The Invisible Hand Is a Gentle Hand

By Sharon Harris

September 14, 1998

The enemies of freedom have always maligned the free market. They have perpetuated myths like "dog-eat-dog capitalism," "survival of the fittest," "the law of the jungle." Robber barons. Heartless monopolies. A ruthless Wall Street fleecing a helpless Main Street.


We must speak out for the free market and individual liberty.

The great economist Adam Smith wrote that a free society operates as if "an invisible hand" directs people's actions in such a way as to serve the interest of the whole society.

That invisible hand is a gentle one. A free market is a gentle market. A free society is a gentle society. A cooperative, compassionate, and generous society. An abundant and tolerant society.

David Friedman, in his book The Machinery of Freedom, notes that there are only three ways to get something: (1) by trading, (2) by receiving a gift (from love or friendship), or (3) by force ("do what I want or I'll shoot you"). Honest, peaceful people operate in the first two ways. Criminals and the state operate by force, aggression, coercion.

The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of force.

You want to see dog-eat-dog? Look at the Waco massacre of the Branch Davidians. Look at the Ruby Ridge shooting of Vicki Weaver. Look at an IRS audit. We don't have a dog-eat-dog business world; we have a dog-eat-dog government.

Dog-eat-dog is defined as "ruthless or savage competition." This is an absurd description of the free market.

And besides, it's unfair to dogs.

In truth, the marketplace has a civilizing, humanizing effect. If honesty didn't exist, the marketplace would invent it, because it's the most successful way to do business. In the free market we see, not a survival of the fittest, but a survival of the kindest. Survival of the most cooperative. Survival of the friendliest. A gentle Darwinism, if you will.

In a free society, the most considerate prosper. As Thomas Sowell says, "Politeness and consideration for others is like investing pennies and getting dollars back." A smile has currency.

There are built-in incentives in the marketplace for service, courtesy, respect. The invisible hand becomes a friendly handshake between cooperating adults. As John Stossel pointed out in his ABC special, "Greed," notice how when you purchase something at a store the clerk says, "Thank you," and you say "Thank you" as well? It's a mutually beneficial exchange, and both parties are better off.


Let's look more closely at cooperation. The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government

Here's a question for you: Would you rather visit Wal-Mart or the Department of Motor Vehicles? Of course, at the DMV you get something free free grief, at no extra charge.

At the Smith Food King market, when there are more than three people in line, they open a new register. At the Post Office, when there are more than three people in line, two of the clerks go to lunch.

In a free society, people are treated as customers or potential customers. The customer is always right even when he's not.

Yes, there are rude people in the marketplace. But it's easy to quit doing business with them.

Contrast that to dealing with the government. Perhaps no one has ever better summed up what its like to interact with the government than the French political theorist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In 1849, he wrote:

To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-ridden, regulated, penned up, indoctrinated, preached at, checked, appraised, seized, censured, commanded, by beings who have neither title, nor knowledge, nor virtue. To be governed is to have every operation, every transaction, every movement noted, registered, counted, rated, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, refused, authorized, endorsed, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected.

Sounds as though he had some experience dealing with government.

Compare that to the gentle hand of the free market. If you don't like the way one grocery store treats you, you can go elsewhere. If you disagree with your church, you can choose another denomination or none at all.

But with government, we don't have that choice. What if you don't like the Motor Vehicle department? Can you get your drivers' license somewhere else? Or try telling the IRS you don't like the way the government spends your money, and see where that gets you.

The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government.

Adam Smith said "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest."

In the marketplace, people tend to be well mannered even if they hate you. The profit motive can even overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices. Even the most racist businessman eventually realizes on some level that "I might hate the color of their skin, but I love the color of their money."

Economist Walter Williams likes to talk about how Texas cattlemen work long hours to make sure that New Yorkers have all the steak they can eat. The ranchers don't do this because they love New Yorkers.

Again, the invisible hand at work, creating cooperation.

In any business situation, success is more likely for the people or companies who treat their customers with respect, kindness, courtesy, friendliness.

Notice the smiley face at Wal-Mart. Do you think there's one at the Social Security office?

If the school system had to compete, do you think your child might be treated more respectfully? Would there be better books? More individual attention? Learning how to read?

Cooperation is inherent in the free market. It is absent from the government, because coercion doesn't require it.


A free society is a compassionate society unlike our current government, which acts as though it's at war against sick people.

James Burton is a former Kentuckian who is living literally in exile in the Netherlands. A Vietnam War veteran, he suffers from a rare form of hereditary glaucoma. All the males on his mother's side of the family had the disease, and several of them have gone blind.

