The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Mandeville, Bernard (1670-1733)

Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London shortly after earning his degree in medicine at the University of Leyden, is best known as the controversial author of The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (6th ed., 1729). This work exhibits a number of themes, such as the role of self-interest in generating a prosperous spontaneous order, that would play a crucial role in later libertarian thought.

Mandeville had good reason to characterize The Fable of the Bees as “a rhapsody void of order or method.” Written over a period of 24 years, it began as a brief 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 includes two important theoretical essays, “An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue” and “A Search into the Nature of Society.” Six dialogues that comprise the second volume are extended commentaries on the themes presented in “The Grumbling Hive.”

“The Grumbling Hive” is an allegory extolling the social benefits of self-interested actions, such as avarice, greed, and other traditional vices. It is not always clear, however, what Mandeville is claiming when he notes that “private vices” produce “public benefits.” He depicts the hive as a limited monarchy in which the King’s power “was circumsrib’d by Laws.” In the “Moral” of the poem, Mandeville states:

So Vice is beneficial found,

When it’s by Justice lopt and bound

This couplet suggests that Mandeville regarded as socially beneficial only those vices that do not violate the rules of justice. This interpretation was given by F. B. Kaye in his definitive edition of the Fable, which was published in 1924. Kaye writes:

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 interpretation is somewhat problematic, however, because Mandeville also discusses 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.

The ambiguities in Mandeville’s poem (which also appear in his explanatory essays) partially account for the hostile reception the work later received even from those who sympathized with its defense of self-interest. For example, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith notes that Mandeville’s arguments “in some respects bordered upon the truth” despite “how destructive this system may appear.”

Although Kaye and other commentators have described Mandeville as an early proponent of free trade, he is more accurately described as a mercantilist inasmuch as he believed that a government should ensure a favorable balance of trade. Whatever his position on the issue of trade, however, it is generally accepted that Mandeville was an early sympathizer to the tenets of laissez-faire.

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

Less popular was Mandeville’s psychological egoism, that is, his claim that all actions, even those virtuous actions that appear altruistic 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 these charges by claiming that he was observing human behavior as it really is, not prescribing how it should be.


Further Readings

Hundert, E. J. The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Mandeville, Bernard, and E. J. Hundert. The Fable of the Bees: And Other Writings. New York: Hackett, 1997.

Primer, I. Mandeville Studies: New Explorations in the Art and Thought of Dr. Bernard Mandeville. New York: Springer, 1975.

Originally published .