Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

This is part of a series

Jan 9, 2015

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Bernard Mandeville

Smith explains why Mandeville’s ideas about vice made him one of the most notorious writers of his time.

Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), a Dutch physician who settled in London shortly after earning his degree in medicine at the University of Leyden, is best known as the author of The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (6th ed., 1729), a work that provoked enormous controversy throughout the eighteenth century. Mandeville developed a number of important themes, most notably the role of self-interest (so-called “vices”) in generating a prosperous social order, that would play a crucial role in later libertarian thought. It was largely through the writings of F.A. Hayek, who praised Mandeville as an anti-rationalist and a pioneer in spontaneous order theory, that various libertarian thinkers, especially economists, became interested in him. 

Mandeville had good reason to characterize The Fable of the Bees as “a rhapsody void of order or method.” Written over a period of twenty-four years, it began as a doggerel poem, “The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest” (1705).  In later years (beginning in 1714), Mandeville appended a number of essays, remarks, and dialogues to subsequent editions until what began as a poem of 433 lines came to fill two substantial volumes.  This later material—which includes the important theoretical essays “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue” and “A Search into the Nature of Society,” as well as six dialogues that comprise the second volume—are extended commentaries on themes presented in “The Grumbling Hive.”

Mandeville’s allegory of a bee hive extols the social benefits of self-interested actions, such as avarice, greed, and other traditional vices. But it is not always clear what Mandeville meant in claiming that “private vices” produce “public benefits.” He depicted the hive as a limited monarchy in which the king’s power “was circumsrib’d by Laws”; and in the “Moral” of the poem, Mandeville stated:

So Vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt and bound….

This suggests that Mandeville regarded as socially beneficial only those vices that do not violate the rules of justice. This is the interpretation given by F.B. Kaye in the Introduction to his superb edition of the The Fable of the Bees (1924):

Vices are to be punished as soon as they grow into crimes, says Mandeville. [T]he real thesis of the book is not that all evil is a public benefit, but that a certain useful proportion of it (called vice) is such a benefit (and…is on that account not really felt to be evil, though still called vicious).

This is a problematic interpretation because Mandeville also discussed the social benefits of unjust actions, such as theft and fraud, which provide employment for those in the criminal justice system, as well as for those artisans and laborers who are needed to replace goods that have been destroyed or stolen. This ambiguity in Mandeville’s poem (which appears in his explanatory essays as well) partially accounts for the hostile reception he later received even from those who sympathized with his defense of self-interest. For example, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith said that Mandeville’s arguments “in some respects bordered upon the truth,” despite “how destructive this system may appear.”

Although Kaye and other commentators have depicted Mandeville as an early proponent of laissez-faire, he is more accurately described as a liberal mercantilist, primarily because he argued that government should insure a favorable balance of trade, and that the lower classes should not be educated above their station, lest they become discontented with menial labor and low wages. He also maintained that private vices can be turned into public benefits only “by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician.” Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Mandeville was sympathetic to some aspects of laissez-faire.

One of Mandeville’s most influential arguments was his defense of “luxury,” which had been widely condemned for its supposedly corrupting effects on social mores. Mandeville’s points about the economic benefits of luxury, as well as his criticism of this concept as excessively vague, would later reappear in the writings of David Hume, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, and other liberal individualists.

More troublesome was Mandeville’s defense of psychological egoism, according to which all actions, even those virtuous actions which appear other-regarding or disinterested, are ultimately motivated by self-interest. It was largely owing to this thesis that Mandeville (like Thomas Hobbes before him) was widely condemned as an enemy of morality. Mandeville responded to this common charge by claiming that he was observing human behavior as it really is, not prescribing how it ought to be.

Before proceeding with a more detailed account of Mandeville’s ideas, I wish to call attention to a serious problem, namely, the conflict between psychological egoism and a theory of spontaneous order rooted in the beneficial effects of self-interested actions (within the boundaries of justice). If psychological egoism is correct, if all actions are ultimately motivated by self-interest, then to argue for the benefits of self-interested actions in developing and maintaining social order tells us virtually nothing. For if all actions are self-interested, if non-egoistic actions are impossible, then we have no point of contrast by which we can distinguish some kinds of motives from others. And in this case any action may be said to promote social order. Even social planners would be acting from self-interest, according to psychological egoism, so even their actions could be praised as conducive to social order. Only in a thinker like Adam Smith, who distinguished self-interest from beneficence, does the appeal to an “invisible hand” make sense, for only if we contrast self-interested actions with other kinds of actions is it possible to isolate the former and explore the social benefits of self-interest, in contrast to other kinds of motives. For a psychological egoist like Mandeville, however, no such contrast is possible, so it becomes meaningless to praise self-interested actions for their social benefits, since this would entail nothing more than praising all human actions, without distinction, for their social benefits.

Adam Ferguson and other critics of psychological egoism were therefore correct: If, through a linguistic coup, we collapse all kinds of actions into the category of self-interest, then we will need to invent a new and needless vocabulary that enables us to distinguish between different types of motives within the generic category of self-interested actions. Only in this way would we be able to explain and defend the traditional theory of spontaneous order. (See Part 6 of this series for Ferguson’s objections to “the selfish system.”) Despite this fatal flaw in Mandeville’s approach, he had many worthwhile and provocative things to say, especially about conventional notions of vice, and these ideas may be abstracted from his fundamental principles and evaluated on their own merits.

