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Bernard Mandeville, Psychiatrist in the Marketplace

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Published 300 years ago, what made The Fable of the Bees radical wasn’t the idea that the passions could serve the public good. It was that the burgeoning consumer society should follow the free play of human desires rather than Christian or classical ethics.

Could everything bad be good for us? The paradox that sin helps fulfill God’s plan goes back millennia in Western religion.  However, the modern secular form, and much of social thought, emerged 300 years ago with the 1714 publication of a verse and commentary by Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician practicing in London. The Fable of the Bees is one of the few works cited approvingly by economic interventionists and libertarians alike.

The poem that forms the core of the Fable, “The Grumbling Hive,” is an allegory of Mandeville’s London, a society corrupt and ostentatious from top to bottom. The selfishness that offended moralists was a pillar of the common good. The waste and obsolescence of fashion, favorite target of clerics, drove production and commerce. In the unreformed beehive of the fable,

. . . every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise;
Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars,
They were th’ Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Balance of all other Hives.
Such were the Blessings of that State. . . .

It was not to last. Jove, weary of the complaints among the bees’ professions, resolved to give the insects the honesty they demanded. At once the bees became virtuous and altruistic, forswearing their ostentation and deceit. But be careful what you wish for, Mandeville suggested. Once the prodigal 1 percent were gone, equality would bite back, as their middle- and working-class suppliers lost their indispensable customers and drifted into unemployment:

For ’twas not only that They went,
By whom vast Sums were Yearly spent;
But Multitudes that liv’d on them,
Were daily forc’d to do the same.
In vain to other Trades they’d fly;
All were o’er-stock’d accordingly.

(Recently major media have upbraided even the middle class, especially in Japan, for excessive thrift.)

Worse still, the bees were attacked by enemies and, without the aid of mercenaries, fought valiantly, suffered grave losses, and ultimately decided to abandon the hive to live in a hollow tree. The moral?

Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great an Honest Hive.
T'enjoy the World's Conveniences,
Be fam'd in War, yet live in Ease,
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.

A powerful and prosperous society depended, Mandeville argued, on the kind of conspicuous consumption that moralists had long denounced. This argument made him one of the 18th century’s masters of literary provocation.  He had published “The Grumbling Hive” in 1714, but it achieved notoriety only with a new commentary – which in turn stimulated denunciations and expanded versions justifying the argument. Mandeville published six editions of the Fable over 40 years. (In fact it’s hard to count them all. The British Library catalogue entry lists the stated sixth edition of 1755 as the ninth.)

For all the fuss, Mandeville was not, he insisted, trying to abolish morality but only to observe that wise legislators and thinkers could limit and tame vice for the public good. The “dry, crooked, shabby Vine” began as a structural parasite of the forest:

Which, whilst its Shutes neglected stood,
Choak'd other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with its Noble Fruit;
As soon as it was tied, and cut. . . .

Mandeville's point about using selfish behavior for the public good was hardly new. Even Thomas More, author of Utopia, “believed that original sin could be redirected toward more positive ends but of course never eliminated,” according to the historian of technology Howard Segal, author of Utopias. What made Mandeville so suspect was not the idea of giving incentives to fallen humanity, but his recognition of marketplace activity as an independent sphere of action, in which one vice could offset another. Many clerics and lay magistrates still believed that God blessed virtuous nations and punished sinful ones. Private opinions and sexual behavior could be capital crimes because they risked the welfare of the whole community. The scandal of the Fable was its association of the rising consumer society of the 18th century, more recently called the market revolution, with national greatness. A truly virtuous society, the Fable implies, would be a weak one, open to its foes.

The scandal of the Fable was its association of the rising consumer society of the 18th century, more recently called the market revolution, with national greatness. A truly virtuous society, the Fable implies, would be a weak one, open to its foes.

The philosopher and historian of economics Margaret Schabas, co-organizer of a symposium on Mandeville at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University this June, further sees the Fable as an attack on upper-class hypocrisy. In one passage, she notes, a vain woman and an affluent London merchant are arguing over the price of silk cloth. “She does her most to appear well-bred and knowledgeable about the wares at hand, while he flatters her and pretends to know her preferences. For Mandeville, the price they will reach will be more or less the same as for any other customer, but it is the ritual of feigning knowledge and concealing their respective pecuniary motives that matters.” For Mandeville, what matters is that the sale is made, and, through it, merchants, dressmakers, and weavers are supported.

As a political exile from his austere native Netherlands and an opponent of its orthodox Calvinist clerics, Mandeville saw a certain profligacy as a source of English greatness; he actually never said much about how selfishness should be “tied, and cut.” What made him radical wasn’t the idea that the passions could serve the public good. It was that the burgeoning consumer society should follow the free play of human desires rather than Christian or classical ethics.

Mandeville, scandalous in his own time – though taken very seriously by giants like Adam Smith and David Hume – was not fully appreciated until the economic debates of the 20th century. John Maynard Keynes, writing during the Depression, championed Mandeville’s rejection of public frugality, his idea that the free spending that might imperil a family fortune could help rescue a nation. At the opposite pole, although Ayn Rand – a political and economic exile like Mandeville – never invoked the Fable, the title essay of her nonfiction best-seller, The Virtue of Selfishness, may be the Fable’s best-known successor.

For all this influence, Mandeville never quite entered into the canon of English-speaking social thought. He was a practicing physician (specializing in psychosomatic ailments) and pamphleteer rather than an academic, though he had a doctorate in philosophy as well as in medicine. While he had influential friends in politics, he also was regarded as an interloper by the Royal College of Medicine. As Margaret Schabas puts it, he “played his cards close to the vest,” never mentioning, for example, the political scandal during which he and his father wrote a satire that had led to their banishment from Rotterdam. No known portrait exists of him, and Schabas does not believe we even know his real birth date.

The current series of Mandeville symposia and further archival studies may yet inspire the full-scale biography that is still missing. For now, the most provocative appreciation of Mandeville’s role is probably still “Lecture on a Master Mind: Dr. Bernard Mandeville,” (Proceedings of the British Academy, 1966) by another émigré physician’s son, the economist Friedrich Hayek. Mandeville was neither a great economist nor a notable moralist, Hayek wrote, but a pioneering psychiatrist who challenged 18th-century rationalism with his insight “that we do not know why we do what we do, and that the consequences of our decisions are often very different from what we imagine them to be.” Successful societies arise not from the designs of master legislators but from the independent decisions of countless ordinary people. As Hayek quotes from a later work of Mandeville, “Human wisdom is the child of time.”

From an evolutionary view of human institutions, a new vision of all of nature was to emerge, according to Hayek. Darwinian biology would be the ultimate expression of Mandeville’s attack on intelligent design.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting researcher in the Rutgers Department of History and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “An Unnatural History of the Electronic Mouse,” “Apple, Disney, and Dreams of Corporate Utopias,” and “The Fine Art of Resilience: Lessons from Stanley Meltzoff.” 


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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