Burton found that marijuana could hold back, and perhaps halt, the glaucoma. So he began growing marijuana for his own use. Kentucky State Police raided his 90-acre farm and found 138 marijuana plants and two pounds of raw marijuana. At his trial, ophthalmologist John Merritt at the time the only physician in America allowed by the government to test marijuana in the treatment of glaucoma testified that marijuana was the only medication that could keep Burton from going blind.

Nevertheless, Burton was found guilty of simple possession and was sentenced to one year in a federal maximum security prison, with no parole. The government also seized his house and farm. Under forfeiture laws, there was no defense he could raise against the seizure of his property. No defense witnesses were permitted at his hearing.

After release from prison, Burton and his wife moved to the Netherlands, where he can legally purchase marijuana to stave off his blindness. Now, instead of living on a sprawling farm, they live in a tiny apartment, an ocean away from family and friends. They would love to return to America but not at the cost of his going blind.

This is the visible fist of government.

Will Foster, a 38-year-old software programmer and father of three, grew marijuana in his basement to treat his severe rheumatoid arthritis. Police raided his home and found about 70 marijuana plants. Journalist James Bovard points out that, because Foster was a first-time offender, the judge let him off with a 93-year sentence.

This is the visible fist of government.

One more example. In 1992, Jimmy Montgomery of Oklahoma was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two ounces of marijuana. That's the same weight as the tobacco in two packs of cigarettes. Montgomery was using the marijuana to relieve painful muscle spasms in his paralyzed limbs. Montgomery is a paraplegic who has been in a wheelchair for over 20 years after an industrial accident. His harsh sentence was because he was convicted both for possession and for intent to distribute based on the testimony of a cop who said he had never seen anyone with two ounces who didn't intend to distribute.

This poor man nearly died twice in prison because of lack of medical care. Because he had infectious sores that endangered other inmates, he was put in an isolated cell where he couldn't call for help. He had to remove his own bloody bandages without benefit of salve. Guards lost his urine bag, putting him in danger of death from infection.

He eventually was released, but the lack of medical treatment in the government's prison led to his leg being amputated.

This is the visible fist of government at war against thousands of utterly innocent, desperately ill Americans.

A while back, I saw a TV news show about a new drug the FDA was considering for approval. There were people, some of them in wheelchairs, begging literally begging for the drug, which had helped many of them and which for some was their last chance. Tears were streaming down their faces. The pious committee of doctors sat around a table and voted not to give the drug to these people because the government had not yet proven its effectiveness. "It's for your own good," one of them said to the sick people. Later, one member of the committee explained to the reporter that they didn't want to "give false hope to these people."

These medical bureaucrats know so well what's best for you that they will kill you before they'll let you make a decision for yourself. Isabel Patterson, in her book God of the Machine, called people like this "humanitarians with a guillotine."

The FDA is a silent killer. The number of deaths that could have been prevented with life-saving drugs this agency withheld from the marketplace is in the hundreds of thousands. FDA delays continue to kill thousands of people every year.

The visible fist of government.

Many patients suffering from terrible pain are denied adequate pain relief even though such relief may be legal, cheap, and readily available. Many doctors and hospitals fear that if they write too many prescriptions, federal and state regulators will harass them or even halt their practices. Their fear is grounded in reality.

Dr. Richard Blonsky, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said, "For a person experiencing pain, narcotics are the best pain killers we know. A lot of doctors fear that if they write too many prescriptions, Big Brother will get them." Studies indicate that up to 70% of terminal cancer patients patients who are dying and thus no longer in danger of long-term addiction to narcotics do not get sufficient pain medication.

This suffering is the product of the visible fist of government.


Now let's consider the difference between the gentle invisible hand and government with regard to violence.

Well-intentioned or not, government is violence. As Buckminster Fuller said, "The end move in politics is to pick up a gun." Laws are laws only because government can use coercion against anyone who violates them.

In contrast, when violence occurs in a free society, it's a crime. The rule is voluntary exchange. The "freedom to choose." The Golden Rule. The gentle invisible hand.

Violence is the day-to-day normal activity of criminals and government. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The visible fist of government.

When you think about violence, think about this: government has the War on Poverty, The War on Illiteracy, The War on Drugs. And these are not just metaphors, they're real wars. They are funded at gun point and enforced at gun point. Of course, the "War on Drugs" isn't a war on drugs. No one ever shot an aspirin. But it really is a war. We have Czars people like Bill Bennett who see nothing wrong with beheading drug dealers. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich himself a former pot smoker is now calling for the death penalty for drug offenders, including those who carry just two ounces of marijuana into the country.

