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Seeing the Invisible Hand

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Originally posted on March 8, 2010

 

Under certain conditions the pursuit of self-interest leads to the social good even when no one has the social good as their goal.  Under these conditions it is, using Adam Smith’s metaphor, almost as if an “invisible hand” were guiding self-interested individuals to work towards what is in society’s interest.  One of the goals of Modern Principles is to teach students to “See the Invisible Hand,” that is to recognize when self-interest leads to the social good and to understand that this beneficial result is not automatic but depends crucially on the operation of institutions.  Students who can recognize and understand the invisible hand gain an appreciation for what markets can do but precisely by understanding the difficulty of the task that markets sometimes accomplish they also gain a deeper appreciation of  market failure.

 

In See the Invisible Hand (powerpoint slides),  I illustrate the invisible hand and some of the institutions that channel self-interest towards the social good.  (These slides are an extended version of a talk that I also gave at the North Carolina teaching symposium).  See the notes pages for some notes on the slides.  If the embedded video doesn’t work you can find it online here.

About the Author
Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of research for The Independent Institute. Tabarrok is co-author with Tyler Cowen of the popular economics blog, Marginal Revolution. His recent research looks at bounty hunters, judicial incentives and elections, crime control, patent reform, methods to increase the supply of human organs for transplant, and the regulation of pharmaceuticals. He is the editor of the books, Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science; The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society; and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and The Control of Crime. His papers have appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics, Public Choice, Economic Inquiry, Journal of Health Economics, Journal of Theoretical Politics, The American Law and Economics Review, Kyklos and many other journals. His popular articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other magazines and newspapers.