The most influential poem in history is Bernard Mandeville’s “The Grumbling Hive; or Knaves Turned Honest” (1705). It challenged Western moral philosophy, Christian theology, and common sense. It changed the thinking of Western social theorists. Through Adam Smith, it changed the economic world. Yet it was not a good poem.
This gives me hope. You don’t have to write a good poem to have influence. You can write a bad poem, and still have influence.
His poem and the book that followed nine years later accomplished four things, all revolutionary. First, it rejected the idea that honesty is the best policy, which had been basic to Western social thought and moral philosophy from the beginning: Greek, Roman, and Christian. Second, it challenged the idea that there is any providential undergirding of the social order. Third, it identified individual economic actions as the source of economic order. It therefore minimized the importance of civil law. Fourth, it erected the central pillar of demand-side economics: consumer spending as the methodological presupposition of economic analysis. Keynes saw this, and he included extracts from the poem in chapter 23 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936).
The poem created a sensation after a new printing, to which he added a detailed defense, published in 1714 as The Fable of the Bees. F. A. Hayek regarded this poem as having laid the foundation for Scottish enlightenment’s fundamental idea: society as the product of human action, but not human design – Adam Ferguson’s dictum in the 1760’s. It also shaped David Hume’s legal theory. It was the original basis of the Scottish enlightenment’s idea of undesigned social evolution, an idea that Darwin adopted a century later, and applied to biology. It shaped Adam Smith’s response in 1776: supply-side economics. But Smith adopted Mandeville’s methodology: begin with the acting individual, not the collective. Hayek wrote in 1967 that by 1730, “almost everybody read him and few escaped infection.”
While I did not know this when I began my studies in 1960, my calling in life – still unfinished – is to provide a comprehensive rejection of Mandeville’s poem. My strategy here is to fight fire with fire. If Hayek is correct – that the poem did all this – then I must begin my refutation of Mandeville with a poem.
There are not many economists who write poetry. This task therefore fell to me.
I hereby authorize anyone to reprint the whole of this poem, as long as my name is attached to it. I would hate to think that anyone else would be blamed for it.
In seventeen-o-five, a doctor sat down at his table,
His name was Bernard Mandeville, and he composed a fable
About a hive of bees that sounded strangely like a nation
That lived in sin and yet escaped a prophet’s execration.
The doctor was a Dutchman who in England then resided
A kingdom based on commerce, over which Queen Anne presided.
A wave of optimism was then sweeping over Europe
So strong that Scotsmen started eating oatmeal drenched in syrup.
When Mandeville began to write, he chose to wax poetic.
He titled it, “The Grumbling Hive,” and this would prove prophetic.
For European moralists grew outraged at his stanzas
The escalating confrontations were extravaganzas.
The poem was ignored for years, so Mandeville decided
To up the ante and produced the book that was derided
Throughout the eighteenth century by moralists persuaded
That Mandeville was scurrilous, and his fat book degraded.
The book contained “The Grumbling Hive” and also a defense of
Its thesis, which, this time, would prove so thoroughly offensive.
He dropped “The Grumbling Hive” and chose a better-selling title:
“The Fable of the Bees,” which for its marketing proved vital.
The year was seventeen-fourteen; the timing was prudential.
A new king sat upon the throne, and this soon proved essential.
For George the First, imported fresh from Germany’s dominions.
Was an enlightened monarch with Enlightenment opinions.
The author’s goal was clear enough to those who read his poem.
He yearned to split the kingdom like a modern Jeroboam.
Because the West was built upon a public declaration
That men reap what they sow in life in strict concatenation.
And not just individuals, but also institutions
Are subject to morality built into constitutions.
But Mandeville did not believe in providential guidelines.
He said that life’s causation places ethics on the sidelines.
So, he proposed a different scheme to deal with life’s causations.
He said that vices of the heart increase the wealth of nations.
He set forth propositions that discomfited professors
Of faith in providential means to undercut transgressors.
(For the rest of this poem, click the link.)