versions of the invisible hand in rational choice theory and neo- liberalism are shown to be radical departures from the ethical legacy of Enlightenment and utilitarian economics, and are not consistent with Adam Smith’s own position.

Published on 11th December, 2012, in Economic Thought Vol 1, No 2, 2012