Liberating the Invisible-Hand from Libertarianism

Libertarianism often conceives of the “invisible-hand” explanation as a form of get-out-of-jail-free card. It is not the only doctrine to do so, others include neoliberalism and some strains of conservatism. In this essay, I will lay out why libertarians are inclined to believe in the absolving ability of the invisible-hand and why that may be wrong. To begin with, I will examine Robert Nozick’s concept of “invisible-hand explanations”. From there I speculate about how “invisible-hand explanations” are used by libertarians to exonerate individuals from claims of extortion and exploitation. Finally, I will show why such extortion does, in fact, take place despite the invisible-hand mechanism at work. In this essay, I will mean “extortion” to be the unacceptable situation of profiting from the unproductive coercing or defrauding of another to loss, and by “intention”, I mean deciding with reasonable knowledge of the expected outcome of one’s actions.

Nozick wrote, “[a]n invisiblehand explanation explains what looks to be the product of someone’s intentional design, as not brought about by intentional design.” The emphasis here is on the unintentional quality of a complex process. No one intends the results of the process that brings about a good or bad result. While there is a concerted effort, the effort is not coordinated because it is unknown. Each actor is acting in the dark, irrespectively of all the other actors, and consequently cannot know what the ultimate result of their efforts will be. The quintessential example is the self-interest of individual proprietors to feed, cloth, and shelter society. After all, every morning Philadelphia gets food from all over the country to feed its citizens and no one has to coordinate the effort. 

Nozick’s concern with the invisible-hand is for protecting the rights of the beneficiaries of such unintentional processes from intentional efforts at redistribution by others who feel the need to correct the results of such unintentional processes because they feel the results to be unfair, unjust, or just plain bad. But Nozick and other’s of a similar mind, defend these results as fair and just, even if they are not “good”. They claim, it is not the fault of these beneficiaries that they are beneficiaries, since the entire process that made them such developed unintentionally. I will not belabor the reader with an extended discussion of Nozick’s and other’s arguments for such an explanation. Instead, I will simply assert that this argument is used most often to defend against redistributive efforts by the left by claiming the lack of intentionality legitimates the uneven distribution of wealth on principle. Negative appearing outcomes say where one person is made insanely wealthy while tens of thousands of others work incessantly for near-poverty wages only seems unfair because of a vestigial sense of sentimentality, left-over from our primitive ancestors and an unhealthy obsession on human affairs being justified by logical reason. The question we will concern ourselves with is: when is an individual responsible for extortion? Libertarians do not deny that extortion exists. What Nozick et al. do argue is that when the process that creates what appears to be extortion is the result of an “invisible-hand explanation”, i.e. it is unintentional, no individual can be held responsible for extorting anyone. If no one is responsible for the extortion, it is not, in fact, extortion, our feelings of unfairness are misguided.

To really understand what Nozick et al. are up to, let us examine some concrete examples. Imagine you are carrying a briefcase with a quarter of a million dollars in it. You hail a taxi. Stepping in, the driver, with full knowledge of the money you carry, tells you to gift it to them or they will shoot you; they then credibly produce a pistol and aim it at you. You are of course free to choose. You can refuse to hand over the briefcase and take the bullet. Likewise, you can trade the money for your personal well being. Either way, we might say that since you were free to choose, no “robbery” took place. However, I think most of us would agree that your choice in the matter was coerced. 

The trouble with coercion is that it’s not always condemnable according to these theorists. We can easily imagine a scenario where you are nearly starving and a man offers you a job where you would work for an income that is equivalent to five percent of the value of whatever you create by your labor. You are of course free to starve, but if you take the job most libertarians would say that you chose this freely and were not really coerced. So, libertarians and neoliberals have left the burden of explaining what the difference is between the first and second cases.  It is here, where they must maintain that the former case is an example of extortion while the latter is not, that the “invisible-hand explanation” is deployed. 

The difference, they claim, is that the first case is intentional and the second case is not. The taxi driver who pulled the gun on you, set up the situation in order to get the money from you; while the boss who offers you five-percent is merely leveraging a natural situation that they neither created nor intended. While it is somewhat arbitrary whether or not and to what extent the taxi driver and the boss are creators of their situations, the point is nevertheless valid. The situation the boss exploited is not one of his own design, but that of the taxi driver is. Left here it would be reasonable to conclude that the first case is extortion and the second case is not.