Prohibition seems to bring out a terrible vindictiveness and cruelty in some people. In 1929, Mrs. Etta Mae Miller was convicted of having sold a single quart of liquor. This was her fourth such offense, so her sentence was life imprisonment. Life in prison for selling a quart of liquor. The General Secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals [sic] said, "Our only regret is that the woman was not sentenced to life imprisonment before her ten children were born. When one has violated the Constitution four times, he or she should be segregated from society to prevent the production of subnormal offsprings."

Today's prohibition is far more savage. Last year, 641,642 people were arrested on marijuana charges over 85% of them for mere possession. There are hundreds of people serving life sentences with no possible parole for marijuana offenses. In Alabama, there's a man serving a life sentence for possession of one joint.

Thousands of Americans are serving at least five years in federal prison with no possible parole for possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine. Two pennies weigh more than five grams.

To libertarians, the role of government is at most to protect us from violence, theft, and fraud. Yet government, directly or indirectly, causes most of the violence, theft, and fraud in our society. Government promotes violence in two ways.

The first is as an unintended consequence of laws and programs. For example, one third to one half of criminal offenses are committed by drug addicts driven into crime by the Drug War's black market. Milton Friedman estimates that up to one half of the homicides in this country 10,000 deaths per year result directly from the Drug War.

A free society would end this violence overnight.

And in a free society we could better defend ourselves from violence.

Citizens would have the indisputable right to keep and bear arms. And a gun is a wonderful deterrent to violence. In states that have "shall issue" laws (where people without criminal records or evidence of mental illness are permitted to carry guns), crime rates are much lower than in states where there are no such laws. A major study by University of Chicago law professor John Lott shows that these states reduced robbery by 3%, aggravated assaults by 7%, and murders by 8.5%. It is estimated that extending shall-issue laws to states that don't now have them would lead to 12,000 fewer robberies per year, 60,000 fewer aggravated assaults, 4,177 fewer rapes, and 1,570 fewer murders.

That means the visible fist of government is causing a lot of unnecessary human suffering through its gun-control laws.

The second way government promotes violence is by itself committing it directly against citizens.

Government seizes people's property when they've never even been charged with a crime. This is called "asset forfeiture." A better term might be "robbery with a badge."

Under forfeiture laws, inanimate objects can commit crimes. Such things as cars and boats are charged with a crime, as a way for government to confiscate them.

Imagine if I came to your house and said, "I don't approve of the kind of beer you drink. And I'm sure you drove your car to the store to buy it, so your car's guilty and I'm taking it." People would declare me insane.

I sure wouldn't try it in one of the "shall-issue" states.

Today more than 100 federal laws authorize federal agents to confiscate private property allegedly involved in violations of statutes on wildlife, gambling, narcotics, immigration, money laundering, and on and on. Federal agents can seize your property with no court order and no proof of legal violations. Billions of dollars worth of property has been seized in this way from tens of thousands of Americans who have never been accused of a crime or stood trial. It's so difficult to get their property back that most victims never bother to try.

The IRS can freeze your bank account or put a lien on your house without a hearing of any kind. And government can take property through eminent domain. Recently near my home the county government forced a black church to sell its land to make room for a tunnel. The so-called "fair" price paid wasn't enough to rebuild the church. A whole church community will be displaced for a bureaucrats' idea of progress.

In a free society, not only would this not happen to a church, but there'd be no BATF to burn churches down. Is your church BATF-approved?

Government theft is more insidious than free-lance theft. Lysander Spooner, one of America's most brilliant political theorists, talked about this in his masterpiece, No Treason. He compared ordinary robbers to tax collectors. The robber, he pointed out, robs you only once and then goes on his way. The government, on the other hand, robs you year after year after year. Then it has the gall to say it's doing you a service and expects your gratitude.

The visible fist of government.

In a free society, the right to property and privacy would be sacred. It would be, as the great English statesman William Pitt so eloquently stated, " . . . the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail it's roof may shake the wind may blow through it the storms may enter but the king of England cannot enter all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."

In a free society, we will have that kind of protection. Those who want your property will have to negotiate with you. The gentle invisible hand, not the visible fist.

In a free society, we would also be far better protected from the violence of war.

There would never be a military draft or senseless foreign wars. Never again would children be seized from their families as if they were natural resources and sent far away to risk their lives. Never again would wives and mothers stand crying as they watch their conscripted husbands and sons come home in body bags. No more war-orphaned children.

