Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mandeville Is Not a Safe Guide to Adam Smith

Culture: A Euro of Excuses' in 'Bits of News' (USA), 12 September 2007, by Henry Midgley

"Bernard Mandeville in the Fable of the Bees took on this impression. Mandeville argued that private vice makes public virtue. He suggested that it was our immoral appetites, our selfish desires that came together to make a strong state. Our desire for riches led us to improve ourselves and hence to improve economically our surroundings- this basic argument taken up by Adam Smith turned into modern economics. At its base it depended on the assertion that it was not, to paraphrase Smith, the benevolence of the butcher and baker which fed us but their selfishness. It was the vicious nature of humanity, humanity's desire to compete, to emulate, to gain things, which led ultimately to us all earning more and living in a better way. Along the way humans would behave horribly to each other- but so long as that happened within a law that secured the peace- it would work ultimately to the general advantage.

Within that gross over simplification of Mandeville, I hope you see what I'm getting at here. Many jobs involve immorality of one kind or another, even if they are completely moral, the mechanics of ambition (ie the office politics and backstabbing) are profoundly immoral. But if one accepts Mandeville's central argument that it is through our private vices that we create public goods- like for example wealth and prosperity and even national power- then you can argue that such immorality is necessary ultimately for society to function. An adultery agency may give employment to a loving father, a caring sister or a gentle mother. It provides for a desire which we may find repugnant but how can it be banned. Private vice, aiding people to commit adultery, generates money and that money helps society. It creates wealth and creates opportunities for people, therefore it can't be bad for society to tolerate it.

But that leaves us with a question and upon that question the whole of our society turns. We cannot ultimately get away from the fact that this is a profoundly unethical activity. To work in this industry is to be quite frankly immoral. We have therefore a contradiction. On the one hand this activity must be legal and because we live in a market and there is a human desire to commit adultery, that desire will ultimately be satisfied. But on the other it is deeply immoral. Mandeville and his present disciples sweep away these problems by arguing that if something benefits us all, it must be good. Essentially if capitalism brings out our viciousness, we should revel in it. I'm not so sure that we can resolve that contradiction so easily. This is immoral, this is vicious and the fact that the founders of it will be rewarded with business is an odd quirck of a system which I support.

Private vice may lead to public virtue, but its still vice

Bernard Mandeville’s thesis is often confused with Adam Smith’s, so much so, that often the author making the error does not bother to mention Mandeville at all and just lumps the whole of his thesis on Adam Smith and proceeds to link the very ideas that Smith rejected explicitly in Moral Sentiments (Book VII.iv. pp 306-314: ‘Of Licentious Systems’).

In Wealth Of Nations, which despite the gap in publishing dates – 1759 to 1776 – was taught along side his class in ethics to the same students between 1751-64, using the exact same reference to the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’, his classic references to the purchase of one’s dinner from the aforementioned ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’ was not occasioned by either party’s ‘selfishness’. It was never Smith’s view that those selling items for dinner were acting from their ‘selfishness’ any more than he argued that those readers who the seek to purchase the ingredient for one’s family’s dinner were committing an act of ‘sefishness’.

As a moral philosopher, Adam Smith knew the difference between ‘self-love’ and ‘selfishness’, though it is not clear that Henry Midgley knows the difference. In particular Smith advises those seeking to purchase food, and other items, that they appeal to the seller’s self interests and do not exclaim about their own self interest. (WN I.ii: page 26-7).

Adam Smith wrote extensively about human motivations, including their ‘delusions’, and to get a clear perspective on this, and the differences between Mandeville and Smith, I suggest you read Moral Sentiments, Part IV, pp 179-87: ‘Of the beauty which the appearance of UTILITY bestows upon all productions of art, and the extensive influence of this species of Beauty’.

Adam Smith, it may be noted in this context, was not of the view that every action of every person in pursuit of their self interest was necessarily, nor consequentially, for the common or public good. People cornering the market, acting like monopolists, pursuing competitive means at the expense of those they ‘jostle’ aside, importuning the legislature for their private good to institute tariff protection measures, engaging in licentious behaviour (including in Henry Midgley’s case, breaching social norms of behaviour), are the direct objects of Adam Smith’s personal ire and his intellectual criticism of mercantile political economy.

Adam Smith was not a Dr Pangloss (Voltaire's Candide) figure believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

If Henry Midgley wishes to write a piece for his explanation for a service provision of assistance in adultery, he should stick to Mandeville and should leave Adam Smith out of it. He may know something about Mandeville (and easy author to quote), but I doubt on this performance that he knows much about Adam Smith.


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