Because it’s so long, I decided to post this on a page. In a rather lengthly discussion about the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, I remembered reading this years ago, and it corresponded precisely with that discussion.
In short, it makes the point that individuals, pursuing their own self interests – no matter how harmful that may seem at the time – inevitably cause good things to happen. Central planning will always be less efficient than individuals (in a free society) in creating a better society for all. This is almost the blueprint for the United States. It’s the Constitution in verse.
Yes, I realize this is a simplistic view, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Enjoy.
The Grumbling Hive:
Or Knaves Turned Honest
Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)
A spacious hive well stocked with bees,
That lived in luxury and ease,
And yet as famed for laws and arms
As yielding large and early swarms
Was counted the great nursery
Of sciences and industry.
No bees had better government,
More fickleness, or less content:
They were not slaves to tyranny
Nor ruled by wild democracy,
But kings that could not wrong because
Their power was circumscribed by laws.
These insects lived like men, and all
Our actions they performed in small:
They did whatever’s done in town,
And what belongs to sword or gown;
Though the artful works by nimble slight
Of minute limbs ‘scaped human sight,
Yet we’ve no engines, labourers,
Ships, castles, arms, artificers,
Craft science, shop, or instrument,
But they had an equivalent,
Which, since their language is unknown,
Must be called, as we do our own.
As grant that, among other things,
They wanted dice, yet they had kings,
And those had guards, from whence we may
Justly conclude, they had some play,
Unless a regiment be shown
Of soldiers, that make use of none.
Vast numbers thronged the fruitful hive,
Yet those vast numbers made them thrive;
Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s lust and vanity;
While other millions were employed
To see their handiworks destroyed.
They furnished half the universe,
Yet had more work than labourers.
Some with vast stocks and little pains
Jumped into business of great gains;
And some were damned to scythes and spades,
And all those hard laborious trades
Where willing wretches daily sweat
And wear out strength and limbs to eat;
While others followed mysteries
To which few folks bind ‘prentices,
That want no stock but that of brass
And may set up without a cross,
As sharpers, parasites, pimps, players,
Pickpockets, coiners, quacks, soothsayers,
And all those that in enmity
With downright working, cunningly
Convert to their own use the labour
Of their good-natured heedless neighbour.
These were called knaves, but bar the name,
The grave industrious were the same:
All trades and places knew some cheat;
No calling was without deceit.
The lawyers, of whose art the basis
Was raising feuds and splitting cases,
Opposed all registers that cheats
Might make more work with dipped estates;
As wer’t unlawful that one’s own
Without a law-suit should be known.
They kept off hearings wilfully
To finger the refreshing fee;
And to defend a wicked cause
Examined and surveyed the laws,
As burglars shops and houses do
To find out where they’d best break through.
Physicians valued fame and wealth
Above the drooping patient’s health
Or their own skill: the greatest part
Studied, instead of rules of art,
Grave pensive looks and dull behaviour
To gain the apothecary’s favour,
The praise of midwives, priests, and all
That served at birth or funeral;
To bear with the ever-talking tribe
And hear my lady’s aunt prescribe;
With formal smile, and kind “How d’ye,”
To fawn on all the family;
And, which of all the greatest curse is,
To endure the impertinence of nurses.
Among the many priests of Jove
Hired to draw blessings from above,
Some few were learned and eloquent,
But thousands hot and ignorant,
Yet all passed muster that could hide
Their sloth, lust, avarice, and pride,
For which they were as famed as tailors
For cabbage, or for brandy sailors;
Some, meagre-looked and meanly clad,
Would mystically pray for bread,
Meaning by that an ample store,
Yet literally received no more;
And while these holy drudges starved,
The lazy ones, for which they served,
Indulged their ease with all the graces
Of health and plenty in their faces.
The soldiers that were forced to fight,
If they survived, got honour by it,
Though some that shunned the bloody fray
Had limbs shot off, that ran away:
Some valiant generals fought the foe;
Ohers took bribes to let them go:
Some ventured always where ’twas warm,
Lost now a leg and then an arm,
Till quite disabled and put by
They lived on half their salary,
While others never came in play
And stayed at home for double pay.
Their kings were served, but knavishly,
Cheated by their own ministry;
Many that for their welfare slaved
Robbing the very crown they saved:
Pensions were small and they lived high,
Yet boasted of their honesty,
Calling, whene’er they strained their right,
The slippery trick a perquisite;
And when folks understood their cant
They changed that for emolument,
Unwilling to be short or plain
In anything concerning gain;
For there was not a bee but would
Get more, I won’t say than he should,
But than he dared to let them know
That paid for’t; as your gamesters do
That, though at fair play, ne’er will own
Before the losers what they’ve won.
