Bernard Mandeville, in his poem from 1714, “The Grumbling Hive”, wrote:
Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise;
Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars,
They were th’ Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Balance of all other Hives.
Lines 155 – 160
Mandeville’s poem traces a beehive representing an economy, one full of private vice and consumption, that flourishes in industry, competition, and is full of public virtue. The bees represent the society that acts selfishly, but from their selfish actions, public virtue is realized and it is able to run efficiently. Mandeville portrays the hive as benefiting from a sense of emergent order that creates a sense of harmony among it. The vice that consumed the bees led to spending and personal consumption which, in turn, led to the hive’s success. Mandeville argues that virtue becomes friends with vice, and if that is taken away, the society will fall. With private vice, there is competition and a need for innovation that inherently exists in a society based on competition. Ultimately, through private greed, came the public virtue of innovation and developments that may not have happened otherwise. Mandeville presents the downfall of the hive: the downfall involves the society asking to become virtuous and to be stripped of their vice; this creates a stagnant economy in which there is no need for consumption and innovation, ultimately leading to its downfall. It is clear Mandeville argues for a society based on consumption, often high levels of it, to drive an economy’s vice to reach flourishment.
Conversely, in his article, The Rise of the Robots Creates Specific Issues for the Mere Humans to Grapple With, Ellis Thorpe, writing in Scotland, suggests the increased technology, resulting from capitalist innovation, may lead to a state where automation and robots replace human labor, a state of higher unemployment and decreased consumption. He argues the increasing importance of robots in manufacturing industries, caused by unchecked technological advancements, will have disastrous effects on the economy. He asserts that, if left unchecked, the welfare policies in Scotland will be completely inadequate to deal with the economic repercussions of the advancing technology. Thorpe seems to argue that unless policies are put in place to curb the economic effects of job displacement by automation, the economy will suffer and constraints should be placed on technological advancements.
In a recent article by Reuters, a Davos study argues that roughly 5.1 million jobs, in 15 leading countries, will be displaced by increased technology and robots by 2020. It is important to consider the economic impacts of increased unemployment; with increased unemployment, undoubtedly a decrease in consumption and a fall in aggregate demand will occur.
While Mandeville argues for complete economic freedom of private vice as a means to reach economic flourishment, he does not consider the pitfalls of capitalism when left unchecked. He does not seem to contemplate that constraints, when placed on industries, can benefit society and the workers; he merely presents the hive as the optimal society – one that is dictated by private vice and innovation. However, Thorpe suggests that capitalism, when left unchecked, can actually lead to negative impacts on the economy. Thorpe’s conclusions are important to consider when advocating for the pure capitalism Mandeville argues for.
Mandeville presents capitalism’s benefits as leading to public virtue. The key word is public – it is important to address the question: how can public virtue be reached, if as Thorpe argues, huge economic implications are bound to arise due to capitalist innovations in technology?
Here I suggest Mandeville did not consider the lengths to which capitalist endeavors can reach, if left unchecked. He did not recognize that constraints, eliminating some aspects of private vice, can indeed result in public virtue. As Robert McElvaine argues, the greatest danger to capitalism is its inherent quality to concentrate wealth with those at the top – essentially undermining the consumerist foundations upon which it is built. I believe McElvaine presents an argument that reinforces Thorpe’s – that capitalism needs checks upon itself to truly provide public virtue. While Mandeville certainly could not have been able to predict the advancements in technology that capitalism would produce, he did not consider that, in some circumstances, capitalism can go too far; and for that reason alone, Mandeville was misguided and wrong in his declaration of capitalism.