Getting Ahead in Business: How Vice Drives the Hive
In his doggerel The Grumbling Hive: OR, Knaves Turn’d HONEST, Bernard de Mandeville makes the case that it is our vices (our wishes, wants and desires) that drive society and the economy, and without these vices, the economy will fail. Although Mandeville’s views as expressed in The Grumbling Hive seem harsh or overstated, it appears that the United States economy really cannot flourish without his concept of “vice”. Defining “Vice”
To understand Mandeville’s claim that society is vice-driven, one needs to closely examine The Grumbling Hive which was later included in his larger work, The Fable of the Bees: OR, Private Vices, Publik Benefits. Mandeville starts off by describing “A Spacious Hive well stock’d with Bees, That lived in Luxury and Ease” (Mandeville, 1705, lines 1-2). He states they were a large colony with science and industry and a good government, evidenced by the fact that “They were not Slaves to Tyranny” (Mandeville, 1705, line 9). The bees worked hard at their trades, which served to make the society (the hive) thrive, but he observes that this was not without consequences. He notes that although the hive worked hard and “Millions were employ’d” (Mandeville, 1705, line 35), there was always a separate class or group that worked harder than the rest: “And some were damn’d to Sythes and Spades, And all those hard laborious Trades; Where willing Wretches daily sweat, And wear out Strength and Limbs to eat” (Mandeville, 1705, lines 41-44). He also notes that there is always a group of people who will take advantage of those hard workers for their own gain, and that this deceit was wide-spread and affected all groups and trades. As evidence, he points out that people filed needless lawsuits; lawyers would delay hearings and pocket the retaining fees like burglars looking for the best way to break in; physicians valued money and power over the health and well-being of their patients and instead chose to study “Rules of Art”; the “Priests of Jove”, although eloquent, “. . . all past Muster, that could hide Their Sloth, Lust, Avarice and Pride” (Mandeville, 1705, lines 74, 85, 89-90); the Kings were cheated by those who served them, and even Lady Justice dropped her scales so she could grasp her bribe of gold. (Mandeville, 1705, line 142). In this description of the flourishing hive, Mandeville paints us a picture, not of a society flourishing from hard work, sweat, and “doing the right thing”, but of a society getting ahead through tricks, deceit, and greed. This is the entire basis for his concept of “vice”. We do nothing out of pure altruism. In Mandeville’s eyes, everything is driven by our own self-interest, our need to fulfill our own wishes, wants, and desires through selfishness, dishonesty and indulgence on luxury goods. In the Preface of his larger work, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publik Benefits, Mandeville clarifies his position further when he states: “. . . so they that examine into the Nature of Man, abstract from Art and Education, may observe, that what renders him a Sociable Animal, consists not in his desire or Company, Good-nature, Pity, Affability, and other Graces of a fair Outside; but that his vilest and most hateful Qualities are the most necessary Accomplishments to fit him for the largest, and, according to the World, the happiest and most flourishing Societies” (Mandeville, 1714, p. 3). Mandeville’s views were refuted by Adam Smith in his 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he stated: “Every thing, according to him, is luxury which exceeds what is absolutely necessary for the support of human nature, so that there is vice even in the use of a clean shirt, or of a convenient habitation” (Smith, 1759, p. 506). It is Smith’s view that there is no vice present or intended when our actions are “honorable and noble” (Smith, 1759,...
References: De Mandeville, B. (1705). The Grumbling Hive: OR, KNAVES Turn’d HONEST.
De Mandeville, B. (1714). The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publik Benefits.
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