Friday, October 22, 2010

The Grumbling Hive

I'm not sure where I first heard about "The Fable of the Bees", but it was reading Keynes's General Theory that really prompted me to take the time to understand it. For those of you who are interested in more than just my take, the full text is available here. The fable is a long poem by the early 18th century intellectual Bernard Mandeville. It is, in my opinion, an elegant satire of the incompleteness behind the economic philosophy of capital fundamentalism. This philosophy, associated closely with the early classical economics, proscribed perpetual austerity as the best path to economic might. Despite it's incompleteness, this philosophy lives on (and is even being heard now from many prominent politicians and policy makers). Thus, teaching the shortcomings of capital fundamentalism is especially important today. Now, on to the fable!


I will discuss the fable by picking out what I feel are relevant sections of the poem and then attempting to interpret them for the reader:

"Vast Numbers thronged the fruitful Hive;
Yet those vast Numbers made 'em thrive;
Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other's Lust and Vanity;
Whilst other Millions were employ'd,
To see their Handy-works destroy'd;
They furnish'd half the Universe;
Yet had more Work than Labourers."

This section appears near the beginning of the poem, and describes the initial state of the thriving hive. It is thriving, according to Mandeville, because the bees have an insatiable appetite for consumption that is coupled with the freedom and ability of other bees to supply the things all desire to consume.

Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;
Flatter'd in Peace, and fear'd in Wars
They were th'Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Ballance of all other Hives. [160]
Such were the Blessings of that State;
Their Crimes conspired to make 'em Great;
And Virtue, who from Politicks
Had learn'd a Thousand cunning Tricks,
Was, by their happy Influence,
Made Friends with Vice
: And ever since
The worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the common Good.

This is an early reference to the general moral of the poem. It was the insatiable need to consume (a vice), that was the source of the colony's power. In fact, this vice made the colony an object of envy by outsiders, leading to the outcome envisioned by those who proselytize virtue.

How vain is Mortals Happiness!
Had they but known the Bounds of Bliss;
And, that Perfection here below
Is more, than Gods can well bestow,
The grumbling Brutes had been content
With Ministers and Government.
But they, at every ill Success,
Like Creatures lost without Redress,
Cursed Politicians, Armies, Fleets;
Whilst every one cry'd, Damn the Cheats,
And would, tho' Conscious of his own,
In Others barb'rously bear none.

The seeds of the downfall of the hive are revealed here. The bees want to "have their cake, and eat it too." Since the vice of insatiable consumption is frowned upon by moralists, though it is the basis of the society's power, there is a kind of cognitive dissonance. According to Mandeville, those who fall behind in this competitive and fast moving society are likely to condemn the vices practiced better by others. This may or may not undermine consumption in good times, but it seems much more likely to prevail when the chips are down.

No Honour now could be content,
To live, and owe for what was spent.
Liveries in Brokers Shops are hung,
They part with Coaches for a Song;
Sell Stately Horses by whole Sets;
And Country Houses to pay Debts.

Vain Cost is shunn'd as much as Fraud;
They have no forces kept Abroad;
Laugh at the Esteem of Foreigners,
And empty Glory got by Wars;
They fight but for their Country's Sake,
When Right or Liberty's at Stake.

Now mind the glorious Hive, and see,
How Honesty and Trade agree:
The Shew is gone, it thins apace;
And looks with quite another Face,
For 'twas not only that they went,
By whom vast Sums were Yearly spent;
But Multitudes, that lived on them,
Were daily forc'd to do the same.
In vain to other Trades they'd fly;
All were o're-stocked accordingly.

The Price of Land, and Houses falls
Mirac'lous Palaces, whose Walls,
Like those of Thebes, were raised by Play,
Are to be let; whilst the once gay,
Well-seated Houshould Gods would be
More pleased t'expire in Flames, than see;
The mean Inscription on the Door
Smile at the lofty Ones they bore.
The Building Trace is quite destroy'd,
Artificers are not employ'd;

Now, we have the state of things when virtue finally triumphs over vice. Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, decides to swear off their consumption of that which is not necessary. They choose, instead, to pay off their debts and take on no more, and charge no interest (in keeping with the good books). The result: rather abrupt and self inflicted impoverishment. Why? The economy is an interconnected and interdependent system. Goods and services in one sector are dependent and contingent upon goods and services in another sector. It's an often overlooked and rather complicated truth that everyone simply can't all save for the future at once.


Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive
Be famed in War, yet live in Ease
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.
Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live;
We the Benefits receive.
Hunger's a dreadful Plague no doubt,
Yet who digests or thrives without?
Do we not owe the Growth of Wine
To the dry, crooked, shabby Vine?
Which, whist its neglected flood,
Choak'd other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with his Noble Fruit;
As soon as it was tied, and cut:
So Vice is beneficial found,
When it's by Justice, and bound;
Nay, where the People would be great,
As necessary to the State,
At Hunger is to make 'em eat.
Bare Vertue can't make Nations live
In Splendour; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.

The moral of this poem is a subtle but important distinction between the immortal words of the infamous Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." The moral of this story is: Greed can be good.

Too Long to Read Summary: Greed can be good.

1 comment:

  1. For if greed was not good then the philosophy of peace and love would not have been born with the power to make all revolutions and evolution of intelligence a necessity to our survival, greed would consume us all into so few that reproduction of humans would end...