The Foundation for Economic Education’s Dan Sanchez argues that the invisible hand is a legitimate economic concept and not a religious or mystical one, as some critics of economics claim. Dan and show host Gene Tunny discuss the efficient organization of economic activities by the market mechanism in a decentralized way, without the need for a central planner. The conversation turns to TikTok and economic engagement with China.
What’s covered in EP185
- Introduction to this episode [0:06]
- Dan’s article on the “invisible hand” [2:06]
- The production of a pencil is like an orchestra without a conductor [5:25]
- Is the invisible hand the hand of God? [8:34]
- What is the problem with central planning? [12:27]
- Central planners don’t like the idea of economic laws because they circumscribe their utopian dreams [15:45]
- Dan’s views on big tech [19:23]
- Is there a case for regulation or a ban on TikTok? [23:32]
Links relevant to the conversation
Dan’s bio: https://fee.org/people/dan-sanchez/
Dan’s Twitter handle: @DanSanchezV
Dan’s article on “How Atheist Anti-Capitalists miss the point”:
Von Mises book on the economic calculation problem
Article about problems with Soviet shoe production:
Bio of 19th century British free trade advocate Richard Cobden who Dan mentions:
The Invisible Hand: economic, religious, or mystical concept? w/ Dan Sanchez, FEE – EP185
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:06
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show. Hello, thanks for tuning into the show. In this episode, I chat with Dan Sanchez about the invisible hand, the efficient organisation of economic activities by the market mechanism in a decentralised way, without the need for a central planner, the great Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith observed, every individual neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it intends only his own security and by directing that industry in such a manner, as its produce may be of the greatest value, the intense 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. Is the invisible hand a legitimate economic concept or is it instead of religious or mystical concept as some critics of economics argue? My guest this episode, Dan Sanchez argues vigorously against those critics. Dan is the director of content at the Foundation for Economic Education. The foundation is one of the world’s leading pro free market think tanks, and it’s been operating since 1946. Okay, let’s get into the episode. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Dan. Dan Sanchez, from the Foundation for Economic Education. Welcome to the programme.
Dan Sanchez 02:06
Thanks, Gene. It’s great to be here.
Gene Tunny 02:07
Excellent. Dan, I was keen to get you on the show to chat about an article that you wrote for fi recently in the world in the last few months. So how atheist anti capitalists missed the point why they’re wrong, to sneer at the invisible hand and, and our pencil. To start off with Dan, could you just explain what you were reacting to? So what was the sneering that was being done at the invisible hand? And, and eyepencil, please,
Dan Sanchez 02:40
yeah, well, I tried to make it evergreen, partially because this is a criticism that is levelled at eyepencil and about free market economics in general, a lot. And another thing is that I just didn’t think that the I don’t even remember the author of the book that was in the latest smear, and the latest attack on Leonard Reid’s eyepencil was then I just wanted to sort of make a blanket case against that kind of line of attack. And what the line of attack is, is that is that free market economists believe in the invisible hand, that there’s a line and a pencil that says, Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God can make me. And therefore free market economics is invalid, because ultimately, it is based on faith instead of reason. And that it relies on some kind of a supernatural divine intervention for the free market to work. So it was that line of attack that I wrote my article to counter attack.
Gene Tunny 03:55
Rod, okay, I didn’t realise there was that line in eyepencil, I’ll have to go back and have a look at it to see the context. eyepencil is a great article that explains how no one no one person knows exactly how to make a pencil. There’s all of these, you know, hundreds of or however many people 1000s of people involved in the supply chain and the production from the growing of the timber, and the mining of the graphite, and the assembly of all the components into into a pencil. And that’s all coordinated by the market system. I mean, what Adam Smith and you know, the, the invisible hand, this is this metaphor from Adam Smith. That’s about how he sees as there’s, it’s almost as if there’s an invisible hand at work in how the market coordinates people and we owe our DNA to the self interest of the butcher and the baker. So yeah, that’s what that’s broadly speaking, correct. isn’t enough characterise that, right?
