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

This is part of a series

Jan 16, 2015

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Mandeville on the Benefits of Vice

Smith discusses Mandeville’s defense of legal prostitution and other vices.

Before continuing my discussion of Bernard Mandeville, I wish to call attention to one of his most astute critics: The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who was Adam Smith’s teacher at the University of Glasgow. In his oration “On the Natural Sociability of Mankind” (1730), Hutcheson expanded upon one of his many objections to Mandeville’s ideas. According to Mandeville, the desire to socialize with others (beyond the family unit) is not innate in human nature. Rather, societies first came into existence because of the threat posed by wild animals; families allied with other families in order to protect themselves from this danger. And civilized societies did not form until written laws enforced by government made their appearance. Before then contracts could not be enforced, so life was necessarily insecure and hazardous in that anarchistic “state of nature.” In this respect Mandeville was a disciple of Thomas Hobbes; in both we find utter disregard for customs and social conventions, or so-called unwritten law. As Mandeville put it:

[I]t is inconsistent with the Nature of human Creatures, that any Number of them should ever live together in tolerable Concord, without [written] Laws and Government, let the soil, the Climate, and their Plenty be whatever the most luxuriant Imagination should be please’d to fancy them.

Ironically, given F.A. Hayek’s praise for Mandeville’s treatment of spontaneous order, Francis Hutcheson criticized Mandeville for his constructivism—Hayek’s label for the erroneous belief that societies and major institutions were consciously constructed, or designed. Hutcheson, contrary to Mandeville, maintained that societies did not originate from deliberate calculations of self-interest, such as the perceived utility of mutual security from external dangers. Rather, early societies were formed “without any art of deliberation, indeed without any previous command of the will,” even when there was “no prospect of private advantage.” This is far more Hayekian than Mandeville’s theory (which he discussed at length in the second volume of The Fable of the Bees) that societies originated in estimates of personal utility, specifically, from the desire to mitigate the dangers posed by wolves, lions, boars, bears, and so forth.  

Since I will be discussing Hutcheson later in this series, I shall not pursue his objections to Mandeville in more detail for now. I mention this subject because Hayek’s ideas about the early history of classical liberalism, which have influenced many libertarian scholars, are misleading in some respects, and sometimes seriously so. The doctrine of natural rights, as defended by Hutcheson and the natural-law school of liberalism generally (but not by Mandeville), was “rationalistic” in Hayek’s pejorative sense of the term. Yet when we take a close look at those ideas we will sometimes find them more congenial to Hayek’s social and political philosophy than what we find in the writings of Mandeville and other “anti-rationalists.” Hayek exacerbated the problem when he differentiated between the “French” (rationalist) and “English” (anti-rationalist) schools of classical liberalism—a Burkean distinction (later developed more fully by the political theorist Francis Lieber in his 1849 article, “Anglican and Gallican Liberty”) with little foundation in the history of classical liberalism. Hayek’s dichotomy was rendered plausible only by his selective cherry-picking of representatives for each school. His line of demarcation is so porous and indistinct as to be virtually useless in our effort to understand the intellectual history of classical liberalism and the major disagreements among liberals.

Now, having satisfied my editorial proclivities, let’s begin our examination of some of Mandeville’s fundamental ideas by taking a brief look at his celebrated rhymed allegory, The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, which was originally published anonymously in 1705. Mandeville later said of this piece: 

I do not dignify these few loose lines with the Name of a Poem, that I would have the Reader expect any poetry in them, but barely because they are Rhime, and I am in reality puzzled by what Name to give them….All I can say of them is, that they are a Story told in Dogrel, which without the least design of being Witty, I have endeavour’d to do in as easy and familiar a manner as I was able: The Reader shall be welcome to call them what he pleases.

This poem begins:

A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees,
That liv’d in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms,
As yielding large and early Swarms;
Was counted the great Nursery
Of Sciences and Industry.

Mandeville explained how the prosperity of this hive was made possible by the widespread practice of traditional vices.

Vast Numbers throng’d the fruitful Hive;
Yet those vast Numbers made ’em thrive;
Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s Lust and Vanity….

The popular vices in the hive included fraud and theft.

Pick-pockets, Coiners, Quacks, South-sayers,
And all those, that in Enmity,
With downright Working, cunningly
Convert to their own Use the Labour
Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbour.
These were call’d Knaves, but bar the Name,
The grave Industrious were the same….

