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Mandeville on the social cooperation which is required to produce a piece of scarlet cloth (1723)

The Anglo-Dutch doctor and writer Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) was one of the first to note the extraordinary amount of social and economic cooperation which was required to produce something for sale on the market, in this case a piece of scarlet cloth:

What a Bustle is there to be made in several Parts of the World, before a fine Scarlet or crimson Cloth can be produced, what Multiplicity of Trades and Artificers must be employ’d! Not only such as are obvious, as Wool-combers, Spinners, the Weaver, the Cloth-worker, the Scourer, the Dyer, the Setter, the Drawer and the Packer; but others that are more remote and might seem foreign to it; as the Millwright, the Pewterer and the Chymist, which yet are all necessary as well as a great Number of other Handicrafts to have the Tools, Utensils and other Implements belonging to the Trades already named: But all these things are done at home, and may be perform’d without extraordinary Fatigue or Danger; the most frightful Prospect is left behind, when we reflect on the Toil and Hazard that are to be undergone abroad, the vast Seas we are to go over, the different Climates we are to endure, and the several Nations we must be obliged to for their Assistance.

I protest against Popery as much as ever Luther and Calvin did, or Queen Elizabeth herself, but I believe from my Heart, that the Reformation has scarce been more Instrumental in rend’ring the Kingdoms and States that have embraced it, flourishing beyond other Nations, than the silly and capricious Invention of Hoop’d and Quilted Petticoats. But if this should be denied me by the Enemies of Priestly Power, at least I am sure that, bar the great Men who have fought for and against that Lay-Man’s Blessing, it has from its first beginning to this Day not employ’d so many Hands, honest industrious labouring Hands, as the abominable improvement on Female Luxury I named has done in few Years. Religion is one thing and Trade is another. He that gives most Trouble to thousands of his Neighbours, and invents the most operose Manufactures is, right or wrong, the greatest Friend to the Society.

What a Bustle is there to be made in several Parts of the World, before a fine Scarlet or crimson Cloth can be produced, what Multiplicity of Trades and Artificers must be employ’d! Not only such as are obvious, as Wool-combers, Spinners, the Weaver, the Cloth-worker, the Scourer, the Dyer, the Setter, the Drawer and the Packer; but others that are more remote and might seem foreign to it; as the Millwright, the Pewterer and the Chymist, which yet are all necessary as well as a great Number of other Handicrafts to have the Tools, Utensils and other Implements belonging to the Trades already named: But all these things are done at home, and may be perform’d without extraordinary Fatigue or Danger; the most frightful Prospect is left behind, when we reflect on the Toil and Hazard that are to be undergone abroad, the vast Seas we are to go over, the different Climates we are to endure, and the several Nations we must be obliged to for their Assistance. Spain alone it is true might furnish us with Wool to make the finest Cloth; but what Skill and Pains, what Experience and Ingenuity are required to Dye it of those Beautiful Colours! How widely are the Drugs and other Ingredients dispers’d thro’ the Universe that are to meet in one Kettle! Allum indeed we have of our own; Argol we might have from the Rhine, and Vitriol from Hungary; all this is in Europe; but then for Saltpetre in quantity we are forc’d to go as far as the East-Indies. Cochenille, unknown to the Ancients, is not much nearer to us, tho’ in a quite different part of the Earth: we buy it ’tis true from the Spaniards; but not being their Product they are forc’d to fetch it for us from the remotest Corner of the New World in the West-Indies.a While [413]so many Sailors are broiling in the Sun and sweltered with Heat in the East and West of us, another set of them are freezing in the North to fetch Potashes from Russia.

When we are thoroughly acquainted with all the Variety of Toil and Labour, the Hardships and Calamities that must be undergone to compass the End I speak of, and we consider the vast Risques and Perils that are run in those Voyages, and that few of them are ever made but at the Expence, not only of the Health and Welfare, but even the Lives of many: When we are acquainted with, I say, and duly consider the things I named, it is scarce possible to conceive a Tyrant so inhuman and void of Shame, that beholding things in the same View, he should exact such terrible Services from his Innocent Slaves; and at the same time dare to own, that he did it for no other Reason, than the Satisfaction a Man receives from having a Garment made of Scarlet or Crimson Cloth. But to what Height of Luxury must a Nation be arrived, where not only the King’s Officers, but likewise his Guards, even the private Soldiers should have such impudent Desires!

But if we turn the Prospect, and look on all those Labours as so many voluntary Actions, belonging to different Callings and Occupations that Men are brought up to for a Livelihood, and in which every one Works for himself, how much soever he may seem to Labour for others: If we consider, that even the Sailors who undergo the greatest Hardships, as soon as one Voyage is ended, even after Ship-wrack,a are looking out and solliciting for Employment in another: If we consider, I say, and look on these things in another View, we shall find that the Labour of the Poor is so far from being a Burthen and an Imposition upon them; that to have Employment is a Blessing, which in their Addresses to Heaven they pray for, and to procure it for the generality of them is the greatest Care of every Legislature.

About this Quotation:

In this Addendum to his “Fable of the Bees” (1705) Mandeville provides an early account of how interdependent markets had already become by the early 18th century. Fifty years later Adam Smith would explain that this cooperation, which was not planned by any individual person, was the result of the operation of an “invisible hand” which seemed to guide the activities of self-interested, profit-seeking individuals to produce a socially useful outcome which was not their primary consideration. Mandeville’s example was a piece of fashionable red cloth which, on the surface, might appear to be a rather useless luxury item, but which brought together thousands of dispersed individuals, or as he termed it “so many Hands, honest industrious labouring Hands”, from all over the world to produce items of enormous value for all of them. He also argues, prefiguring Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, that these labours, by peacefully combining “so many voluntary Actions, belonging to different Callings and Occupations that Men are brought up to for a Livelihood,” results in a prosperous society “in which every one Works for himself, how much soever he may seem to Labour for others.” In Mandeville’s view, this was just another example of how a “private vice” like “Female Luxury” produces a “public benefit” which in this case was employment for the poor. Mandeville was only the first of many free market advocates to make this point: compare it with Bastiat’s story of “The Cabinet Maker & the Student” in Economic Harmonies (1850) and Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” (December 1958).

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