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Bernard Mandeville and Consumerism’s Buzz

Before Ayn Rand or Adam Smith, there was the author of "The Fable of the Bees."

When addressing the right’s awkwardness surrounding issues of extreme economic inequality, it’s lately become almost de rigeur among conservative reformers to cite Adam Smith as a polestar that conservatives ought to follow. Or rather, they cite Smith’s little known work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which many of them argue should be considered at least as important as his opus The Wealth of Nations.

Consider Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller, who informs us that:

Those who want to portray conservatives as ravenous fail to appreciate the yin and the yang that goes back to the beginning of fiscal conservatism. As I’ve noted before: ‘Most educated Americans know Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, expounding on the virtues of self-interest in free markets. But how many Americans know Smith’s first (and only other) book was called The Theory of Moral Sentiments — and that it was about the virtues of personal benevolence? Indeed, Smith developed a theory of an ‘impartial spectator‘ (a sort of conscience) as a standard for moral judgment.’

Or Andrew Sullivan at The Dish:

Limbaugh has obviously never read the Gospels. He has never read the parables. His ideology is so extreme it even trashes, because it does not begin to understand, the core principles of capitalism, as laid out by Adam Smith. Market capitalism is and always has been a regulated construction of government, not some kind of state of nature without it. Indeed without proper regulation to maintain a proper and fair and transparent market, it is doomed to terrible corruption, inefficiency, injustice, and abuse.

But there is a reason Ayn Rand is considered a gateway drug to the right and Smith isn’t—the “greed is good” ethos, whatever else may be wrong with it, is much sexier, more rebellious, and thus more appealing than staid bourgeois morality. But more to the point, it’s interesting that both Lewis and Sullivan consider Smith the fons et origo of fiscal conservatism, as defined by support for capitalism. I find it interesting because it’s mistaken, albeit a mistaken belief that is held almost universally.

Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments were not the first popular defense of capitalism, nor was he even the first to explicitly develop the law of supply and demand. In some ways Smith’s oeuvre is a response to an earlier work, and I believe conservatives today have far more to learn from that first defense of capitalism, and its forgotten author, than they do from Smith.

So who is this forgotten political economist? The little-known Bernard Mandeville, who was most active in the early 18th century. Or rather, an author who is little known now. In his time, he influenced not only Smith (who mentions him by name in Wealth of Nations), but also Jean Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, among others.

Why have so few heard of him? Because his contemporaries actively suppressed his work, so pervasively did it scandalize the intelligentsia of the time. Protestant theologian John Wesley wrote of Mandeville, “till now I imagined there had never been in the world such a book as the works of Machiavel. But de Mandeville goes far beyond it.” In fact, Mandeville’s book was even presented as a public nuisance by the Grand Jury of Middlesex.

That book, The Fable of the Bees, has since been revived by libertarian outlets and put back on the market. Reading it now, one immediately sees why the world was not ready for it back in 1714. It was so radically ahead of its time that it reads like it was written by a time traveler who had visited modern Las Vegas. Its central thesis would probably raise hackles on both sides of the aisle today. Mandeville summed it up this way: “private vice makes public benefit.”

According to Mandeville, one couldn’t separate any benefit of capitalism, even private charity, from the supposed sins of pride and greed. Greed’s role is self-explanatory, but Mandeville arguably considered pride more important, because he believed it was what motivated acts of putative altruism. “Pride and vanity have built more hospitals than all the virtues together,” Mandeville writes in The Fable.

What’s more, Mandeville argued, consumerism and capitalism were completely synonymous and, in fact, it was the desire to consume more and better goods that prompted people to advance themselves in a capitalist society, not the desire for virtue. Thus, people who argued for a society where vice ceased to exist (many of whom, Mandeville often argued, represented the most hypocritically prideful of the lot), were actually arguing for an end to everything that made modern life possible and tolerable.

Needless to say, Mandeville’s work earned widespread condemnation at the time. Adam Smith spends some time trying to refute it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yet what most of Mandeville’s detractors missed (and, indeed, what distinguishes him from garden variety “greed is good” theorists like Ayn Rand) was that his background as a doctor of the nerves and stomach had given him an uncanny insight into the workings of peoples’ minds. Despite The Fable‘s chilly reception, Mandeville did attract at least one high-profile admirer—David Hume, arguably the greatest psychological political theorist of all time, according to political psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

In the 20th century, Ludwig von Mises praised Mandeville for “point[ing] out that self-interest and the desire for material well-being, commonly stigmatized as vices, are in fact the incentives whose operation make for welfare, prosperity and civilization.” Mises’s fellow Austrian Friedrich Hayek hailed Mandeville as the first man to come up with the idea of spontaneous order and described him as “a really great psychologist, if this is not too weak a term for a great student of human nature.”

And Mandeville certainly was a great student of human nature. If you read “The Grumbling Hive” today, it’s hard to believe that the author didn’t live in the age of Facebook and Miley Cyrus. While the notion that the desire to consume propels people toward economic ambition and upward mobility was controversial at the time, in a world that knows of the existence of Las Vegas and Macau, it’s almost trivial in its obviousness. The idea that vice can propel the economy, in a country where Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards probably generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for sites that linked to it (and more for Cyrus herself), is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, the idea that pride is a tool for moral enforcement is proven by every celebrity who’s had to apologize for an ill-considered tweet, by the neurotic culture of self-censorship on Facebook, and by the continued demands for video games with moral choice systems that reward players for making the right ones.

So why does the GOP have so much to learn from Mandeville? Because it is precisely the demographics steeped in these elements of our new, increasingly Mandevillean world that the GOP seems most incapable of reaching. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has long since mastered the art of catering to the pride of various groups. The GOP seems stuck scolding an increasingly large proportion of the population for differences of moral emphasis, much like Mandeville’s benighted antagonists.

Moreover, Mandeville’s psychological lessons on the importance of pride are expounded by some of the most popular conservatives around the globe, as in the case of London mayor Boris Johnson invoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher to warn about constrained economic mobility. Mandeville’s warnings that morally zealous people could imperil modern society now sound too prescient, both at home and abroad.

Unlike Smith, Mandeville’s moral vision needs no updating, but instead treats every element of the modern world as an accomplishment to be celebrated, rather than a collection of vices to be ignored or overcome. His work carries a timeless key to the human psyche.

Adam Smith ties are a nice fashion accessory, but if conservatives want to speak to the modern world, they’d better start humming the same tune as Mandeville’s busy little bees.

Mytheos Holt is an associate policy analyst at the R Street Institute, and communications strategist at Mair Strategies.