The Invisible Boot

by Joseph Shieber

If you’ve any familiarity with the history of economic theory, you’ll no doubt have heard of the idea of the “Invisible Hand”. The image was introduced by Adam Smith in his masterwork The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Smith suggests that, even though each individual participant in a market may be pursuing their own individual benefit, by doing so they are in fact maximizing the benefit for society as a whole:

[Each] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention … By pursuing his own interests, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The willingness of many on the Right to embrace the notion of the Invisible Hand strikes me as odd, given the unwillingness of many of those same thinkers to countenance the possibility of, to take one salient recent example, systemic racism.

In other words, thinkers on the Right often have a quasi-religious faith in positive market outcomes that transcend the self-serving intentions of the individuals making open those markets. This faith, however seems inconsistent with the flat rejection, by those on the Right, of other systemic effects in which individual agents might give rise to negative outcomes — again, not through any intentions of theirs on an individual level, but rather through the unintended consequences of their group-level interactions.

At the same time, on the Left, there at least at times seems to be a parallel unwillingness to recognize that, if the negative consequences of a certain institution are in fact systemic, then moralizing about the individuals involved in those institutions is likely misplaced. Furthermore, such moralizing will also likely be counterproductive, as it is difficult to change the mind of someone that you’re busy demonizing.

Refreshingly, the recent case of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings before the Senate indicates that, on the Left at least, many Senators were able to avoid the trap of making the discussion of Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court about Barrett’s personal morality, rather than about the systemic forces that she represents.

Thus, for example, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, in a widely cited presentation, used much of his time in the hearings to detail how Barrett’s nomination was the culmination of a dark money campaign to reshape the federal courts in a way that is antithetical to the policy priorities of a majority of American citizens.

Or, as Julia Craven details in Slate, Senators Corey Booker and Dick Durbin very carefully distinguished between individual and systemic racism in their questioning.

Durbin, for example, actually distinguished between explicit and implicit racism at the individual level, as well as between individual and systemic racism:

Where are we today when it comes to the issue of race? Some argue it’s fine. Everything’s fine and you don’t have to even teach children about the history of slavery or discrimination. Others say there’s implicit bias in so many aspects of American life that we have to be very candid about and address. Others go further and say no, it’s systemic racism that’s built into America and we have to be much more pointed in our addressing it.

In response to Durbin, however, Barrett declined to affirm whether she herself believes in the existence of systemic racism, instead telling a story about her own Black children and her personal rectitude.

If the issue is systemic racism, however, pointing to personal rectitude does nothing to address those systemic effects. In dealing with systemic effects, what is much more important is a willingness to educate oneself and to learn about the nature and extent of those effects.

And here, as Craven in Slate reports, Barrett is sadly deficient. In his questioning, Senator Booker said that he wanted to give Barrett “… an opportunity … to share what studies, articles, books, law review articles, or commentary you have read regarding racial disparities present in our criminal justice system.”

As Craven writes,

This was all following up on Booker’s questioning of Barrett from Tuesday, which had followed up in turn on a meeting between the senator and the nominee before the hearing, at which he said he’d brought up the U.S. Sentencing Commission study. On Tuesday, Barrett said she wasn’t acquainted with the study particularly, but that she was aware of many studies that expound upon implicit bias in the criminal justice system. Now, after she’d had another 24 hours to prepare, he was asking her for more detail about those studies.

“Well, Sen. Booker, I will say what I have learned about it has mostly been in conversations with people, and at Notre Dame as at many other universities,” Barrett said. “It’s a topic of conversation in classrooms, but it’s not something that I can say, yes, I’ve done research on this and read X, Y, and Z.”

Unfortunately, Barrett’s lack of willingness is typical of the blindness on the right that I diagnosed before: near-religious faith in the systemic virtues of the market and absolute blindness even to the possibility of systemic failures of the structures that make up the status quo of society.

Also unfortunately, the media seemed to lack the Senators’ ability to distinguish between systemic harms and Judge Barrett’s conspicuous personal rectitude. Most media outlets focused on Barrett’s tearful invocation of her own Black children, rather than on her blatant lack of curiosity about the research on systemic racism and its effects.

The more I think about the bait-and-switch that the Right seems to be able to deploy in touting the systemic bounties bestowed upon us by the almighty Market while denying even the possibility of systemic harms resulting from societal structures, the more that I wonder whether it might be a marketing problem.

“The Invisible Hand” is just such a powerful metaphor. The Left needs a metaphor powerful enough to counter it.

As I thought about something that might do, I was reminded by O’Brien’s words at the end of Orwell’s 1984:

There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always— do not forget this, Winston— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.

Now, of course, O’Brien himself is the human face of Big Brother’s power in 1984 — an individual, not a system.

But the more I thought about that famous last line, the more I thought that the boot itself is not an individual; the boot has no face. The boot isn’t O’Brien’s; it’s the embodiment of the system itself, crushing Winston under its unyielding violence.

In other words, “Invisible Hand”, meet “Invisible Boot”.

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