Mandeville’s Influence

Bernard Mandeville was a Dutch writer and economist from the 18th century. His most famous work is the Grumbling Hive (1705) and his defense of that poem The Fable of the Bees (1714), which included the former work in it. Both of these poems are based on a bee hive that represents human society. It explains how Mandeville thinks society, particularly economics, should really be. His two most important ideas from these poems are namely that people are driven by selfishness and that there is a certain spontaneous order that comes to society. However, Mandeville’s poems were written terribly and they aren’t great examples of writing. So why did Mandeville come down in history as important?

The two main ideas from Mandeville’s works are spontaneous order and selfishness. Looking at the work of Adam Smith, a Scottish economist and philosopher, The Wealth of Nations, we find these two ideas as the base of Smith’s philosophy. He argues that selfishness is morally acceptable and that this is what drives society. He also believes in the ‘invisible hand’ that drives society, like Mandeville’s spontaneous order. (See my essay, Adam Smith).

Mandeville’s economic influence also reaches to F.A. Hayek, a 20th century economist, known for defending classical liberalism.* Hayek also took Smith and Mandeville’s ideas to heart and further affirmed the idea of spontaneous order, or the invisible hand.

However, Mandeville’s influence wasn’t confined to economics, but also affected science in the form of, most notably, Charles Darwin. As we know, Mandeville said that selfishness is what drives humans to compete in a free market economy. Darwin applied this to biology—his survival of the fittest and natural selection. For example, survival of the fittest is whoever survives best: you are selfishly approaching everything so you can survive.

Whether you agree with it or not, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is an important historical work and one that influenced modern economic thought and science.


*You can check out my essays on classical liberalism:

The Levellers

John Locke and His Second Treatise on Civil Government

Thomas Hobbes and Absolutism

Frederic Bastiat: His Works

And more…

4 thoughts on “Mandeville’s Influence

  1. Dear Baroque Myriam,
    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. The establishment of a competitive framework, I would say has clearly held human kind back, it is not productive, the following in inverted commas comes from Wikipedia…
    “rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent (i.e., the portion of income paid to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to keep it employed in its current use) by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth. Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The classic example of rent-seeking, according to Robert Shiller, is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is helping nobody in any way, directly or indirectly, except himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.[5]”

    In order to survive financially every body is forced to rent seek, through the perceived economic value they bring to an enterprise. To the people who own the system, those that own Central Banks, these memes are useful and through self interest, their ongoing survival is assured.
    However sadly, this system depends on somebody/or thing to be exploited, I have often considered collaboration the far superior approach, it is more productive and looks to the needs of the whole, once humans are free of the day to day grind to ensure survival, they in a limited way are free to pursue their interests and talents. What a wasteful and unproductive system, that sees the human race ensnared in the time wasting pursuits of survival, when our needs really are very limited.

    Yet, what have we here, a system where people, spend thirty years to pay off a house, when in fact on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs number one is the Biological and Physiological needs of the human such as- air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, and sleep. I don’t have all of the answers, but I know at a future time, those with intelligence (this means you Myriam), will see through the inherent faults of a system that sacrifices an individuals God given talents, those which when applied and given the room to flourish, could satisfy the needs of people in a more dynamic way will in fact be that aspect of human resources that are developed. Rent seeking based on becoming a plastic surgeon, because that is where the money is, compared to the fact that the person could be a wonderfully gifted musician will one day cease. I won’t see that day, but maybe you will.

    Charles Darwin is often credited with coining the phrase – ‘The survival of the fittest’ – however such attribution is not really correct.

    Darwin had tended to write about species being engaged in a competitive Struggle for Existence. This struggle being seen, by Darwin, as primarily a struggle for food to support growth, life, and the generation of young individuals to continue the species in question.
    The actual term survival of the fittest however was actually attributed by Darwin himself to another source:-
    “The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient”

    Darwin was so taken with Spencer’s catchy phrase that he did, in fact, use it in a later (1869) edition of his “The Origin of Species”.

    Keep up the good work Myriam, for your economic education you may want to listen to the following ( regarding the establishment of the Federal Reserve, a private cartel anointed with what was once a constitutional right, to mint and coin money. Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. This is the ultimate example of rent seeking, out of thin air they create money, and charge interest on it, the political class is compromised through self interest and their own rent seeking, that they will borrow into existence debts that have to be paid by society (as to the morally reprehensible acts of depriving million Iraqi’s of their lives I will not discuss) . Did you know that all of this interest does not go to pay for hospitals, schools, homes for the elderly, the productive capacity of society is directed into the wealth production for the mere 1%. The debt is so great, that all of the productive capacity of the whole of the united states, cannot even cover the interest on the debts let alone the capital. What does this say to you Myriam ?

    A system that through it’s greed and lack of intelligence, will one day be replaced by something, more consistent with a set of values that sees humans as more than chattel, mere economic units of production, but of holders of the divine spark. Whose greatest contribution will come from the fostering and nurturing of their God given talents, (not a generation of dentists or lawyers, or politicians because that is where the money is).

    Your parents, through believing in your fundamental dignity as a human being, as a holder of the divine spark, decided that you were too important, to sacrifice in a school system deployed to brainwash generations of humans. By studying to understand these things, and using your brains you repay their kindness.

    Keep up the excellent work Myriam.


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