But who can all their frauds repeat?
The very stuff which in the street
They sold for dirt to enrich the ground
Was often by the buyers found
Sophisticated with a quarter
Of good-for-nothing stones and mortar,
Though Flail had little case to mutter
Who sold the other salt for butter.
Justice herself, famed for fair dealing,
By blindness had not lost her feeling;
Her left hand, which the scales should hold,
Had often dropped ‘em, bribed with gold;
And though she seemed impartial
Where punishment was corporal,
Pretended to a regular course
In murder and all crimes of force;
Though some, first pilloried for cheating,
Were hanged in hemp of their own beating,
Yet it was thought the sword she bore
Checked but the desperate and the poor,
That, urged by mere necessity,
Were tied up to the wretched tree
For crimes which not deserved that fate,
But to secure the rich and great.
Thus every part was full of vice,
Yet the whole mass a paradise;
Flattered in peace and feared in wars,
They were the esteem of foreigners,
And lavish of their wealth and lives,
The balance of all other hives.
Such were the blessings of that state;
Their crimes conspired to make them great:
And virtue, who from politics
Had learned 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 was the state’s craft that maintained
The whole of which each part complained:
This, as in music harmony,
Made jarrings in the main agree;
Parties directly opposite
Assist each other, as ’twere for spite;
And temperance with sobriety
Serve drunkenness and gluttony.
The root of evil, avarice,
That damned ill-natured baneful vice,
Was slave to prodigality,
That noble sin; whilst luxury
Employed a million of the poor,
And odious pride a million more:
Envy itself, and vanity,
Were ministers of industry;
Their darling folly, fickleness,
In diet, furniture and dress,
That strange ridiculous vice, was made
The very wheel that turned the trade.
Their laws and clothes were equally
Objects of mutability;
For what was well done for a time
In half a year became a crime;
Yet while they altered thus their laws,
Still finding and correcting flaws,
they mended by inconstancy
Faults which no prudence could foresee.
Thus vice nursed ingenuity
Which, joined with time and industry,
Had carried life’s conveniencies,
Its real pleasures, comforts, ease,
To such a height, the very poor
Lived better than the rich before,
And nothing could be added more.
How vain is mortal happiness!
Had they but known the bounds of bliss,
And that perfection here below
Is more than gods can well bestow,
The grumbing brutes had been content
With ministers and government.
But they, at every ill success,
Like creatures lost without redress,
Cursed politicians, armies, fleets,
While every one cried, “Damn the cheats,”
And would, though conscious of his own,
In others barb’rously bear none.
One that had got a princely store
By cheating master, king, and poor,
Dared cry aloud, “The land must sink
For all its fraud.” And whom d’ye think
The sermonizing rascal chid?
A glover that sold lamb for kid.
The least thing was not done amiss,
Or crossed the public business,
But all the rogues cried brazenly,
“Good gods, had we but honesty!”
Mercury smiled at the impudence,
And others called it want of sense,
Always to rail at what they loved:
But Jove, with indignation moved,
At last in anger swore he’d rid
The bawling hive of fraud; and did.
The very moment it departs,
And honesty fills all their hearts;
There shows them, like the instructive tree,
Those crimes which they’re ashamed to see,
Which now in silence they confess
By blushing at their ugliness,
Like children that would hide their faults
And by their color own their thoughts,
Imagining, when they’re looked upon,
That others see what they have done.
But, Oh ye gods! What consternation,
How vast and sudden was the alteration!
In half an hour, the nation round,
Meat fell a penny in the pound.
The mask hypocrisy’s flung down
From the great stateman to the clown:
And some in borrowed looks well known
Appeared like strangers in their own.
The bar was silent from that day,
For now the willing debtors pay
Even what’s by creditors forgot,
Who quitten them that had it not.
Those that were in the wrong stood mute
And dropped the patched vexatious suit,
On which, since nothing less can thrive
Than lawyers in an honest hive,
All, except those that got enough,
With inkhorns by their sides trooped off.
Justice hanged some, set others free,
And after jail delivery,
Her presence being no more required,
With all her train and pomp retired.
First marched some smiths with locks and grates,
Fetters and doors with iron plates;
Next jailers, turnkeys, and assistants;
Before the goddess, at some distance,
Her chief and faithful minister,
Squire Catch, the law’s great finisher,
Bore not the imaginary sword
But his own tools, an axe and cord;
Then on a cloud the hoodwinked fair,
Justice herself, was pushed by air:
About her chariot, and behind,
Were sergeants, bums of every kind,
Tip-staffs, and all those officers
That squeeze a living out of tears.