What an incentive to work for a libertarian society.

A noninterventionist foreign policy has another welcome side effect. When we have, as Jefferson said, "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all people, entangling alliances with none," we will greatly reduce the risk of terrorism. Much of terrorism is provoked by the American government's meddling in other governments' affairs.

Free trade also discourages war and makes friends instead. As Bastiat said, "When goods don't cross borders, soldiers will."

The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government. It's as different as night and day, robbery and voluntary exchange, war and peace. Government is at perpetual war against people and their property. We desire we deserve peace.


A free society is also a generous society.

In a free society, those in need would be better cared for. Michael Novak said of a free society, "No better weapon against poverty, disease, illiteracy, and tyranny has yet been found . . . Capitalism's compassion for the material needs of humankind has not in history, yet, had a peer."

How do we know a free society would be more generous? Thanks to Marvin Olasky, we don't have to theorize. In his two books on American compassion, The Tragedy of American Compassion and Renewing American Compassion, he provided examples and reasons that private charities have worked wonders and showed why the government's so-called "welfare" was doomed to failure from the outset.

Government welfare has created resentment against the poor. And government has taken away responsibility to provide for others.

It's time to strip away the veneer of humanitarianism from government.

As Charles Murray demonstrated in Losing Ground, government welfare simply doesn't work. In fact, it's been a disaster.

And it's not necessary.

Bill Clinton wasn't needed to create the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or thousands of other charities.

We don't need the income tax to force us to help the poor. As Milton Friedman points out, before the income tax "privately financed schools and colleges multiplied. Foreign missionary activity exploded. Non-profit, private hospitals, orphanages, and numerous other institutions sprang up like weeds. Almost every charitable or public service organization, from The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to the YMCA and YWCA, from the Indian Rights Association to the Salvation Army, dates from that period."

The true test of compassion and generosity is to compare government welfare to private charity. John Fund, a Wall Street Journal editor, speaking at the Advocates for Self-Government 10th Anniversary Summit in 1995, showed how to demonstrate easily the difference between government welfare and private charity. Just ask someone, "If you came in to lots of money say you won the lottery and you wanted to help the poor. Would you give your money to the Department of Health and Human Services, or to your favorite charity?" You can almost see the light bulb come on in someone's head. No one ever proposes to donate a windfall to the government.

The gentle invisible hand of private charity vs. the visible fist of government welfare.


A free society is one of abundance.

A place where people can work themselves out of poverty instead of their poverty being a way of life that will be passed down to succeeding generations.

Let's look at Social Security. You get a little of your money back. When you die, it disappears. In a libertarian world, you would have the opportunity to retire better off than you are while you're working. Even if you're a minimum wage-earner.

Economist and author Robert Genetski did the math. In his book, he showed how privatizing Social Security and government schools, along with a reduction in government regulations, would add at least $5,000 annually to the income of even the lowest-paid workers. What does that mean? Using conservative assumptions, virtually everyone could retire with $1 million or more!

The name of his book is, appropriately, A Nation of Millionaires.

Imagine a country that was literally a nation of millionaires. In one generation, people could leap-frog from a modest income to a level at which they could leave their children small fortunes. Knowing that it's possible, we shouldn't demand any less.

We can't even imagine all the wonders that will exist when human minds are set free to create when we get government out of the way of progress.

Because government doesn't work, but freedom does.

Someone once observed, if government had been in charge of fighting the polio epidemic instead of the Polio Foundation today we would have bigger, better iron lungs.

The gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government.


A free society is a tolerant society. Unlike the cookie-cutter world of the state, where one education system is made to fit all, where one medication must apply to all, where one lifestyle is forced on all.

In a free society, there's room for cranks, misfits, oddballs, outcasts. They're free to pursue their happiness in their own way.

Tolerance. Freedom of speech. Freedom of association. A place where unwise and unpleasant opinions can be expressed freely, and the right to do so is defended ferociously.

Unbelievably, in many states in America today, acts of love between consenting adults are forbidden! What kind of society is this? To people who believe in freedom, this is intolerable.

Again, the gentle invisible hand vs. the visible fist of government.

In a free society, all honest and peaceful people wherever they may be from are free to make their own way, make their own contribution, and benefit from the abundance and tolerance liberty brings.

Until World War I, immigration was almost completely free in the U.S. Immigrants came by the millions, and by the millions they prospered and quickly became part of mainstream America without government handouts.

