Norman Borlaug, Michael Jackson, and the Invisible Hand
When Adam Smith described the concept of laissez-faire capitalism, he argued that it was not just efficient but moral. As long as everyone acted in their own self-interest and the government did not interfere, the Invisible Hand would guide market forces toward the best possible outcome for society. Its generally accepted that this doesn’t always work in the presence of externalities; someone (i.e., government) has to be there to ensure that people don’t exercise their right to swing their fist beyond the start of other people’s noses.
But there is another problem which seems to be less highly recognized, namely that the whole concept of the Invisible Hand itself is bull$#^&. As an example, I’m writing this a few minutes after reading about the death of Norman Borlaug. He was a Nobel Laureate who developed disease-resistant and fast growing crops. Depending on who you ask, his work saved the lives of somewhere between a quarter of a billion and a billion people. So far. If we don’t all die in some sort of cataclysm in the next fifteen minutes, that number will only grow.
Now consider another person recently deceased – Michael Jackson. I believe Jackson was finally buried some time last week. Aside from being known the world over, Jackson was very wealthy, despite his clear incompetence with money. He probably made at least one dollar for every life saved by Norman Borlaug, so far. Norman Borlaug, on the other hand, to the best of my knowledge, did not. Furthermore, this discrepancy in income is very, very, very hard to attribute to government interference.
Which means, there are two possible alternatives:
1. Michael Jackson did more positive things for the world than Norman Borlaug.
2. Michael Jackson did less positive things for the world than Norman Borlaug.
There is no third option. None. Now, I think very, very few people, even die-hard Michael Jackson fans, when presented with numbers like “a quarter of a billion lives saved so far” would agree with option 1. Which leaves option 2. And if option 2, then the Invisible Hand is bull$#^&. Which means capitalism doesn’t work or is immoral. That does not imply any other philosophical system would work better, mind you, but trusting the market to do its thing provides perverse results.
UPDATE by Ken:
I mentioned this in comments, but I think it’s worth embedding here, too, as context for Norman Borlaug: