The Invisible Backhand

"Out of this interplay of powers arose rapacious political and commercial interests in the early modern era: absolutism on the one hand, violent monopolization of markets and resources on the other. Before the appearance of liberalism under its own name, the moral philosophers of the 18th century sought formulas to tame and humanize the destructive powers of the two centuries before them—to describe principles of commerce that did not require the methods of, say, the East India Company, or principles of politics that would provide security without despotism. Adam Smith’s notion of the invisible hand was part of this effort, as was the constitutional thought of America’s Founding Fathers. These men largely succeeded within their own domains, and for a long time. But the forces of corruption cannot be routed forever in this world, and those forces can co-opt even the most humane of ideas.

The invisible hand was gentler than the hand that held the whip, but it was never a good basis for a faith. Of late, this idea of the invisible hand has come to look more like a velvet glove for ideology’s iron fist. Prosperity legitimizes power, and power commodifies human existence. Life under liberalism is servile, though there is no slavery. Endless wars are fought to spread the liberal faith to heathen lands and draw them into the liberal world political and economic order, though we don’t call this colonialism. Something new is now needed to tame liberalism the way the invisible hand was once used to tame mercantilism and the early modern state."