Though physic lived while folks were ill,
None would prescribe but bees of skill,
Which, throught the hive dispersed so wide
That none of them had need to ride,
Waved vain disputes, and strove to free
The patients of their misery;
Left drugs in cheating countries grown,
And used the product of their own,
Knowing the gods sent no disease
To nations without remedies.
Their clergy roused from laziness
Laid not their charge on journey-bees,
But served themselves, exempt from vice,
The gods with prayer and sacrifice;
All those that were unfit, or knew
Their service might be spared, withdrew:
Nor was there business for so many,
If the honest stand in need of any;
Few only with the high-priest stayed,
To whom the rest obedience paid;
Himself employed in holy cares,
Resigned to others state affairs.
He chased no starveling from his door,
Nor pinched the wages of the poor;
But at his house the hungry’s fed,
The hireling finds unmeasured bread,
The needy traveler board and bed.
Among the king’s great ministers
And all the inferior officers
The change was great; for frugally
They now lived on their salary.
That a poor bee should ten times come
To ask his due, a trifling sum,
And by some well-hired clerk be made
To give a crown, or ne’er be paid,
Would now be called a downright cheat,
Though formerly a perquisite.
All places managed first by three
Who watched each other’s knavery
And often for a fellow feeling
Promoted on another’s stealing,
Are happily supplied by one,
By which some thousands more are gone.
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 shunned 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 show 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 multifudes that lived on them
Were daily forced to do the same.
In vain to other trades they’d fly;
All were o’erstocked accordingly.
The price of land and houses falls;
Miraculous palaces whose walls,
Like those of Thebes, were raised by play
Are to be let; while the once gay,
Well-seated household gods would be
More pleased to expire in flames, than see
The mean inscription on the door
Smile at the lofty ones they bore.
The building trade is quite destroyed;
Artificers are not employed;
No limner for his art is famed;
Stone-cutters, carvers are not named.
Those that remained, grown temperate, strive,
Not how to spend, but how to live,
And, when they paid their tavern score,
Resolved to enter it no more:
No vintner’s jilt in all the hive
Could wear now cloth of gold, and thrive;
Nor Torcol such vast sums advance
For Burgundy and Ortelans;
The courtier’s gone that with his miss
Supped at his house on Chrismas peas,
Spending as much in two hous stay,
As keeps a troop of horse a day.
The haughty Chloe, to live great
Had made her husband rob the state;
But now she sells her furniture,
Which the Indies had been ransacked for;
Contracts the expensive bill of fare,
And wears her strong suit a whole year:
The slight and fickle age is past,
And clothes, as well as fashions, last.
Weavers, that joined rich silk with plate,
and all the trades subordinate
Are gone, Still peace and plenty reign,
And everything is cheap, though plain:
Kind nature, free from gardeners force,
Allows all fruits in her own course;
But rarities cannot be had
Where pains to get them are not paid.
As pride and luxury decrease,
So by degrees they leave the seas.
Not merchants now, but companies
Remove whole manufactories.
All arts and crafts neglected lie;
Content, the bane of industry,
Makes them admire their homely store
And neither seek nor covet more.
So few in the vast hive remain,
The hundredth part they can’t maintain
Against the insults of numerous foes,
Whom yet they valiantly oppose,
Till some well-fenced retreat is found,
And here they die or stand their ground.
No hireling in their army’s known;
But bravely fighting for their own,
Their courage and integrity
At last were crowned with victory.
They triumphed not without their cost,
For many thousand bees were lost.
Hardened with toils and exercise,
They counted ease itself a vice,
Which so improved their temperance
That, to avoid extravagance,
They flew into a hollow tree,
Blest with content and honesty.
Then leave complaints: fools only strive
To make a great an honest hive.
To enjoy the world’s conveniencies,
Be famed in war, yet live in ease,
Without great vices is a vain
Utopia seated in the Brain
Fraud, luxury, and pride must live,
While 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, shabby, crooked vine?
Which, while its shoots neglected stood,
Choked other plates, and ran to wood;
But blessed us with its noble fruit
As soon as it was tied and cut:
So vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by justice lopped and bound;
Nay, where the people would be great,
As necessary to the state
As hunger is to make ‘em eat.
Bare virtue can’t make nations live
In splendor; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free
For acorns as for honesty.