Dan Sanchez 04:57
Yes, that’s exactly right, Leonard. Reid is actually the founder of the organisation that I work for the Foundation for Economic Education. And he wrote this classic essay I pencil. And really what it is, is it’s a, written from the perspective of a pencil, like the pencil is the narrator. And the pencil is giving his family tree, his ancestry. And the point that he has to make is that, as simple as he is, like a pencil is not a super high tech product. But as simple as it is, its production is vastly complex, really, involving millions and perhaps 10s, and millions and hundreds and millions of people in its production, because you might think that the components are relatively simple, because there’s wood, and then there’s the lead and the eraser, but each one of those components had to be manufactured. And oftentimes, those the capital goods that were used to manufacture that they have to be manufactured, and it just keeps radiating out and out. And when you really trace what it all that goes into the production of a pencil, it is an orchestration of millions of people. But it’s an orchestra without a conductor. And that’s the, that’s the marvel that eyepencil really reveals is that there’s no mastermind, there’s no central planner, a lot of people would like to be central planners, they’d like to centrally plan pencils, and they’d like to centrally plan everything, but it is way too complex for them to be able to do that. And yet it happens every day without a central planner, because of the market price system. And, and that market price system is very orderly. But it’s not order that comes from the mind of any single participant of it, that that it’s an order that emerges out of the interactions of all these people pursuing their own little corners of order. And so there’s a transcendent order that emerges out of that. And so Adam Smith and Leonard Reid characterise that as, as sort of like an invisible hand, because all these wonderful things are coming out of the market, like a pencil, that wasn’t the intention of any single participant of it, a lot of people involved in producing things that go into producing a pencil, don’t even realise that they’re contributing to a pencil. So like someone who is, you know, manufacturing an axle that goes onto a truck, that ships the wood that ends up in the pencil. That person never thinks about his work as contributing to pencils. It’s not his intention, it’s not his order. But the market price system coordinates that all so that he actually does very effectively contributes to a pencil. And so like Adam Smith said, that it’s as if an invisible hand is ordering people’s actions to yield results. That was not any intention of their own. That you could see that that Leonard Reid and Smith and and also Frederick Basia that you could see like the hand of God in that, and that’s where the critics pounce because the critics say, Aha, you’re talking about God so therefore, everything that you’re saying is invalid. But in my article I explain how, how that actually is not a valid criticism.
Gene Tunny 08:57
Broad Okay, so we’re Smith and last year and read with a religious Did they say they compared the market mechanism to the to the hand of God is that what is that correct?
Dan Sanchez 09:09
Yes, they were all they were all Christian. And Leonard Read had that line that I mentioned, Frederick Basquiat in one of his essays warned against, quote, rejecting the order, God has given it, referring to the market and cautioning against social schemers who, who want to reject that order. And so a lot of free market thinkers see that there is something divine in it, that the order of the the world including the social order, is because of God it was created by God. But the thing is, is that even people who maybe are atheists and who who disagree with with Basquiat and read, they have no cause for disagreement with their conclusions, because as I explained in the article, the way that they reach their conclusions, was not through recourse to any kind of divine intervention. And it was not like God exists, therefore, the free market or anything like that, they reach their conclusions through economic reasoning, and through observations about human nature. So when, when Adam Smith explained the invisible hand and the workings of the market, he talked about the division of labour and exchange and prices and incentives and, and the logic of the market, resulting in that. Similarly, when Leonard Reid talks about eyepencil, and the wonders of the market, again, it’s all about about human action and exchange and the prices that result from it and the coordination that results from that same thing with with Bostian. And they think of that order as having been created by God, but, but they don’t say that, like, it relies on continuous divine intervention all the time. And they don’t rest their conclusions on, you know, holy scripture or anything like that. And so, in my article, I compare it to Sir Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton was also Christian, and was also religious, and also saw something divine in the physical order that he was describing. And that, I think there’s a double standard here, because these, these critics, they, they wouldn’t then say that, you know, Isaac, Newton’s physics were invalid because of, of his, you know, religious perspective. Because his optics and His laws of motion and everything that they were derived from using reason and using experiments and using observation, and they don’t have that criticism for him, because they don’t have an axe to grind against physics, they have an axe to grind against capitalism. And so they’re going to level this unfair attack, in this case and not in the other.