The gentle invisible hand. An open hand of welcome to all who yearn to be free. As the Statue of Liberty inscription boldly proclaims:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me;
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Once I saw on television a group of Haitians who had crossed the ocean on a small, inflatable raft. The raft was meant to hold a dozen people, but twice that many had been on board. They had somehow survived the shark-infested, turbulent rages of the sea. They were exhausted, hungry, dirty, frightened. These people had risked their lives to come here. Can you imagine the kind of courage that took?

A reporter interviewed one of the men. His clothes were dirty and tattered and he was so weak he could barely stand. But he smiled as he pulled something from the inside of his jacket. Neatly folded in a plastic bag was a clean set of clothes. He needed them, he explained, so he could go on job interviews.

Of course, he never got that opportunity. The government sent him back to Haiti.

No one would be denied in a libertarian society. Refugees from tyranny would always be welcome.

Moving toward Freedom

Has anyone ever said to you, "You libertarians have some good ideas, but you go too far"? You might ask gently of course to examine what it means to go too far. Can we be too pure or too consistent? You might ask, "How pure would you want a transfusion from the blood bank to be? 80% pure? 90% pure? 97%?" People don't say that Mother Theresa went too far in demonstrating her love and compassion for her fellow humans.

But it is up to you and to me to help people understand that freedom is not something too extreme something to be feared. It is something to be dreamed of, worked for, welcomed.

Can it be done? Can we achieve a free society? I believe we can.

History is on our side. Whenever something has been separated from the state, it has proven to be better for the people involved, for the activity itself, and for society.

Consider religion. The King was once considered God's representative. How dare anyone suggest that virtue could exist in society if the state didn't force religion on everyone. Surely there would be chaos and barbarism.

But look what happened when church and state were separated. Churches blossomed and grew. Society was much better off once the government's Crusades ended. And when the church-state Inquisition ended. And when the state no longer burned "witches" at the stake.

Think about the wonderful benefits that have come from separating speech and state politically, culturally, and personally.

Separation of economy and state to the extent that it's been done has produced flourishing economies with prosperity beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

The privatization revolution has produced savings of 50% or more and amazing efficiency. I look forward to even more separation of garbage collection and state.

The next separation, I believe, will be that of school and state. I think the movement engineered by Marshall Fritz and the Alliance for the Separation of School and State will achieve success in our lifetimes.

Whenever someone advocates that something else be separated from the state, the idea is considered heretical, unachievable, even undesirable.

But, from the grand (like education and free speech) to the mundane (like garbage collection), separation always leads to a better world for all of us.

Libertarians are at the forefront in the drive to replace coercion with liberty. This is as exciting as the revolt against the divine right of kings and as important as the revolution to end slavery.

Utopia is never possible, but in a free society we can get a heck of a lot closer to it than we are now.

I envision a gentle society of kindness and cooperation. A safer, non-violent society. A generous and giving society, where poverty is unusual and temporary, and where those who are in need are taken care of with dignity and respect.

A place where Jimmy Montgomery and others in pain can get the medicine they need. A place where no one would be put in jail for thinking he had the right to control his own mind and body.

I envision an abundant society. Where all can keep the fruits of their labor. A nation of millionaires. Where buying power continues to multiply. Where technology continues to bring about breathtaking improvements in lifestyles.

Where there are no wars on drugs, on people, or on foreign soil.

I envision a tolerant society where those seeking refuge are welcomed with open arms. Better still, I envision a world in which people won't need to risk their lives to get to a place where they can be free. Once America is free, the benefits of freedom will overflow our borders. We will be a shining beacon to the whole world. More and more people will demand the same from their own societies and will begin to emulate us. I envision a free world.

That's my vision of a free society. What is yours? Whatever it is, don't hide it under a bushel basket. Transmit it to your neighbors and friends. Tell them of the invisible hand and the way it works. Contrast a free society with one in which violence is the norm. Show them they have a choice between these two worlds. And ask them gently which will they choose?

We should all want to play a vital role in this wonderful revolution, because someday people will talk about us. Granddads will say to their grandchildren, "Once upon a time, there was an income tax. And did you know that the government once told people what they could eat and drink? Or that children were forced to go to government schools?

"But there were people who were courageous and ahead of their time. People who acted out of principle, out of self-preservation, out of love and compassion because they were horrified by the visible fist of government."

Your grandchildren will say you took a courageous stand for humanity. You shared the vision of a cooperative, kind, safe, abundant, tolerant world. And you made it happen.

You restrained the visible fist of tyranny.

You untied the invisible hand of liberty.

Sharon Harris is the President of Advocates for Self-Government, an activist organization providing tools and tips for spreading the message of liberty. You can visit its website at


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