The invisible hand theory is a concept described by Adam Smith in the 18th century. It is widely accepted as a means to explain the forces of a free market, or “market forces”. “Market forces” are frequently invoked by opponents of any (or any significant) Government role in the economy, with the hypocritical exception of the use of public funds in ways that support their own businesses. Their position implicitly assumes that “market forces” are immune to or independent of active human intervention or public policies. These forces can supposedly miraculously solve all problems and resolve to the greatest good for the greatest number all conflicts or at least all commercial conflicts.

The advocates of the untrameled operation of “market forces” are implicitly claiming that conscious attempts by humans to direct these forces through laws or regulations are bound to be harmful. But all human actions may have positive as well as negative consequences. It is a strange argument that conscious actions or intervention directed at influencing “market forces” can only have negative and never positive consequences. After all opponents of laws or regulations that affect “market forces” are themselves trying to apply them (actively and even aggressively) in ways they believe are positive. In other words they are implicitly claiming that they are able to influence “market forces” positively, whereas other humans and organizations with opinions and/or goals and priorities that differ from theirs (even if partly overlapping) are unable to do so and should not stand in their way.

“Market forces” are applied by humans and by organizations created by humans. Therefore they are subject in their impact to the motivations and constraints that humans and human-made organizations experience as market actors. But laws, regulations, and societal values, as well as the beliefs and goals of individuals and organizations (profit-seeking and others) interact with each other and influence these motivations and constraints. Even if our ability to predict the combined effect of these influences on the outcomes produced by “market forces” is imperfect, and may be mistaken, abandoning any conscious or active attempt to achieve desirable outcomes is tantamount to accepting anarchy or “everyone for him and/or herself” as the guiding principle of our economy and even more broadly of our civilization.

The certainty that the perfect or the best is unattainable should not be a reason to abandon attempts to achieve the good and build the better. In the world of commerce or the market place, we can and should strive to influence or guide “market forces” along a path towards achieving the goals and fulfilling aspirations expressed in documents such as (but not limited to) the U.S. Constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights and not only those that fal within the fiduciary responsibilities and goals of profit-seeking businesses. The goals of these businesses are legitimate in their own right, but they do not constitute a complete set of the needs or desires of the members of a society nor do they cover all of their highest aspirations.

It is reasonable to argue that it is not the Government’s role, nor within its competence to pick specific winners (and therefore also losers) among competing companies, including decisions about market entries and sources of innovation. However it is reasonable to expect and hope that the Government will sustain an environment in which companies can succeed and fail on the basis of their success with the products and services they offer as perceived by customers who are in a position to choose freely which ones they prefer and adopt. The levers the Government has at its disposal (central and local) include its influence as a major purchaser (consumer) and a source of R&D funding for technology to fulfill its own missions (such as defense and health care), as well as its role in education, and its legislative and regulatory responsibility and authority..

In the telecommunications sector in particular acceptance of the idea that “market forces” are immune to human influence except in a negative sense means that choices and decisions that affect all of us will be left in the hands of a few large corporations such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. These corporations left to their own devices will do whatever they want in their own interests, while they mislead us that they are uniquely or at least specially capable of fulfilling the purpose of “market forces”, and their decisions will automatically (or miraculously?) maximize the value these forces deliver to benefit all of us. According to their lobbying and propaganda we should accept the value and virtue of “market forces” as an unchallengeable article of faith. We should also accept that any significant efforts, e.g. via regulation, to restrict the freedom of action of these corporations or to oblige them to take into account goals that are not directly related to their aim of maximizing their profits are illegitimate (or unconstitutional in the U.S. polity) and are bound to cause harm and lead to less desirable outcomes for all of us.


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