Gene Tunny 12:27
Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking, Dan, I mean, I first came across eyepencil, I think it must have been in one of Milton Friedman’s books, because Friedman might open one of the chapters in Free to Choose talking about it, I can’t remember exactly. And Friedman love that example. I mean, the way Friedman always explained it in terms of the market, it provides us clear signal is that price signal that, and that’s all you need to observe in the market. And if if there’s a shortage of say, timber than the price of timber is going to increase, and that’s going to send a signal to the loggers to, to harvest more, more timber. So, yeah, he talks about that efficient signal. And, you know, 30 or 40 years ago, there were, it was much clearer that that was a better approach than central planning, because we had real life, socialist economies, the centrally planned economies still, that were failing to produce the goods and services, the consumer goods that that people wanted. And I might try and dig up some of those examples of those, you know, just the inefficiency of production, the failures to when you got central planning, and you don’t have the market to tell the factories, what needs to be produced, you have all sorts of bottlenecks and problems in production. So yeah, but we seem to lack that now those it’s not as clear anymore, because we’re not in that. There’s not there aren’t in real life. I mean, maybe there are some in Cuba and North Korea, but we don’t see we don’t hear a lot about them. But we’re very conscious of what was happening in the in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union back in the day. I don’t know if you have any reflections on that at all.
Dan Sanchez 14:12
Yeah, and even in those cases, the Socialist quasi socialist economies aren’t really fully socialist because they have recourse to market prices that are generated from capitalist economies. So the problem about socialism that you can see in eyepencil, in Leonard Reid’s discussion of central planning and my pencil but also in Ludwig von Mises is explanation of the calculation problem is that without market prices, production is just arbitrary that that there’s there’s no way of balancing one production course of action against another course of action because you just don’t have prices and you don’t have the the gun either profit and loss to know whether, you know whether one line of production is any better than another. And so it’s just arbitrary. But but at least if, if you have a socialist economy and the capitalist economy exists elsewhere, at least you can use those prices as a as a rough metric to have some kind of rationality in your production. But in a completely socialist world, it would be utter chaos, like there wouldn’t even be that so it would be even worse.
Gene Tunny 15:34
Yeah, you know, it’s good. You reminded me of that. Sorry, Ludwig von Mises the calculation problem, I’ll have to refresh. My understanding of that. It’s a very good point that that he makes there. Okay, there’s one thing I wanted to dive into with your article you write that those who try to dismiss eyepencil do not want to admit that they or their favourite social schemers cannot outsmart or outdo the transcendent order of the market, those who sneer at the invisible hand won a free hand to remould society as they please. Okay, I largely agree with you what I just want to ask you about your thoughts on, there’s a lot of concerns. Now. I mean, there’s concerns about inequality, and housing, I mean, we’ve got their housing prices are out of control, a lot of young people are concerned about whether they’ll be able to afford a house, there are a lot of particularly the millennials and the Gen z’s. They’ve got a more favourable view of socialism than then older generations. And I’m always conscious, I don’t want to have a not that I’m a boomer. But I don’t want to have that burger mentality. Like there are a lot of people who are so try to see where people are coming from. There are a lot of people who think that the market, this is a problem with the market. This is why we’ve got all of these issues. How do you respond to that? Do you think it is such a transcendent order? If we do have this perceived issue of inequality and lack of housing affordability? How do you respond to the people who are critical of of capitalism, or neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it for delivering these outcomes.
