Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor, which explains how the organizational and productive ability of the free market is based on rational self-interest, provides a helpful but limited view of how people act in capitalist economies. This limitedness stems from what George Gilder calls its “materialist superstition: the idea that wealth comes chiefly from the self-interested manipulation, distribution, and consumption of material goods.” The materialist superstition causes one to overlook the fact that the entrepreneur is often driven, not by a rational calculus of costs and benefits, but by an imaginative passion for the task at hand.
Consider the story of Amar Bose, mit professor and chairman of Bose Corporation, the world’s sales leader in speaker manufacturing. While completing his doctorate in mathematics at mit, he decided to reward his hard work by indulging his love for classical music. He researched and then purchased a top-notch stereo but was deeply disappointed with its sound quality—“a Stradivarius sounded like a Woolworth’s,” he later explained. So, he set out to create a home speaker that could excellently reproduce the concert experience. After mastering the field of acoustics and spending nights and weekends tinkering with equipment, he unveiled the Bose 901 speakers, considered by many to be the best in the industry.
Note the crucial factors here: not only economic self-interest but also passion for excellence and for the work at hand—a passion that belies simple, materialist explanations of human action. As Michael Novak has written, life in a free economy runs not only on self-interest but also on the fire of invention. In stoking this fire we reflect God’s creative character and display that part of us created in His image. The Acton Institute has always tried to bring this spiritual perspective to bear on descriptions of economic life, and I thank you for your support of this project.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico