Invisible Hand Talk

I think I've read that the phrase "invisible hand" occurs only once in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but nothing else from economics is so sacred or sacralized. His insight was that the workings of a competitive market would produce a number of socially desirable outcomes. This insight was central to classical economics, and, dressed up in mathematical glad rags, central to neoclassical economics, and its offspring, like the Real Business Cycle theory. Now Adam Smith was a very clever fellow, and he knew that business men really hated free competition, and would work the levers of power to eliminate it, but he probably underestimated their skill at eliminating it.

The story of the Standard Oil Trust, as told in Daniel Yergin's The Prize, is the classic example. Once drilling for oil and simple distillation (refining) techniques were developed in the 1860s, the oil market quickly became chaotic, as production of kerosene outpaced demand. Boom was followed by bust and every millionaire made had a bunch of bankrupts in his train. John D. Rockefeller set out to tame the ruinous monster of competition and succeeded astoundingly. The core of his method was simple: store up money in boom and buy out the competition in bust. His method, discipline, organization and ruthless business practices created the first and greatest global corporation and the greatest fortune in history, incidentally inventing big data in the process - Standard Oil tracked every bit of oil production, shipment, refining, and sales, not only its own, but everybody else's as well.

It would be wrong to categorize his deeds only as purely selfish rent seeking. The combine he created not only standardized high prices but also high quality products - in the early days of helter skelter refining, thousands of Americans died every year from kerosene explosions due mostly to poorly refined kerosene containing too much naptha or gasoline. The vast capital his enterprise generated led to orderly and systematic development of resources and markets.


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