Mandeville’s The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714) has stuck vaguely in my mind since a politics class in college for its notorious claim that “private vice is public virtue”. Said claim influenced key economic thinkers, including—perhaps most notably—Adam Smith.
I am no amateur of political theory1 and the text is satire, but the exact origin of the thought (that private and public virtue could be so related) matters little, there can be little argument that such is, in fact, how our liberal economic reality is structured.
And well, what did we think was going to happen? I guess I am shocked I didn’t raise my hand in the politics class and ask how anyone could ever be stultified enough to claim something so obviously wrong-headed and false?
How did we get there? And how have we persisted with the idea for so long? Perhaps (like most of history) it was (and is) simply a rationalisation of an order emerging from a higher power—and not the good kind either.
Perhaps there could be comfort in the thought that it has all been a joke taken too far, a satire the elites (or more likely, the Machine) picked up and ran with. A great or nefarious misunderstanding, but originally a perversion nonetheless.
Yet what kind of moral universe must one inhabit (or have created for oneself) such that you could reach the point of believing black bricks (not only can, but do!) make a white house? diseased organs a healthful body?
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
We have made “personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world” yes, and shamelessly too, but Berry and we can now see very clearly (with several centuries of hindsight) the flaw in the original economic architecture: it takes no concern for any reality outside the beehive. The ‘Great Economy’ of sun and flower and pollen in which the ‘Little Economy’ of the bee’s kingdom subsists.
And this egregious and absurd error has metastasised so far beyond all conceivable scope that an absurdity has occurred: the Fable has dissolved its own ground, the Fable has killed its very bees.
“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?”… Where are those who killed the bees of the field?