Otto Lehto's Reviews > The Fable of the Bees: Or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Vol 1

The Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville
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it was amazing

Mandeville was an epic troll. He laughed all the way to the bank. But he was also an insightful social psychologist, sociologist and ethical theorist who anticipated Darwin, Freud and Bentham; and his contribution to economic theory, via his influence on Smith et al., was equally (but covertly) profound.

The combination of these traits makes his Fable of the Bees a fascinating treatise.

Since the book, which consists of the infamous (bad but instructive) poem and various essays around it, is hard to classify: it is part literature, part provocation and part serious argumentation. Many of its assertive statements should not be taken at face value, but it is not self-evident where the lines are to be drawn. Deciphering which claims he intended to be taken literally, and which ironically, is a large part of the fun. Admittedly perverse fun.

His playful style can excuse some of his excesses. But not all his mistakes are ironical: he does advovate for some ill-advised evonomic policies (with a high probability of seriousness), including the pre-Smithian balance of trade doctrine, the brutal treatment of the poor and the 18th century equivalent to the broken window fallacy (as Bastiat would later call it), when he extols the virtues of fires and shipwrecks. These are based on bad economics. But here, too, it becomes hard to separare the deliberate irony and shock value from the underlying point that is being made.

However, the central message is clear and important: that human frailties, weaknesses and vices are vital for the wealth and prosperity of a bustling, complex society. In line with Adam Smith's vision (whom he influenced), his message is liberal and progressive, although stylistically more brutish, anarchistic and mischievious.

Private vices are vital for the public good. He illustrates this message by lucid and insightful passages on everything from the lustful consumption of beer by devout Christians to the inexhaustible market for petticoats by their wives. Our national glory is driven by publically managed self-interest and industry, says Mandeville, fuelled by honour, pride, hypocrisy and the envious pursuit of our neighbour's possessions.

Since he is trying to shock his readers, and amuse the bawdy masses, he can get away with murder. The literal-minded reader can easily get lost in M's numerous thought crimes and low blows. But his merciless swings at conventional morality, while immodest and satyrical, are ultimately well-intentioned (if saying so does not contradict M's own lack of faith in good motivations).

M's overblown style, underneath a veneer of hypocritical Christianity, reflects his sincere Epicurean faith in the productive and joyous aspects of the human spirit, which the rampant hypocrisy and joyless morality of his age honestly affronted. The merciless cynicism of his view of man, while doubtlessly exaggerated for fun and profit, reveals a commitment to truth-telling - especially in relation to people in power.

These might just be his private virtues misperceived as public vices. The naked Emperor doesn't want you to see that the vile cynic is a truth-telling humanist. The cynic's sabre of sincerity cuts through the thick web of lies spun by our self-love.
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Reading Progress

January 24, 2018 – Started Reading
January 24, 2018 – Shelved
January 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

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