Dan Sanchez 17:24
So a lot of the times what central planners or would be central planners, what they want to do is they want to basically pander and demagogue to people to pretend that they would be able to outdo the market, and provide them with more goods and services than then the market would provide. And so they don’t like the idea of economic law, because it puts a crimp in their plans, because it it shows that there are just some things that can’t be done, just like in the realm of physics that, you know, there’s a law of gravity, a president can’t walk off the presidential palace and expect to be able to fly. Similarly, a president can’t impose price controls, and expect there to not be shortages. It’s like these these economic laws, circumscribe the utopian dreams of these demagogues and the central planners, you know, that relates to housing as well. So for example, rent control, central planners don’t want to believe in economic law, because economic law means that they can’t impose rent control, without creating housing shortages for the very people they pretend to want to be able to provide for. So that’s why they are really averse to any kind of notion of a transcendent order any kind of order that that is beyond what a central planner can can encompass, or some kind of an ingenious social reformer can’t outdo, but they do get away with it to a large degree, they are able to put one over on the people to make them think that they can outdo the market. And so they do manage to do a lot of interventions. But then those interventions create a lot of these shortages. They blame that on the market, and then that buttresses their case for even more intervention if people don’t actually understand economics. And so So yeah, it’s true that there are housing shortages, there’s lack of options for living, housing is unaffordable, but it doesn’t make any sense to lay the blame on the free market. Because when you when you trace what is causing these problems, especially in in certain areas in particular is that you, you see policies like rent control, and you see policies like zoning restrictions and all these anti production policies that that put a strict limit on the production of new houses. And if you have fewer houses, then they’re going to be more expensive. Again, it’s an economic law of supply and demand.
Gene Tunny 20:22
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Gene Tunny 20:57
Now back to the show. One of the other concerns I hear expressed from people who aren’t sympathetic to Foundation for Economic Education, is this point about monopoly. There’s a growing concern about monopoly in well, in tech, in particular, surveillance capitalism. How do you think about that? I mean, is that part of the transcendent order? Or is that is that something malignant? There needs to be policy action, perhaps antitrust action against? How do you think about that?
Dan Sanchez 21:29
Yeah, I think a lot of the problems that we’re seeing with big tech, again, can be traced to government intervention, we saw with Twitter files, how much the FBI has been in Twitter’s DNS. And I’m sure if we ever had the YouTube files or the Facebook files, that, you know, we’d see the same results. I think that it is really short sighted, especially for conservatives to want to use the power of government and antitrust policy, to give the government even more power over these big tech companies, and expect that to solve the problem when when, if anything, that’s just going to give the government more leverage to be even more censorious against critics of the government. And so it just seems really, really short sighted to me. And the answer is to free big tech in the tech industry and social media and media in general of government and influence. Because if there wasn’t so much intervention, a lot of these behaviours, they’re doing it because of government pressure. It’s not because of, like a market demand for it. And if that government pressure was was released, I think people like freewheeling conversation and don’t like censorship. And and I think market demand would leave these these big tech companies to either them or their competitors and their successors, to not be abusive in their practices. And a lot of times big tech companies, like incumbent, like already dominant big tech companies, they actually like regulation, because it places a heavier burden on upstarts than it does on them. Yeah, even if you want, you know, giants, like like Facebook and YouTube to go under, again, you know, because of abusive practices. Again, the answer is to get government out of it. So that there’s less regulation, and there’s more room for competition.
Gene Tunny 23:32
Yeah, fair points, has feed on any thinking on tick tock, because it’ll mean tic TOCs, a company that there’s a bit of concern about in terms of privacy and security issues has feed on and you thinking on that? Is that is that a special case where there might be case for regulation, or a ban of some kind?
Dan Sanchez 23:50
Tick tock? Like, really, I think the reason why there’s so much pressure on banning Tiktok. For one thing, again, it’s anti competitive. The biggest supporters of a ban on on Tik Tok are Facebook and YouTube, because basically, they want to crush the competition. But the actual bill that would ban Tiktok doesn’t only ban tick tock it gives the government sweeping powers over monitoring and censoring the internet in general. And really, I think it is a a Trojan horse, on one hand for these big tech companies to to eliminate competition and on the other hand for governments to have even more power regulating speech, because ultimately, the biggest threat to our own civil liberties is not China. It’s the American government. Thankfully, it’s the American government that that is having this constant siege on our liberties. And this is just this is just part of that really.
