Introduction: Capitalist Moral Philosophy, Narrative Technology, and the Boundaries of the Nation-State

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Some economic ideas are too interesting to be left to economists. This book proposes to unpack the implications of one such idea: Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, a metaphor little noted at the first publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but one that has since come to stand in for almost all there is of capitalist moral philosophy. Though a long-lasting and hard-working metaphor, Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ metaphor dissolves away, when you try to analyse it, into a surprisingly fragile and self-contradictory set of perspectival viewpoints. But I believe there is a reason for the metaphor’s longevity: it suggests an ironic mode of social action in which the results of individual actions are displaced to some indefinite spatial and temporal distance, creating by implication an unimaginably complex and detailed web of moral causality. The discipline of political economy, as it developed after Smith, generally accepted Smith’s optimistic take on this moral complexity, suggesting that free-market policies spontaneously led to prosperous and stable social orders in ways that could not be controlled or even known in detail by the state, but could be easily ascertained in retrospect. In the twentieth century, defenders of capitalism (like Friedrich Hayek) suggested that the very incalculability suggested by the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor proved the superiority of capitalist to socialist economic regimes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages18
StatePublished - 2011

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
ISSN (Print)2634-6494
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6508


  • Century Credit Default Swap
  • Free Trade
  • Invisible Hand
  • Literary Critic
  • Political Economy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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