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The enlightened case for being selfish Self-interest, not solidarity, should be our lodestar

Do we need to embrace private vice? (David Attie/Getty Images)

Do we need to embrace private vice? (David Attie/Getty Images)


April 22, 2024   6 mins

Ever since the events of October 7, the streets of American and Western cities are routinely filled with heated demonstrations. The vast majority of the people in attendance are usually not themselves citizens of Palestine or Israel, but locals whose cultural identities, social circles or political loyalties compel them to embrace one cause and to excoriate the other. Beneath the discourse around high ideals such as human rights or national self-determination, there is the same fundamentally extra-rational instinct of solidarity as in every issue under the sun: “Their positions are my positions; their claims are my claims; and their enemies are my enemies.” How do we escape this tribal impasse?

The Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville is today neither well-remembered nor wholly forgotten, but his work may hold some helpful insights for the present moment. His most infamous tract was The Fable of the Bees (1714) in which he argued for recognising self-interest, rather than other-regarding sentiments, such as solidarity or altruism, as the soundest basis for organising society. Even more than David Hume, Adam Smith, and the classical economists who were to follow, it was Mandeville who best embodied the emergence of what we now understand as liberal-capitalist modernity, sounding the death knell for the pre-liberal forms of private and communitarian morality that still held sway among the political and ecclesiastical classes.

Mandeville’s intervention, taking place in the years after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, gave expression to the transformation then unfolding in public life, from the passionate (and violent) preoccupation over moral sectarianism and ultimate ends, which so brutally scarred the 17th century, and toward the relatively peaceful and civilised pursuit of wealth and affluence that characterised the 18th. One wonders if the West is overdue for another paradigm shift from solidarity to self-interest as the animating principle of politics.

First, it is worth considering the difference between the two paradigms. Enacting such a change would not eliminate conflict from public life but radically alter its direction and outlet. It is one thing for there to be sharp divisions structuring political exchange, but conflicts over competing material interests or economic programmes can be hashed out in rational processes of give-and-take; whereas the kind of reductive battles over intangible values — what is known as the culture war — has led to the wrong kind of conflict, one in which humanity’s natural tendencies toward solidarity and communal morality degenerates into rigid, zero-sum stand-offs. The result is stasis and stultification. Compared to this, there can be little doubt that a renewed politics of self-interest would be conducive to more dynamism and material progress: the only question is how do we get to such a place from where we are now?

The England to which Mandeville immigrated from Holland in the 1690s was already one generation removed from the apocalyptic, often theologically motivated bloodshed of the Cromwellian era. It was in the midst of the post-1688 commercial boom and financial revolution, on course to becoming the world’s richest nation.

Yet even as England’s social complexion was changing, the moral outlook of many of its elites (embodied by Lord Bolingbroke and his magazine The Craftsman) remained mired in antiquated notions of virtue held to by the Old Whigs and Commonwealthmen, whose agrarian, puritanical, and civic republican sensibilities derided the new forms of mobile financial wealth and concentrated state power arising under the Court Whig government of the day as harbingers of a plague of “corruption”/ This corruption was attributed to the spirit of avarice encouraged by the new economy; and it was contrasted with the selflessly patriotic and solidaristic ethos of virtue espoused by the anti-Court opposition. It was in this context of conflicting moralities that Mandeville became the centre of national controversy when the 1723 edition of his book led to a presentment before the Grand Jury of Middlesex. He was accused of wishing to “run down Religion and Virtue… and to recommend Luxury, Avarice, Pride, and all vices, as being necessary to Public Welfare… tending to the Destruction of the Constitution,” a line of attack that paralleled opposition polemics against the Court Whig regime, with which Mandeville became identified.

But just what exactly did Mandeville write for such a charge to be levelled against him? The core of his argument was that impulse and ego were the main drivers of human behaviour and that this fact necessitated the construction of a public morality based on self- deception by cunning elites, who had an interest in subduing the unruly passions of men. And while the insight was not new, with antecedents going back to Lucretius and Epicurus, Mandeville’s innovation was to draw out its implications in a modern setting and propose an alternative counter-model of society to that held up by traditional morality.

