invisible hand

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Coined by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Influenced by and echoing earlier use as "the hand of God". See Etymology citations


invisible hand (countable and uncountable, plural invisible hands)

  1. (economics) A metaphor for the principle that in a free market, an individual pursuing his own self-interest also tends to promote the good of his community as a whole.
    • 1776, Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations[1], volume IV, chapter 2:
      he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.
    • 2008, Robert H. Frank, "The Invisible Hand Is Shaking," New York Times, 25 May (retrieved 14 Aug 2008),
      In short, Smith understood that the invisible hand is often benign, but not always.

Usage notes[edit]

Though Adam Smith's original reference discusses only domestic versus foreign trade, the concept is nearly always generalized economically beyond this narrow scope.