Bernard Mandeville Fable Of the Bees

Bernard Mandeville the Fable Of The Bees

Whereas many of the mercantilists were staid businessmen who wrote dry treatises of advocacy, Bernard Mandeville (c. 1670-1733) used playful language and thought in an allegorical poem to convey his message. His Fable of the Bees; Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714) not only provoked his contemporaries but has continued to be of interest to students of literature, philosophy, psychol­ogy, and economics. Keynes fills two pages of the General Theory approvingly discussing. Mandeville.

Mandeville's satirical poem was an attack on the so-called sentimental mor­alists, whose appellation reflects their belief that morality is not made of purely rational principles. In their view, morality consists of emotions or sentiments as well as human reason. The first important sentimental moralist was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who agreed with Rousseau inmaintaining the natural goodness of humankind. Shaftesbury significantly influ­enced Francis Hutcheson, a teacher of Adam Smith.

Shaftesbury's optimism concerning the innate goodness of human beings was in sharp contrast to Puritanism and Hobbism. The rational, selfish drives of human beings worked toward the social good because moral sentiment tempered egoism and permitted an understanding of the difference between right and wrong and of how to choose the right way. Mandeville argued that selfishness was a moral vice but that social good could result from selfish acts if these actions were properly channeled by the government. As a mercantilist Mandeville had no concept of a natural harmony, which was an essential ingredient in Adam Smith's advocacy of laissez faire. He found the world to be wicked but main­tained that "private vices by the dexterous management of a skillful politician might be turned into public benefits."

Mercantilistic beliefs incorporated a fear of goods, a concern with overpro­duction and underconsumption. Individual saving was undesirable because it led to lower consumption, lower output, and lower employment. But for many, then and now, saving is a virtue and spending a vice. In his poem, Mandeville took great delight in poking fun at the sentimental moralists. He postulated a beehive in which economic activity is driven by private vices.

The Root of Evil, Avarice,
That dam'd ill-natur'd baneful Vice,
Was Slave to Prodigality,
That noble Sin; whilst Luxury
Employ'd a Million Poor,
And Odious Pride a Million more:
Envy it self, and Vanity,
Were Ministers of Industry;
Their darling Folly, Fickleness,
In Diet, Furniture and Dress,
That strange ridic'lous Vice, was made
The very Wheel that turn'd the Trade.

Mandeville then suggested that the moralists persuade the bees to behave virtuously, replacing the private vices of prodigality, pride, and vanity (which brought about much consumption spending) with the usual virtues. To Man­deville, the end result of private virtue is economic depression.

Mandeville was a pure mercantilist in his insistence that government regulate foreign trade to ensure that exports always exceed imports. The mercantilist view toward labor is in sharp contrast to that of the classicals; Mandeville's position on labor is particularly clear and, from a modern view, alarming. Because the goal of society is production—not consumption, as advocated by the classicals—Mandeville advocated a large population and child labor, and he condemned idleness. A large population with high labor-force-participation rates results in low wages, which gives the nation a competitive advantage in exports and international trade. Low wages also ensure an adequate supply of labor, for Mandeville saw a downward-sloping labor supply curve. Higher wages reduce labor supply, in Mandeville's view.

Mandeville and Smith make interesting contrasts between mercantilism and classical liberalism.
Mandeville: I have laid down as Maxims never to be departed from, that the Poor should be kept strictly to Work, and that it was Prudence to relieve their Wants, but Folly to cure them; that Agriculture and Fishery should be promoted in all their Branches in order to render Provisions, and consequently Labour cheap.
Mandeville: [WJealth consists of a Multitude of laborious poor.

Smith: The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity. The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives.

One of Mandeville's major points is that one should accept men and women as they are and not try to moralize about what they should be. It is the role of government to take imperfect humankind, full of vice, and by rules and regula­tions channel its activities toward the social good. However, the mercantilists' social good (in which wealth consists of multitudes of laborious poor) is quite different from the classicals' social good. One might compare the message of the mercantilists with practice in the former Soviet Union, where the focus was on power for the state and production of goods with little concern for increasing the consumption of the masses.