Mandeville’s vision accepted impulse-driven self-interest as its sole premise and in so doing, radically affirmed the imperatives of the emerging liberal-capitalist system. To illustrate his view, he took the beehive, oft-used symbol of virtue and frugality by the opposition writers, and turned it on its head. In Mandeville’s telling, the bees were not selfless citizens devoted to the public interest but greedy, self-seeking creatures whose competitive appetites made the hive a more prosperous place: “Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity / Which join’d with Time and Industry / Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies, / It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease, / To such a Height, the very Poor Liv’d better than the Rich before / And nothing could be added more.”

And so, it became the duty of wise statesmen to devise ways by which this self-interest could be transmuted into socially productive endeavours: successive Whig ministries were able to do that by sponsoring and regulating the development of complex financial institutions such as the new Bank of England and the growing trade of joint-stock companies, including both the wildly successful East India Company and the ill-fated South Sea Company. The same capitalist superstructure that the opposition denounced as a source of venality and injustice functioned, in the hands of men like Sir Charles Montagu and Sir Robert Walpole, as the instruments by which the greed of England’s magnates (the “bees”) contributed to the growth of its national wealth, power, and prestige. The Whig government achieved this by providing means to concentrate and de-risk large capital investments, enabling the funding for prohibitively costly and otherwise unsustainable ventures, like imperial expansion overseas and economic modernisation at home.

This process of enrichment through doux commerce led to greater refinement, and to England becoming the “polite nation” to which Addison and Steele’s Spectator addressed its lessons on manners and etiquette, a far cry from the violent and brutish ways of the previous century. British history under the Court Whig oligarchy could be understood, then, as firm validation for The Fable of the Bees and in particular, one of Mandeville’s central insights — that “Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits”.

With the triumph of Walpole, the austere, virtue-seeking sensibilities of the men who attacked Mandeville — represented by John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Bolingbroke — would have passed quietly into history had it not been for the strange process of moral transplantation by which their ideas and values migrated across the Atlantic through pamphlets and reprints. For they later formed the intellectual nucleus of the American Revolution, as historian Bernard Bailyn demonstrated in his magnum opus, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). The editorials of The Craftsman practically served as templates for the Patriot press in its denunciations of the Stamp Act and, later, of the whole British political and economic system, from the King on down: in American eyes, the empire itself had become irredeemably corrupt and had to be severed like gangrene.

Like Bolingbroke, the rebels embraced a classical morality rooted in the example of the ancients, of Cincinatus and Cato, whose willingness to sacrifice all for their country’s liberty inspired the founders to wager their “lives, property and sacred honour”. The American idiom has since been inflected with republican notions of the “common good”, understood differently but present nonetheless on both the the Right and the Left. Even when politicians acknowledge self-interest (or get caught acting on it in embarrassing ways), the moral instinct is always one of deferring back to the same communitarian ethos. (Reagan’s rhetoric was emblematic of this tension, with its praise for both the selfishness of the profit motive and the selflessness of patriots past.)

As Mandeville would argue, however, such ideologies are forms of self-deception that elites employ, whether knowingly or not, to cover up their competing base impulses and egoistic desires. For instance: today, the professional managerial class speak the language of social justice even as they preside over new forms of hierarchy and domination that do little to help the lower classes they claim to represent; while conservative elites in the small-town millionaire class speak the language of “America First” patriotism even as they engage in horribly regressive and exploitative industries that stand in the way of true national development.

“The professional managerial class speak the language of social justice even as they preside over new forms of hierarchy.”

The culture war is essentially the moral economy of recognition of these elite classes, where competition is waged between and within the ranks of the two enemy tribes. Solidarity is the symbolic currency of this economy: and their virtue-signalling on behalf of their party’s respective ideological value sets (whether it’s “pronouns and Palestine” or “guns and God”) is an expression of this principle.

