The Fable of the Bees really made us think again

Ok, LSS is a Whig website, but we, like the original Whigs, can never escape our Puritan origins. You know-if you ain’t suffering, it’s not really working. Save every penny, live lives of relentless austerity and virtue, and all will be well. You find its echoes in films like Apocalypse Now, with the implications that the Americans jolly well deserve lose because they spend their free time at strip shows, while the austere Vietnamese will triumph on their diet of boiled rice and rat meat. Even old Max Weber [1] got in on the act with a story of how simple living Protestants vanquished free spending Catholics and created the Industrial Revolution. Societies of ants-all sobriety, thrift and work- will always prevail over grasshopper communities where everyone spends their time in activities like gambling, art galleries, sex, parties, and generally living it up. A sine que non, and we have always believed it.

Until a funny little man called Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) came along. He was one of those transnational thinkers who show Europe at its best, starting out Dutch and ending up English. The Holland of his youth was an intensely Protestant society, endlessly sermonising itself to eschew vices like tea and cherry brandy. Except young Bernard couldn’t help noticing how all the money to pay for Holland’s greatness (it was a major power) came from taxes on the imports of wicked things like tea and spices brought in by the Dutch East India Company. That the merchant fleets of this company could be quickly transformed into warships to enforce Dutch security. In other words: Holland has got rich by doing exactly what it tells itself it shouldn’t.

When Mandeville got to England, he published his thoughts in a book called The Fable of the Bees, or, Private Vices, Publick Virtues. [2] . to quote wikipedia, Mandeville

describes a bee community that thrives until the bees decide to live by honesty and virtue. As they abandon their desire for personal gain, the economy of their hive collapses, and they go on to live simple, “virtuous” lives in a hollow tree. Mandeville’s implication—that private vices create social benefits—caused a scandal when public attention turned to the work, especially after its 1723 edition.

Mandeville dares to question the idea that simple ideas of virtue (Christian at that time, but later inherited by many stripes of Reformers) could actually be inimical to the creation of wealth and prosperity. That paradoxically, the good society is the result of many people joined in selfish competition, none of them motivated by altruism in the least It’s a powerful question, for it cuts to the heart of the personal motives of the reformers, and what they hope to achieve.

Is The Fable propaganda, a curveball thrown by a wicked ruling class designed to sap Progressives’ confidence in themselves? Or a useful antidote against fanatics like Communists or ISIS, whose own murky motives become clear shortly after they assume power? One thing is certain; as soon as we read it it made us think, deeply, about our own ideas and assumptions. And that is always a very good thing.

Editors note: In the course of researching this article we discovered that Holland, the Netherlands and the Low Countries are all the same place.

[1] Max Weber The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 1905


#virtue vice #communism #puritanism #economy #society #hooland #netherlands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s