Now let’s take a brief look at the historical context in which Mandeville offered his ideas about the beneficial effects of vice.  

When Mandeville moved to England during the 1690’s (while he was in his twenties), he encountered a widespread movement to suppress personal vices. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was widely viewed by pious Christians as not only a revolution for the rights of Englishmen but also as a revolution against moral corruption. The Stuart kings, it was said, had tolerated and even encouraged immorality (drunkenness, whoring, etc.) among their subjects as a means of maintaining political control; only a virtuous citizenry will resist tyranny. On 4 April 1699, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a Circular Letter in which he called for the suppression of vice and encouraged pious Christians to report offenders to magistrates.

Every pious Person of the Laity should, if need be, be put in Mind, that he ought to think himself obliged to use his best Endeavours to have such Offenders punished by the Civil Magistrates, as can be no otherwise amended; and that when he hears his Neighbour Swear, or Blaspheme the Name of God, or sees him offend in Drunkenness or Prophanation of the Lord’s-Day, he ought to give the Magistrate Notice of it. In such a Case to be called an Informer, will be so far from making any Man odious in the Judgment of sober Persons, that it will tend to his Honour, when he makes it appear by his unblameable Behaviour, and that Care that he takes of himself and his Family, that he doth it purely for the Glory of God, and the Good of his Brethren. Such well-disposed Persons as are resolved upon this, should be encouraged to meet as often as they can, to consult how they may most discreetly and effectually manage it in the Place where they live.

On 20 February 1702, Queen Anne, just one month after ascending the throne, issued A Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Prophaneness and Immorality. The Queen complained that the laws against vice were not being adequately enforced, and she wanted that changed.

[I]t is an indispensable Duty on Us, to be careful, above all other things, to preserve and advance the Honour and Service of Almighty God, and to discourage and suppress  all Vice, Prophaneness, Debauchery, and Immorality, which are so highly displeasing to God, so great a Reproach to Our Religion and Government, and (by means of the frequent ill Examples of the Practicers thereof) have so fatal a Tendency to the Corruption of many of Our Loving Subjects, otherwise Religiously and Virtuously disposed, and which (if not timely remedied) may justly draw down the Divine Vengeance on Us and Our Kingdoms….To the Intent, therefore, that Religion, Piety, and good Manners [i.e., morals] may (according to Our most hearty Desire) flourish and increase under our Administration and Government, We have thought fit (by the Advice of Our Privy Council) to issue this Our Royal Proclamation, and do hereby declare our Royal Purpose and Resolution to discountenance and punish all manner of Vice, Prophaneness, and Immorality, in all Persons of whatever Degree or Quality, within this Our Realm….

Here we see one of the most common early arguments for vice laws. Since God (as illustrated in the Bible, especially the Old Testament) inflicts collective vengeance, punishing the many for the sins of the few, rulers must suppress and punish supposedly private vices as a means of protecting society as a whole from the divine wrath of plagues, famines, military defeats, and so forth. Incidentally, this was one reason why Enlightenment libertarians stressed the importance of science, which teaches that such disasters result from natural causes. Individual freedom, these early libertarians believed, cannot gain a solid foothold in a world where the innocent are punished along with the guilty, since there exists no room in this scheme for the argument that private vices harm only the individuals who practice them. (A secular version of this argument has survived to this day among defenders of vice laws, but I must leave this interesting controversy for a later series.)

In 1701 England had around twenty “Societies for the Reformation of Manners.” (In that day, “manners” meant what we now call “morality” or “morals.”) These societies relied heavily on informers to hunt down sinners. As Thomas A. Horne explained in The Social Thought of Bernard Mandeville: Virtue and Commerce in Early Eighteenth Century England (1978):

The English legal system in this period relied upon information given by private individuals and this procedure made it possible for a group like the Societies for the Reformation of Manners to become actively involved in law enforcement. According to a student of this period, “a private person could obtain a warrant from a Justice of the Peace or Magistrate, sometimes on his unsupported evidence, and this warrant of conviction the constable of the parish was required to execute.” After the convicted persons paid a fine or served a term in jail they could sue for false charges, but if they lost they had to pay treble costs. The societies, with the help of friendly magistrates, distributed blank warrants to its members, who filled in the names of wrongdoers, and collected the filled-in warrants to return them to the magistrates.

…It appears…that the members of the society were rarely informers themselves, but employed others to inform for a fee. The practice of informing was no more popular then than it is now, and the informers soon became the symbols of the societies to their enemies.

Given the moral fanaticism that prevailed when Mandeville took up residence in London, we can appreciate why his argument that private vices may produce unintended public benefits evoked furious denunciations not only against Mandeville’s ideas but also against him personally. “The Fable of the Bees,” according to Kaye, “made a public scandal,” and it would “be difficult to overrate the intensity and extent of Mandeville’s eighteenth-century fame.”

In my next essay I shall take a closer look at some of the ideas that made Mandeville so notorious.

This is part of a series