Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mandeville Happens?

Doug has been leading the Moral Sentiments Readings Group through a new biography of Adam Smith. In Thursday’s reading, we saw the philosophical landscape of Smith’s development in the midst of predecessors such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Mandeville.

I had heard of Mandeville primarily through people in the Austrian Economics arena, but Keynes writes as a strong fan of Mandeville in the General Theory because Mandeville anticipated the paradox of thrift. Keynes seems to take great pleasure in Mandeville’s skewering of the Calvinist virtue of thrift. (So, I guess that means that Hayek and Keynes can together do a big love rap for Bernard Mandeville?)

I must admit that doing the background reading for a single session is hardly a deep scholarly inquiry, but from the poetic version of The Fable of the Bees and some random excerpts from the collected writings I just couldn’t understand the attraction of Mandeville to free market economists. Adam Smith’s version of the invisible hand is that we don’t need to rely on the good intentions of people in our market interactions in order to obtain public well-being. But Smith in other writings, especially in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, describes the virtuous function of such traits as sympathy and a sense of public duty. Mandeville views private virtues in any sphere as a stumbling block against the totality of the prosperity of society. The beehive ceases to thrive when the participants take on virtuous behavior. From what I read, I don’t see how any Christian could honor much in Mandeville. In fact, I found what I read to be more dismal than most of the dismal science, and really anti-Christian. If we have Adam Smith I don’t see why economists need to spend much time on Mandeville except to say that Smith got correct what Mandeville may have, in some partial way, anticipated. Just because Henry VIII had peoples’ heads chopped off doesn’t mean that we have to think of him as a pioneer of modern brain surgery who just got a few of the details wrong.

Fortunately, in doing some more reading this evening, I came across some of Hayek’s writings on Mandeville. Hayek indeed has great praise for Mandeville, but from what I read that praise had very little to do with either the ethics or the economics in The Fable of the Bees. The Hayek that I read admits that Mandeville’s economics leaves much to be desired. What I read is that Hayek emphasizes a separate part of Mandeville’s writings in which (Hayek argues) Mandeville was one of the first philosophers to discuss the unplanned evolution and development of social institutions such as language. In this regard, Mandeville models a giant social canvas of unintended consequences. Even here, Hayek’s emphasize is on Mandeville setting the stage for others. I guess I can see Hayek’s point, but how do we know that Mandeville isn't simply the stopped clock who got things right twice a day? This probably sounds cranky coming from someone who believes in the total depravity of mankind. But I also believe that, from the very moment of the Fall, there has been established a difference between good and evil, and that, although we are unable to achieve righteousness on our own, the story of the Bible is God's invitation to a banquet in which righteousness will eventual be restored. As Jesus has instructed us, we are to pursue, however haltingly, God's will on Earth as it will be in heaven. If what Mandeville is arguing is that we are best off simply to let our natural depravity run on auto-pilot, then I think that there are serious problems in reconciling Mandeville with the Gospel. Instead, I believe that Christians can strive to bring the Gospel into whatever is our calling: whether as teachers, entrepreneurs, physicians, economists, and so forth.

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