What is needed now is an American Walpole who can see beyond the facade, take this impulse toward pride and amour-propre among the elites, and turn it toward something more productive and beneficial in the material (as opposed to the moral) economy. A Mandevillian politics would channel these drives away from the false pursuit of virtue and connect them instead to economic aggrandisement, through which both the elites and the nations they lead can attain new riches and power. In this scheme, politics would become a lot more rational, instrumental, and manageable as it would come down to the brokering of interests (difficult but doable) rather than a contest over values (impassable and never-ending).

Of course, the cultural antagonisms between Americans are still much too great for this change to take place anytime soon, and it may take a few unstable election cycles before America moves from its Cromwellian age of moral absolutism to its next Mandevillian age of enlightened self-interest. But that doesn’t me we shouldn’t start now. Faced with our overbearing embrace of solidarity, a bit of “private vice” wouldn’t go amiss.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.

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T Bone
T Bone
25 days ago

Cuenco writes with such graceful non-specificity that one can only speculate about his ambitious abstract planning. 
It could be some kind of Hegelian alchemy or “Aufheben” where opposing categories like Communal Sharing and Self-Interest are both transcended and dissolved into each other.  Or it could be pure sophistry.  Either way, whatever our problems are; they won’t be solved by abstract philosophy.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
25 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Indeed. I suspect Mandeville has sunk into obscurity for precisely for the same reason.

John Riordan
John Riordan
25 days ago

The insanity of modern politics is ultimately predicated upon old-fashioned Marxism in my opinion, so there can be no rational return towards the promotion of self-interest. This would involve surrendering the core attraction of Marxist principles for its devotees: the arbitrary power to interfere with the lives of others. The notion that people attracted to this idea would happily stand aside and just let people get on with their lives is anathema to devotees of such an ideology.

T Bone
T Bone
24 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

But that’s actually the amazing Doublethink of Marxist doctrine. It’s 1) The idea that shared Communalism is in everyone’s self-interest and 2) The Vanguard of Experts implementing the vision are acting in their own self-interest. They get influence, social status and ironically by doing so…they get more benefits from the “Capitalist System” that they condemn as unjust.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
24 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Isn’t the ideology just the cover that is used by people whose natural inclination is to be curtain twitching busybodies anyway?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago

There is never a light so bright as somebody minding their own business? I lived for a long time on a tiny island that was blessed with being overlooked, until it wasn’t. Suddenly the ‘ends of the earth’ became ‘the place to be seen’, and it was clear that people would go much further out of their way to acquire something they didn’t want themselves than they would for something that they did, or might. Selfishness was a socially contrived value, defined less by what one had than by what others didn’t. None of the normal status symbols mattered, anything expensive, a watch, a car, simply made one ridiculous. The only way to achieve a social distinction was to take things away that were common to all, like access to beaches. All sorts of justifications for the behavior accompanied this, along the lines of merit and dis-merit. Selfishness is a social construct, rampant even in the absence of any self. A commoner motive than selfishness was spite.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I should add this was no less evident a characteristic of the do gooder social justice activists and environmentalists who followed, or even proceeded the other interests in the island.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
25 days ago

I’m definitely going to return to this article when I’m not nursing a hangover, as it seems like an interesting subject.
But first, I need to regain that comforting sense that reading sentences like “Mandeville’s vision accepted impulse-driven self-interest as its sole premise and in so doing, radically affirmed the imperatives of the emerging liberal-capitalist system” won’t cause my head to explode messily over my keyboard.

Saul D
Saul D
25 days ago

We have both self-interest and social-interest motivations – it’s not one or the other. Our lives are spent balancing between the two. We don’t just take for ourselves, instead we’ll put our lives on the line for someone we love, and take joy from the happiness of others. Core questions in morality involve implicit inner trade-offs between our self and our social sides.