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Bernard Mandeville uses a fable about bees to show how prosperity and good order comes about through spontaneous order (1705)

This year is the the 300th anniversary of the publication of the poem “The Grumbling Hive” which began Mandeville’s exploration of the idea that the pursuit of selfish goals by individuals, within the confines of the free market, could produce beneficial public benefits:

A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees, That liv’d in Luxury and Ease; And yet as fam’d 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 rul’d by wild Democracy; But Kings, that could not wrong, because Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees,
That liv’d in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam’d 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 rul’d by wild Democracy;
But Kings, that could not wrong, because
Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.


These Insects liv’d like Men, and all
Our Actions they perform’d in small:
They did whatever’s done in Town,
And what belongs to Sword or Gown:
Tho’ th’ Artful Works, by nimble Slight
Of minute Limbs, ’scap’d 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 call’d, 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 shewn
Of Soldiers, that make use of none.

About this Quotation:

This poem, which formed the basis of Mandeville’s longer work The Fable of the Bees, is a clever and witty attempt to make a profound point of economic theory, namely that structure and order can arise from individual action and does not have to be imposed from above by a King (in this case shouldn’t it be a “Queen”?).

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