The “Invisible Hand” of Empathy is Gravity for Economics

Invisble Hand of Empathy
Would an engineer ignore gravity in designing a bridge?

Imagine for a moment a structural engineer who has been tasked with engineering a bridge to cross a wide river. The engineer understands the strength and weight of the steel, concrete, asphalt, and other various materials that will be assembled to build a sound structure. The engineer also understands the pressures that wind, water current, temperature, and vehicle traffic will place on the structure.

The engineer also believes an “invisible hand” in some fashion influences the structure but is not easily measured by observation alone. The engineer decides that this force should be acknowledged but it’s influence need not be calculated in the engineering of the bridge.

Would you trust the bridge?

Fortunately the science of engineering has for nearly 400 years understood the force of gravity and how to measure this “invisible hand” that holds together our universe. Measuring the “invisible hand” of gravity allows the construction of structurally sustainable bridges.

Economists today for the most part evaluate our economy in a similar fashion as our hypothetical engineer. About 250 years ago, the economist and moral philosopher, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments  and The Wealth of Nations  both of which describe an “invisible hand” as a force that influences our society and economy. While the force is widely acknowledged there has been very little effort to discover its source or measure the effects. Observable examples of forces acting on the economy occur constantly – they are just not given a value.

For example, a significantly undervalued economic force is the value provided by an adult caregiver for a friend or family member with a debilitating disease or injury. The economy is measured solely on the quantity of goods and services sold and all of those measured contributions are part of the Gross Domestic Product.

A domestic caregiver is not selling services to contribute to GDP and if the caregiver has taken time away from work they actually reduce their contribution to the economy.  Additionally by providing care they may have displaced a professional caregiver because there is now one less patient to care for. Standard economic theory could actually consider the domestic caregiver a drain on the economy even though anyone with a conscious understands the value of having loved ones around in a time of need.

In his earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith notes that while a person may act in their own self-interest there is a sixth sense of sorts “which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith at the time related this force to sympathy.

Empathy I believe is the source of Smith’s “invisible hand” and since empathy involves understanding the emotional states of other people, he was very close in identifying it as sympathy. Furthermore Smith’s association with a sixth sense could in fact be correct. Empathy is triggered in our minds when we learn of someone else’s condition through what are called mirror neurons which fire as if the experience is happening to us directly.

Most early economists like Smith where also philosophers. Conversely many of today’s economists consider the humanities irreverent. We can no longer allow economic theory to escape the scientific reality that the “invisible hand” not only exists – but can now also be observed and measured.

Any contemporary economist refusing to incorporate empathy into the economic equation is no better than our engineer ignoring gravity.

One comment

  1. Paul James Daigle says:

    Young Einstein. Singha.

    Too easy. The answer is wisdom. It’s definitely not sympathy or empathy. An “invisible hand” has no emotions. C’mon. Wisdom is not an emotion. It’s kind of like education producing knowledge. But wisdom is insight given freely to us, and we cannot explain why we know something. Wisdom is earned. So there’s no sympathy or empathy about it. It actually makes man seem pathetic and God is having pity on us. Not true. God is praising and celebrating us when he and only he gives us knowledge or insight that cannot be proven or validated but it is true. It’s a
    Gift. It’s love. It’s what gets many of us thru life. Blessings in disguise. Wisdom lets you know something is wrong when walking past a few persons who might be in an argent and knowing a simple intervention using words that just spring loose out of your mouth will immediate have everyone laughing and forget what it was that had them so bothered. But you need to be careful with wisdom. You cant just use wisdom. It has to come to you when God
    Decides. But the more something happens in your life to earn wisdom the more often God gives it to you. And that over time makes you wise because you have insight beyond the earth simply by knowing there is no way in the world you could possobly know the things that you’ve grown to understand without a God. A God that is loving and merciful, but not sympathetic. I dont know what empathy means Vincent. I mean I do when I need to, but I cannot be 100% your totally correct
    Or incorrect. Now the question for you, is, how do we earn wisdom from God. Sleep well on that one because it takes a wise man to understand that one. No way man. It’s easy. Just have your best spaniard friends heads chopped off and bijnced down pyramids as you race for the minta pinta and Santa paparia. And as you row for your life hhe hot myan bride
    You brought with you that you tjhoight was a gift bites a chunk out of your neck and jumps and swims for shore. And as you are almost to the minta you catch a poisonous frog dart in the center of the bite. When you awake, you learn your family has all passed away in a horrible fire. And you learn you are alone in the world. Now that guy is gonna be sufferring for a while. And his belief in God and understanding Gods sufferring and than not being a whimp about his suffering he swallows the pain and celebrates God by praising him for all his suffering endured. And God kicks him down some wisdom. Just like this wisdom I am sharing with you. Wisdom earned because I swallowed the pain and put God before everything else. Amen Vincent?

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