The Morality of the Invisible Hand

There is a story that a high-level Russian official visited America during the Reagan presidency and was shown the abundance of goods in American stores. He was astonished at the bountiful display and how it compared to the meager offerings in his home country.

“Who planned all this production?” he asked.

“Nobody,” his hosts replied. “People just decide for themselves what they want to produce and sell.”

He thought they must be concealing something. “No, seriously. Tell me: what authority is behind all this?”

“We assure you, this did not come from a central plan. People are free to go into business as they like and produce what they want, and what you see on the shelves is the result.”

I have recently been enjoying a conversation with a commenter on the subject of morality. As someone who no longer believes in God, my morality is not based on an Authority who decrees what is right and is ready to punish or reward me according to how well I conform to his standard. Instead, my rule for deciding what’s right is “What will help sentient beings flourish?” and my motive for acting according to that rule is that I want to like what I see in the mirror every morning.

In other words, it’s pretty much up to me.

There are entire countries where most people take that approach to life — where a God looking over one’s shoulder is just not part of the cultural milieu.  If we were to visit them, as the Russian official visited America, what would we see?

Amazingly, we would see some of the happiest countries on Earth, with some of the lowest crime rates. You can Google for yourself about this. It’s a very complicated topic that I am reluctant to reduce to a simplistic statement like “Secular countries are happier than highly religious ones,” but in general that is true. The Scandinavian countries, which are notoriously secular, regularly score at the top of happiness charts and have some of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Even if we were to visit our neighbor, Canada, we would find a society where people are almost absurdly polite, crime is lower than at home, …and people are much less religious.

The United Nations publishes a World Happiness Report. The countries where most people believe a god is looking over their shoulder do not stack up well; the secular countries are the happiest, in general.

World map of countries by World Happiness Report score (2017).svg

Even within the United States, the states with the highest crime rates are generally those in the Bible Belt, and the relatively godless states of the “coastal elite” are generally safer. Again, this omits many complicating factors, but on the face of it we’d have a hard time making the argument that an Authority with a capital ‘A’ is necessary for people to behave themselves.

The Russian official was astonished that the American free-market system could produce such material abundance with nobody telling people what to produce, and where, in fact, each business acts according to its self-interest. He was unacquainted with what Adam Smith famously called the Invisible Hand that guides the market.

The Invisible Hand does not exist somewhere, but it is very real in this sense: it is an entity that emerges (in the philosophical sense of that term) from the interaction of smaller actors.

In the same way, a very real morality emerges from the interaction of human beings, each of whom is seeking to live optimally among his fellows.

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