The Grumbling Hive

2004-02-16

I've been invited to participate in an upcoming colloquium held by the Liberty Fund, the topic for which is "Shaftesbury, Mandeville, and Smith on liberty, virtue, and prosperity". It's an honor to have been invited, though I must admit I feel a bit guilty about participating in such a shamelessly intellectual gathering (I've been down in the practical trenches for a long time now). In any case, I've started on the reading list, which includes Mandeville's Fable of the Bees. The following passage struck me as similar to some things that Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching:

All untaught animals are only solicitous of pleasing themselves, and naturally follow the bent of their own inclinations, without considering the good or harm that from their being pleased will accrue to others. This is the reason, that in the wild state of nature those creatures are fittest to live peaceably together in great numbers that discover the least of understanding, and have the fewest appetites to gratify; and consequently no species of animal is, without the curb of government, less capable of agreeing long together in multitudes than that of man....

And Lao Tzu said:

The sage, in ruling, hollows their hearts, stuff their stomachs, weakens their wills, builds up their bones, always causing the people to be without knowledge and desire.

Yet Lao Tzu had more faith in the ability of people to agree in the absence of coercion:

I take no action, yet the people transform themselves.

I am fond of stillness, yet the people correct themselves.

I do not interfere in affairs, yet the people enrich themselves.

I desire not to desire, yet the people of themselves become as simple as unhewn logs.

When government is anarchic, the people are honest.

When government is meddlesome, society is lacking.

BTW, the little verse pamphlet from which The Fable of the Bees grew was entitled "The Grumbling Hive"; what a great name that would be for a curmudgeonly weblog!


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