A Billion Bees A-Buzzing: Mandeville and Christmas

December 23, 2016

The overall economic benefit of Christmas seems as obvious yet elusive as that of the royal family. We know it must exist, and come up with endless ways to try to prove it. We look at ‘industry’ turnover from turkeys to tinsel, stacked against 25 December being the least economically active day of the UK year; the effects of present buying and receiving, weighted against dreams of simply buying what we want for ourselves, and nightmares of going into debt by overspending on gifts; the rates of seasonal adjustment; and comparisons with December spending in non-Christian countries. But not only do most of these attempts to quantify Christmas face complications — Britons are increasingly secular (around 11% are members of a Christian church), yet 96% buy Christmas presents; and one person’s debt is often another’s profit — there’s also nothing solid to test our theories against.

We couldn’t have assessed the actual economic impact of the King of Thailand’s death this year, if he hadn’t died. And it’s still difficult, even though he did. The rise in purchases of black clothes continues to counter people’s decreased inclination to celebrate, but that itself has been affected by government pricing interventions, following accusations of exploitation. It’s always difficult to assess the direct causal impact of an event; it is even harder to assess the impact of something that’s only potential or imaginary. 
In other words, to see the effect of no Christmas, and, therefore, know the true economic benefit of Christmas itself, we’d need two ‘possible worlds’ to compare: one in which we cancel it; and one where it remains, and those things that don’t stay constant are counted as its knock-on effects. Would we spend more at Easter or Halloween, if we banished Christmas? Might another comparable festival arise? Does being tied in to Christmas mean missing out on something even more beneficial? What are its opportunity costs? Rather than being driven by specific Christmas spirit, do we spend more at this time of year simply to immunise ourselves against mild Seasonal Affective Disorder, or to provide alternative internal warmth? After all, little of our spending is on explicitly religious activities: John’s Gospel doesn’t recount Joseph going shopping for quince cheese. And midnight mass is free — getting there and your time spent is not, but few people are likely to be doing something of greater economic effect. 
Quantifiable or not in terms of counterfactuals, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Christmas is probably a good thing for the country’s balance of payments. But what about the deeper or wider economic good of this kind of celebration? What about the benefits of being allowed to party freely? What about the benefits of festive greed and other vices?
In 1724, Anglo-Dutch doctor and all-round polymath, Bernard Mandeville, published the final version of his The Fable of the Bees, or, Private Vices, Public Benefits. A collection of his commentary, its inspiration and centrepiece is The Grumbling Hive: Or Knaves Turn’d Honest. A poetic allegory, The Hive — Mandeville’s best-known offering — was first published in 1705. 
Its opening tells of a ‘Spacious Hive, well stocked with Bees, That lived in Luxury and Ease’. These bees represent humans, and their society is celebrated for its ‘Sciences’, ’Industry’, and ‘Government’ (which is neither tyrannical, nor ‘ruled by wild Democracy’). The hive is a place of booming free trade: ‘those vast Numbers made ‘em thrive; Millions endeavouring to supply each other’s Lust and Vanity’. It’s a place where ‘Lawyers’ make ‘Work with dipt Estates’, Physicians ‘fawn on all the Family’, ‘Justice’ is often ‘bribed with Gold’, and no bee seems ‘unwilling to be short, or plain, in any thing concerning Gain’. 
And these vice-filled bees are the ‘Blessings of State: their sins the ‘very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade’. The freedom of their society allows it naturally to reach a happy level of supply and demand, which they spontaneously ‘mended by Inconstancy Faults, which no Prudence could foresee’, and, even ‘the very Poor liv’d better than the Rich before’. However, the bees worry about their dubious moral code. Indeed, they worry about this to such an extent that Jove becomes annoyed, and ‘with Indignation moved, at last in Anger swore, he’d rid The bawling Hive of Fraud, and did’. 
Sadly, this is economically disastrous: ‘in half an Hour, the Nation round, Meat fell a Penny in the Pound’. The bars are ’silent’, the lawyers find nothing to do in an ‘honest Hive’, and even the politicians live frugally ‘on their Salary’. Bees start selling assets to pay off debts, ‘Cost is shunned’, nobody wants to join the army for ‘empty Glory’, depreciation sets in (‘The Price of Land and Houses falls’), and everyone focuses on ‘Not how to spend; but how to live’.
Criticised for promoting vice, yet recognised as a precursor to the Enlightenment ideals of Adam Smith et al, the poem’s 433 lines of (mostly) iambic tetrameter have attracted both admiration and resentment. In Sorry We Have No Moneyeconomist Warwick Lightfoot relates how Hayek saw Mandeville as a ‘bogeyman, a name with which to frighten the godly and respectable’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on David Hume describes how the Scottish philosopher’s ‘second Enquiry is a sustained and systematic attack on the “selfish” or “self-love” theories of Hobbes and Mandeville’. 
Nonetheless, if we see The Hive as Mandeville’s poetic way of advancing an general argument in favour of free trade and market economies, then his use of vice to point this up can be considered more a writer’s tool, than a prescription for morality. Lightfoot summarises that:
‘what both Smith and before him Mandeville recognised was that markets broadly left to their own devices without government regulation and interference were the best way of organising economic life. Individual decisions combine spontaneously to produce order. Moreover, well-intentioned attempts to interfere or meddle with those private decisions through policy or legislation or to divert and interrupt the flow of benefits that spontaneously come from them will damage society as a whole.’ 
Agreeing with those sentiments does not mean condoning a society in which there is no law and order, however. If, like Mandeville’s forebears and near contemporaries, the original social contract theorists, we believe that liberal society is founded in variations on the theme that freedom is humanity’s natural state, and that partaking in organised civil society is a necessary improvement on residing in that state of nature, then we accept that choosing to do so means abdicating some of our liberty, where needed, for our own — and corporate — expediency. When our physical behaviour endangers others, the state is, therefore, justified to intervene. Similarly, when our economic behaviour is dangerous to society — the creation of monopolies, for instance — it seems justifiable that regulations restrict it. When Mandeville’s bees overstep that line, it can be seen simply as an emphasis of his overall argument.  
It seems inevitable that our reasonable greed, envy, pride, lust and all those other delightful consumerist sins feed our country’s economy at Christmastime. Somewhat ironically, this means that the private transgressions of a traditional Christian framework may be, in public terms, widely beneficial at Christmas. Long may this continue. 

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