The "invisible hand" has been given a teleological interpretation, as if some benevolent agent is active in bringing about that benevolent end. For Smith the hand is simply a metaphor for a free market, a "system of natural liberty", in which individuals exchange their goods and services without the intervention of any supervising hand or authority. Only in such a system could the division of labour produce the "opulence" that would distribute the "necessaries of life" for the benefit of all. "By necessaries," The Wealth of Nations explains, "I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without." Society, the rich and the poor, employers and workers, even unto the "lowest order" — this is the "nation" in The Wealth of Nations. It is not the nation state in the mercantilist sense, but the people who constitute society. And not the "people", as contemporaries often used that word — those who play an active part in politics — but the "common people" as well, including the lower and even the lowest orders. By the same token, the "wealth" in the title is not the wealth of the state (again, as the mercantilist understood it), but the wealth, or well-being, of all the people. Only a "progressive" — that is, a free and industrious — economy, could bring about "a universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people, . . . a general plenty [which] diffuses itself through all the different ranks of society." To those who complain that if the poor shared in the "general plenty", they would no longer be content with their lot in life, Smith put the question: "Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or an inconvenience to the society?" His answer is unequivocal — and very much in the spirit of Moral Sentiments:
Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.
Smith's critics often assume that his political economy was designed not only to further the interests of businessmen (not yet named "capitalists"), but also to vindicate and even exalt them. In fact, the rhetoric of The Wealth of Nations is more often deprecatory and even hostile. Of the three "orders" in society — landlords, labourers, and merchant-manufacturers — the first two are seen as acting in accord with the public interest and the last in conflict with it.
The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Deception and oppression, conspiracy and contrivance are only part of this indictment. Elsewhere the merchants and manufacturers are accused of "clamour and sophistry", "impertinent jealousy", "mean rapacity", "mean and malignant expedients", "sneaking arts", "interested sophistry", and "interested falsehood". There are surely enough "intrusive moral imperatives" in The Wealth of Nations to satisfy an ethical socialist like Thompson and to distress a "scientific" economist like Schumpeter.