Here we see a problem that I mentioned in my previous essay, namely, that Mandeville did not restrict his discussion of the unintended social benefits generated by self-interested actions within the boundaries of justice; he applied the same reasoning to various crimes. And this is what largely precipitated the hostile criticisms later voiced by those classical liberals, such as Adam Smith, who agreed that self-interested actions generate social benefits that were not intended by the acting agent (Smith’s “invisible hand”), but who refused to include unjust, or rights-violating, actions in the category of socially beneficial actions.  

Indeed, elsewhere Mandeville argued for the economic benefits of shipwrecks, which create employment for those workers needed to replace lost vessels. He also claimed that similar benefits flow from major disasters, such as the Great London Fire of 1666, which gutted the city and left around 70,000 people without homes. It is scarcely possible to conceive of more stark examples of what Frédéric Bastiat called the Broken Window Fallacy, a type of faulty economic reasoning that ignores opportunity costs. The labor and capital needed to replace lost ships and buildings merely restore the status quo; and if not for such disasters those resources would have been used to satisfy other economic opportunities that had to be sacrificed to replace what had been destroyed. An especially frustrating element in Mandeville’s economic reasoning, as a number of his critics were quick to point out, is that it shows no understanding of opportunity costs.

This is not to say that Mandeville failed to distinguish personal vices from crimes; he did make that distinction; but, lacking a theory of rights, he was vague on how and where the line should be drawn between the two categories. Instead, he repeatedly said that dexterous and skillful politicians should manage the problem by regulating vices so that they do not create more harm than good. We find this argument in his 1724 tract, A Modest Defence of Publick Stews: or, An Essay Upon Whoring, which calls for legalized but regulated prostitution. This vice, whether legal or illegal, will always be widespread “as long as it is the Nature of Man…to have a Salt Itch in the Breeches [and] the Brimstone under the Petticoat.” Laws against prostitution do little if anything to curb the practice; they merely drive underground the problems associated with this vice. “What avails it then to affect to conceal that which cannot be concealed, and that which if carried on openly and above-board would become only less detrimental, and of consequence more justifiable?”

The same line of reasoning is also found in The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. “The Passions of some People,” Mandeville wrote, “are too violent to be curb’d by any Law or Precept; and it is Wisdom in all Governments to bear with lesser Inconveniences to prevent greater.” Legal prostitution, if wisely regulated by government, will yield better results than illegal prostitution. In a manner surprisingly similar to the defense of legal prostitution given many centuries earlier by the sainted Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (in Summa Theologica), Mandeville defended his position as follows:

If Courtezans and Strumpets were to be prosecuted with as much Rigor as some Silly People would have it, what Locks or Bars would be sufficient to preserve the Honour of our Wives and Daughters? For ‘tis not only that the Women in general would meet with far greater Temptations, and the Attempts to ensare the Innocence of Virgins would seem more excusable even to the sober part of Mankind than they do now: But some men would grow outrageous, and Ravishing would become a common Crime. Where six or seven Thousand Sailors arrive at once, as it often happens at Amsterdam [Mandeville,  remember, was Dutch], that have seen none but their own sex for many Months together, how is it to be suppos’d that honest Women should walk the streets unmolested, if there were no Harlots to be had at reasonable prices? For which Reason the Wise Rulers of that well-order’d City always tolerate an uncertain number of Houses, in which Women are hired as publickly as Horses at a Livery-Stable…. 

As we see here, Mandeville appealed to the social utility of vices, as determined in specific cases by politicians, as the determining factor when deciding whether particular vices should be legal or illegal. Individual rights, such as the right of a woman to use her own body as she sees fit, played no role in Mandeville’s reasoning. Thus in explaining the benefits of various vices, Mandeville meant that their social consequences are beneficial as a whole, regardless of the motives behind immoral actions or how such actions may harm the person who engages in them. This naturally raises the key question of what Mandeville himself meant by “virtue” and “vice,” but that topic must await my next essay. I shall conclude this essay by explaining the conclusion reached by Mandeville in The Grumbling Hive.

In a send up of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners (which I discussed in my last essay), Mandeville considered what would happen if some pious, moralistic bees succeeded in eradicating all vices from their hive. After Jove granted their wish, the result was a society without prosperity.

THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great an Honest Hive.
T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies,
Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.
Fraud, Luxury and Pride must live,
While we the Benefits receive.…
So Vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt and bound;
Nay, where the People would be great,
As necessary to the State,
As Hunger is to make ’em eat.
Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live
In Spendour; they, that would revive
A Golden Age.
Must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

This is part of a series