David Hume's Invisible Hand in The Wealth of Nations : The Public Choice of Moral Information

Hume Studies 1985 (1):110-149 (1985)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:110 DAVID HUME'S INVISIBLE HAND IN THE WEALTH OF NATIONS THE PUBLIC CHOICE OF MORAL INFORMATION Introduction The thesis I shall defend is that there are systematic aspects of Adam Smith's economics which make little sense when read in isolation from a literature in which David Hume provides the signal contributions. Consequently, parts of Hume's own work are stripped of meaning, isolated as they are from later developments. The puzzles about Smith's analysis which I find illuminated by Hume's are the following: 1. Why does Smith both defend the importance of economic growth for the material of well-being of the working class and claim that property originates as spoil, impoverishing the working class? After all, in the classical system the existence of property is one requisite for economic growth. 2. Why does Smith exalt the assumption of self-interested behavior in private activity but claim that irrationality dominates the political process? 3. Why does Smith deny the importance of benevolence in Wealth of Nations and insist on the importance of morality Sentiment morality in Theory of Moral its?3 The three questions have a common feature: they are related to the question of how public goods are provided. The particular public good in question is the institution of private property. As with all true I am obligated to the Center for Study of Public Choice for generous support of my research. Suzanne Levy gets the credit for the extent to which this approaches English. I have benefited from acute comments from Charles Rowley and Charles Griswold. The errors and obscurities which remain are solely my responsibility. Ill public goods, society considered as a whole benefits from having such an institution, but each individual considered separately can gain by anti-social behavior.4 Public goods provide a considerable difficulty for any social institution; neither competition in the market nor government requests that individuals reveal how much they wish to be taxed are certain to be efficient. There are aspects of the classical economic analysis which stress the importance of moral information as a partial solution to the public goods problem. By "moral information" I only require that the theory is employed as a guide and that if an individual acts contrary to the theory, this choice is not cited as "falsifying" the theory. Rather, something is said to be "wrong" or "wicked" about the choice.6 Much of modern economic analysis assumes that individuals have perfect information; this postulate rules out any significant role for moral information in the provision of the public goods. To avoid assuming away such a role for morality, we will drop the perfect information assumption and then examine if we can make sense of the classics' attack on the public goods problem. Of course, the specification that individuals see their own interests very poorly is consistent with Smith's general approach. The technique employed below is to look at the issue which Hume and Smith addressed as a problem in modern economics. The key difficulty is to determine under what conditions moral information could guide individuals with very imperfect perceptions to maximize their utility. In particular, suppose we find that moral guidance tells an individual how efficiently to produce. Is this morality self-enforcing or are resources required to persuade people to act in accord with these teachings? If resources are required, we will not pay much attention to just how this persuasion 112 is provided, e.g., whether we tell people that theft is "evil" or whether we hang a few thieves. General production theory tells us we probably will do both, but this is a separate issue. The argument to be advanced is that moral information has self-enforcement properties in private activities but these properties are missing in public activities. In this account, then, real resources will be required for implementing the morality. This consideration in turn raises an interesting issue. If the government expends these resources, what reason is there to believe that they will be provided to serve the public interest and not the interest of the government? Is it possible that the government can prosper by keeping people ignorant or by giving them advice...



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Utility-Enhancing Consumption Constraints.David Levy - 1988 - Economics and Philosophy 4 (1):69.

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