Bernard Mandeville and his Unorthodox Economics

mandevilleI first came across Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) while reading Keynes’s General Theory as a student at the University of Hyderabad. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bess: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits was published in two parts in different times. This work has its origins in an earlier work of his: The Crumbling Hive: or Knaves Turn’s Honest (1705). I recently read the Fable of the Bees edition published by Oxford University Press in 1924 with a commentary by F. B Kaye; interestingly, this work is an expanded version of Kaye’s PhD dissertation submitted at Yale University in 1917. On looking up the Yale University Library Catalogue, I found out his complete name and the years he lived – Frederick Benjamin Kaye (1892-1930).

Mandeville was born into a family of city governors, physicians, scholars, and naval officers. He studied medicine and philosophy. The other notable ‘physician-economists’, as Peter Groenewegen, the emeritus historian of economic thought at University of Sydney, labels them, are William Petty and François Quesnay (for a short account of the ‘natural’ origins of economics, read this). Mandeville also published a book entitled A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711). Kaye informs us that his books sold very well.

The Root of evil Avarice,

That damn’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice,

Was Slave to Prodigality,

That Noble Sin; whilst Luxury.

Employ’d a Million of the 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.

(p. 25; or see the online source)

In the above passage, Mandeville is arguing that prodigality, considered a virtue, is actually a public vice and luxury, considered a vice, is a public virtue. The importance of consumption in the growth of the economy is also to be found in Sismondi, Malthus, Marx, and Keynes. As Kaye puts it, this is Mandeville’s thesis: “vice is the foundation of national prosperity and happiness” (p. xlvii). In other words, public benefits are a consequence of private vices – ‘pride’ and ‘luxury’.

According to Mandeville, all actions were influenced in part by selfishness. If all people behaved selflessly, Mandeville argued that trade and crafts would be abandoned.

As Pride and Luxury decrease,

So by degrees they leave the Seas.

Not Merchants now, but Companies

Remove whole Manufactories.

All Arts and Crafts neglected lie;

Content, the Bane of Industry.

(p. 34; or see the online source)

How can vice become a virtue? This is the paradox, much like Keynes’s paradox of thrift where increase in saving, while good for the individual, is bad for the economy as a whole.

THUS every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise;

(p. 24; or see the online source)

Mandeville thus argues that private vices have public benefits. What is ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’ for an individual need not be beneficial to the public or society. In the General Theory, Keynes approvingly cites Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees before articulating his fundamental point: “capital is not a self-subsistent entity existing apart from consumption” (p. 106). And, again on p. 371, he places Mandeville among “the brave army of heretics” alongside Malthus, Gesell and Hobson (see Keynes’s short commentary on Mandeville on pp. 359-362 in ch. 23).

It must be noted that Mandeville favoured virtuous vice and not vicious vice (such as crime and theft). Moreover, his thesis is not that all private vices have public benefits. The Fable of The Bees, Kayes cautions us, ought not to be taken literally. As Kaye elaborates, “it is not ascetic virtues, such as hoarding frugality, which make a nation prosperous” (p. lxviii).

Let me now summarise Mandeville’s position on luxury spending. First, he disagreed with the extant view that frugality is a virtue. Second, he disagreed with the dominant view that luxury is bad for the economy. We must also remember the context in which he is writing – luxury was condemned by Christianity. Indeed, Mandeville was challenging the extant religious and economic orthodoxy with his arguments favouring luxury.

Mandeville argued for freer trade both domestically and internationally (pp. xcviii ff.). His argument was anticipated by mercantilists such as Charles D’Avenant, Dudley North, and Josiah Child. According to Kaye, it is in Mandeville’s work that “individualism became an economic philosophy” (p. ciii). In fact, F. A. Hayek labels Mandeville “an advocate of laissez-faire as Adam Smith” (p. 135) in his 1966 lecture at the British Academy (published in 1967; this lecture is publicly available). And, as is to be expected, he thinks that Keynes’s enthusiastic approval of Mandeville is unfounded (p. 133). Moreover, Hayek finds Mandeville’s “understanding of human nature” noteworthy but not his economics – of division of labour and luxury consumption (pp. 125-6). Karl Marx notes that Smith’s ideas on division of labour were strongly influenced by Mandeville’s work but that there is no mention of Mandeville in the Wealth of Nations. However, Smith discusses Mandeville’s views on vice and virtue in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Perhaps, it is befitting to conclude this essay by summarising Marx’s views regarding Mandeville. After all, Marx is one of the greatest unorthodox economist whose political economy is of enduring value.

Originally, Political Economy was studied by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Hume; by businessmen and statesmen, like Thomas More, Temple, Sully, De Witt, North, Law, Vanderlint, Cantillon, Franklin; and especially, and with the greatest success, by medical men like Petty, Barbon, Mandeville, Quesnay.

(Capital, vol. 1, Ch. 25: The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation)

Marx describes Mandeville as “an honest, clear-headed man” in volume 1 of Capital and writes in part 1 of Theories of Surplus-Value that “Only Mandeville was of course infinitely bolder and more honest than the philistine apologists of bourgeois society.”