But let us not leave it there, instead, let us further examine this by asking: what is it about intention that makes the first case extortion? We might speculate that Nozick et al. believe that intention is the product of specific knowledge and that without knowledge there can be no intent. This would make sense to us intuitively. Returning to the taxi, imagine this time that you merely left your money-laden briefcase in the backseat of the taxi after paying the fare. The driver takes off with it and it’s not until hours later you realize it has gone missing. Let’s further imagine that the driver about that same time discovers the money in their vehicle and claims it. Has the driver stolen or extorted your money from you? We are inclined to say no. This is simply a case of lost and found: you lost money and the driver found it. The driver lacked knowledge of the money about to come into their possession through some unintended process. This lack of knowledge equals a lack of intention. The complete lack of intention both on your part and that of the driver, in this case, legitimates the money really belonging to the driver after it was found. So, Nozick et al. would confidently conclude that the case with the boss is more like this case where the gun was pulled because of intentionality. 

But, it has not really been established how intention is made manifest. Let me assert that if we cannot have intention without knowledge, then we cannot have knowledge without intention or in philosopher-speak: knowledge of the consequences is materially equivalent to intentionality. Let us return again to the taxi and say that this third time, you have again forgotten your briefcase, but as you are exiting the vehicle, the taxi driver turns around and notices that the briefcase you brought with you is still in the backseat and not in your hand. Let’s also say that he knows it’s full of money. To be precise, the taxi driver, in this case, didn’t intend for you to leave your money and neither did you so again this case is unintended; however, the driver now has come into possession of the full knowledge that you have forgotten your money and that they stand to benefit from your loss. In this brief moment, a decision presents itself that did not occur when you forgot your money without the driver immediately realizing it. The driver, with full knowledge of the situation, has a choice. If they can choose, the outcome of the situation must–by definition–be an intended outcome. 

The taxi driver then–if choosing not to speak-up–is acting intentionally, hoping to profit from another’s unintended situation. Even though the driver did nothing to bring that situation about it is still intentional in its last act. This last act is sufficient to condemn it as extortion because it is an intentional design to benefit from another’s loss. The driver cannot be saved by our switching criteria from intention to action either. Not taking an action is to act intentionally when the lack of action is the result of a deliberate choice. Choosing to do nothing is an intentional action. Things are different when one acts or does not act without knowledge. Failing to act because of ignorance or confusion is not an intentional act. However, in the full light of knowledge that one will gain by not acting, to not act is intentional, and it is intention which, according to our libertarian theories, condemns an action as extortion.

Let us return now to the boss offering the starving person a five-percent wage. If the boss recognizes that poverty would allow him to depress the wages of the employee then the boss is extorting money from the employee even though the boss did not create the situation of their poverty. The creation of poverty is not the issue, the intention is. The boss is not extorting the employee by offering a lower wage if and only if the boss has no knowledge of the potential employee’s poverty or how that poverty would affect their choice to work for lower wages. By simply knowing that a starving person will accept whatever they can get and that this person is starving, one is in full knowledge of the situation. The choice to use it for leverage must, therefore, be seen as extortion. Contra Nozick and the rest, the boss’s case is more like pointing a gun at a person and demanding their money than it is like them losing their money in your car. The boss knew what it is was they were doing when they suggested a lower wage or they wouldn’t have known to suggest a lower wage at all. 

This illuminates what should have been obvious to Adam Smith and Robert Nozick alike: once the action of the invisible-hand is revealed, it is no longer unintentional, no longer innocent. The problem for libertarians is that the “invisible” part of the “invisible-hand explanation” is precisely what conveys the innocence, namely ignorance; but the “explanation” is the imparting of knowledge, and so promptly does away with the innocence. The unintentional situation is unintentional precisely because no one knows what exactly is happening or what the outcome will be. But the process of explaining that some good or bad outcome is the result of an “invisible-hand mechanism” is to reveal the hand at work! That is to say, explaining anything is to let people know what is happening, how their actions add-up to arrive at a specific outcome. To say that New York is fed by the self-interest of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker is to show us exactly how each contributes to the whole, and subsequently to necessitate our choice of intervening in that mechanism’s workings or to leave it alone. Either way, the leaf has fallen away and we stand nude in the full sun of knowledge.

Adam Smith himself–by the act of explaining the action of the invisible-hand in the market–made it possible to choose whether or not to hazard making corrections or by inaction leaves the system to its own devices and endure whatever consequences may come. So, the fact is that since Adam Smith’s time, the evils of economic activity brought about by the revealed workings of any invisible-hand at work are the result of an intentional choice on the part of those in power not to mitigate them. It may be that a choice to meddle will turn out worse than not meddling, but we cannot hide behind the “invisible-hand explanation” anymore. It is not invisible at all, it is a human hand, our hand, the hand of those in power and it moves as they will.

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