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

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No _101, Oxford Economic and Social History Working Papers from University of Oxford, Department of Economics

Abstract: Adam Smith rejected Mandeville's invisible-hand doctrine of 'private vices, public 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. Approbation needs to be authenticated, and in Smith's model authentication relies on innate virtue, which is unrealistic. An alternative model of 'regard' is applied, which 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 inconsistent with Adam Smith's own position.

Date: 2012-08-01
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