[In Our Time] The Fable of the Bees

The Fable of the Bees

25/10/2018 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=57497334
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p06pt9hk.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) and his critique of the economy as he found it in London, where private vices were condemned without acknowledging their public benefit. In his poem The Grumbling Hive (1705), he presented an allegory in which the economy collapsed once knavish bees turned honest. When republished with a commentary, The Fable of the Bees was seen as a scandalous attack on Christian values and Mandeville was recommended for prosecution for his tendency to corrupt all morals. He kept writing, and his ideas went on to influence David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as Keynes and Hayek.


David Wootton
Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York

Helen Paul
Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton


John Callanan
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2018-11-11

  • Mandeville seems quite like a troll. I would compare him to Jordan Peterson except I haven’t actually read any Jordan Peterson and I don’t know if Peterson gives off the same vibe of playfulness that Mandeville seems to from this podcast.
  • Like Smith and Hume, I mildly recoil from Mandeville’s conclusions, but after all my reading about unexpected consequences, Bastiat’s fable, etc, etc; I am sympathetic to the larger idea that vices can lead to overall societal happiness.
  • One of the reasons I recoil from The Fable of the Bees in specific is the old argument Yazad Jal introduced me to; that money sitting in a bank will be lent out to entrepreneurs; and money stuffed in a mattress will go out of circulation and increase the value of money that is in circulation, so consumption as a driver of economic growth is no great shakes.
  • So in general Mandeville made a decent overall contrarian point, and failed massively on the specifics of both beekeeping and economics.
  • The side segue into whether people are good for instrumental reasons (virtue signaling was used here as a phrase) or because they want to be good, came up, oddly enough, in another podcast I heard today. More on that later. I wonder what it would take to establish that empirically.
  • However, the idea of consumption as opposed to austerity driving progress was mentioned in Jane Jacobs and expounded upon in great detail (especially her mechanism that it’s the import of luxuries which kickstarts local industrialisation.)
  • Re: above, deep sigh for years of failed import substitution policies under Nehru, and deeper sigh for their return under Modiji.
  • Not exactly consumption, but the In Our Time episode on feathered dinosaurs talking about feathers useful only for sexual selection eventually evolving into feathers useful for flight and thermal insulation also seems to me to be a superb example of how ostentation leads to progress.


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