Random Thoughts

Adam Smith's 'Invisible Hand' Operates in Politics Too (?)

The other day a reader of my post on Covid-19, with quite an analytical mind, remarked: “I am glad the blogger has appropriately paid compliments to the Mumbai commissioner Mr Chahal for his commendable handling of the wave… He could have dealt in more detail the two main causes for the surge of second wave one is Kumbh mela and the second reason… the lack of attention of … The US has paid advance amount to Pfizer and booked large number of Vaccine doses even in the 1st wave itself anticipating 2nd wave. The blogger should have emphasized on these two super spreading events.”

True, I should have also dwelt on these missing links, but as I was more concerned about drawing the attention of readers to the excellent work done by Mr Chahal and his dedicated team in addressing the challenge posed by the 2nd wave so effectively, and kindle a question in their minds: “How is it no other city thought of at least emulating BMC?” I made only passing remark about the issues raised by the reader.

Nevertheless, ever since I read my esteemed reader’s remark, particularly about the US paying Pfizer and BioNTech $1.95 bn as advance to produce and deliver 100 million doses of their Covid-19 vaccine if it proves to be safe and effective and on receiving regulatory approval for emergency use, I have been wondering at this offbeat act of President Donald Trump as early as in July 2020.

Indeed, the US government had made an attempt to assemble a portfolio of vaccines under its ‘Operation Warp Speed’ programme by entering into such financial agreements with vaccine developers such as Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and AstraZeneca involving a financial outlay of about $3.70 bn.

I call this move of Mr Trump offbeat, because, a study carried out by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that management “errors were committed in the pandemic’s earliest stages.” The report further observed that the Trump’s administration’s initial US travel ban of January 31 was applied only to non-US travellers coming from China though the virus was “already known to be present in Italy, Iran, Spain, Germany and the UK”. It went on to say that “The evidence suggests that ineffective national policies and responses, especially as compared to those of other wealthy nations … have been driving the terrible toll of covid-19 … in the US”.

Nor did President Trump worried of the pandemic: While Dr Robert Kadlee, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, was busy in convening the White House corona virus task force as early as on February 20 with an urgent agenda to arrest the spread of virus, President Trump was predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it [virus] miraculously goes away”.

Noticing the disregard of the US President to corona virus, Prof. Tim Naftali, clinical associate professor of history at NYU, wrote on January 19, 2021 in The Atlantic: “in the face of a devastating pandemic, he [Trump] was grossly derelict, unable or unwilling to marshal the requisite resources to save lives while encouraging behaviour that spread the disease”.

But this very President, surprisingly took a very right decision of paying advances to vaccine manufacturers in July 2020 to make the vaccines available—once they have proven their safety and efficacy and regulators have approved them—to vaccinate the citizens with no further loss of time. What a bold decision!

Intriguingly, this timely and rightful decision of President Trump reminds us of what a Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith said in his famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, some 240 years back: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

Of course, Adam smith, introducing this as an economic thought that highlights how surprisingly “… an individual by pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it”, set out the mechanism by which he felt economic society operated.

Now my wonder is: Are political parties and their leaders operating any way differently from this principle? Take for instance, our own political climate, we often hear every political party and its leaders talking about their intent to serve people, particularly the interests of the marginalised, those oppressed and the suppressed lot of the society. Leaders establish new parties to serve the weaker section, minorities and the downtrodden better. Even leaders change parties—that too, quite frequently—all in their anxiety to serve people better. But the underlying intent is obvious: winning the election, Isn’t it?

Isn’t that in their endeavour for winning the elections, political parties/leaders also do good things for the society without even knowing how much ‘good’ one is doing? In other words, a leader is often “led by an 'invisible hand' (the desire for winning the next election) to promote an end which was no part of his intention”.

That’s perhaps the motive behind Mr Trump’s paying advances to vaccine manufacturers for developing and supplying vaccines in July 2020—just four months ahead of Presidential elections. It is because of the invisibility of such underlying reasons behind leader’s action, often times we fail to understand why political parties/leaders do what they do, timing of such decisions, why they do not take certain decisions that appear to be good for citizens at large, etc.

In the same vein, some of their decisions do go against the interests of the ruled. Hence, it is essential for leaders to always remember what Adam Smith said: “The learned [leader?] ignore the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination". Indeed, it is expected of a leader to tolerate multifaceted truths and divergent points of view rather than “Subjection to his Empire tyrannous”. And that’s what commoners aspired for, since ages.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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