Gene Tunny 24:56
That’s an interesting perspective. I thought I’d ask you Here’s it’s I mean, one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out through my conversations with people is, is China and how big of a threat is China? And does that mean we need to decouple from them? No, that’s not what we’re talking about today. I’ve had conversations with different people. And I know that the it’s a huge concern that a lot of people are really concerned about national security. But yeah, I think that’s a that’s a good point you make about the legislation and the wider reach that it could have. So I might have a closer look at that. That’s been great. Dan, thanks so much for your time. Are there any other points about your article or what you’ve been thinking about lately, you’d like to get across before we wrap up?
Dan Sanchez 25:44
Yeah, I mean, something that about I pencil that is brought to mind by the whole question of decoupling from China is that, you know, what the eye pencil story is, is a story about this vast division of labour, that is at the root of our prosperity, that millions of people are coordinating through the market system. And because of that vast coordination, that vast division of labour, because of the efficiencies of that, that is why we have hot, such high living standards, that we can have this huge population, but living better than any time in human history. And China is a big part of that. Because China, and having integrated with the global economy, that contribution to the division of labour, That is a big reason why we are as prosperous as we are. It’s also a big reason why the relations with China aren’t even worse. Because when peoples are interconnected through trade and through exchange, then that does create an interdependence. But that’s actually a good thing. Because that is what prevents wars, like once people are completely separate, then the only way that they can benefit from each other is through violence is through war. It’s like, there’s a saying that if if goods don’t cross borders, armies will, and that kind of separation, if anything, it would lead China to become even more totalitarian. Because it would create such a like a crisis situation and in times of crises, like the tyrants get are able to gain even more power. And so one thing that, you know, Leonard Read and people like Richard Richard Cobden talk about is that the more that exchange and the diverse division of labour knits people together, the more peace and cooperation and harmony and prosperity it creates,
Gene Tunny 28:00
here so Richard Cobden, an English radical and liberal politician, manufacturer and campaigner for free trade and peace. Yep. Okay. So very good. I’ll put a link in the show notes. So I remember, I’ve read some of his stuff many years ago, but it was a good, good reminder. So very good. Dan, thanks so much for your time. This is this has been really great. And I loved your thoughtful piece on on Smith, and Bastiat and what the the atheist ad capitalists get wrong. So that was excellent. And yeah, again, thanks again and keep up the great work and yeah, hope to see more of your stuff in the future.
Dan Sanchez 28:40
Thank you, Gene. I really appreciate it. Very good.
Gene Tunny 28:49
Okay, I hope you found that informative and enjoyable. I was really impressed by Dan’s insights into the invisible hand and his passionate defence of the free market. I think the main takeaway of this episode is the efficiency of the market mechanism in organising the production of goods and services. The invisible hand is a beautiful thing. Dan describe the market is bringing about a transcendent order, because the results transcend the intentions and efforts of particular individuals in the economy. As Dan noted, Smith, Bastiat and read demonstrated that transcendent order using economic reasoning and empirical observations about human nature, that demonstration did not rely at all on religious premises. Whether those men saw in that transcendent order something literally divine has no bearing on the validity of their reasoned demonstration of that order. I fully agree with Dan on that point. Dan has certainly given me some ideas for future episodes. It’s probably worth talking about the economic calculation problem posed by von Mises in a future episode. Von Mises argued socialist economies would fail because of the huge computational problems they faced They will have to centrally plan and direct the flows of resources across various industries and the distribution of products to consumers. Something the market mechanism does in an efficient decentralised way. In a future episode, it would also be useful to explore some of the failures of central planning in the former Soviet Union. There are various stories about recurrent shortages of bread and toilet paper and about uncomfortable and unfashionable shoes no one would wear but it would be good to delve into some specific well evidenced examples. I’ll see what I can do. What do you think? What either of those future episodes interests you? Let me know. And please let me know what you think about what either Dan or I had to say this episode. You can email me via email@example.com. Thanks for listening. rato thanks for listening to this episode of Economics Explored. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org Or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if you’re podcasting outlets you then please write a review and leave a rating. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.
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