Opinion

GUEST COMMENTARY

In 1715, a Dutchman who had emigrated to England, Bernard Mandeville, wrote his Fable of the Bees, in which he made several arguments about markets, labor, and virtue that have reverberated through the last three centuries, and have contributed largely to the official ideology of the U.S., especially in recent years since the administration of Ronald Reagan. Mandeville pointed out that markets are a great way of producing wealth and power, but they also depend on vices such as greed, theft, vanity, and deception-the passions. He argued that the robber who spends his money on women, clothes and drink contributes more to the circulation of money and thus the prosperity of the society than the pious miser who hides his fortune in his mattress. I would alter Mandeville’s emphasis, and maintain that while markets do produce wealth and power, their disadvantage comes not because they are entangled with our vices or passions (which we now see as legitimate interests), but rather because, unhindered, they allow that increased wealth and power to be distributed unfairly. Much depends on the good luck or misfortune of the conditions into which one is born. Mandeville argued that even in commercial societies, most workers would have to live short laborious lives on wages barely sufficient to keep them from starving: that was just the way things are.

Thinking about these issues, I was wondering whether there were any other fables from Mandeville’s time that might be relevant to our current circumstances, when I came across the following fable in the British Library. Called “A New Fable of the Bees,” it appeared in two parts in 1725. Here is the first part:

A small bear was given the task of overseeing the workings of a hive of bees. These bees were very productive; they brought honey to the hive and they produced honey while they lived in the hive. In addition, this bear had experience at managing, and she had proved that she was very good at finding her own sources of honey and collecting them as well. Each year, she was able to present vats of honey, each containing millions of drops, to the big bears who oversaw her work. The hive was flowing with honey, and all its members were comfortable and fine-the bears who managed its affairs, the bees who spent a few years in residence, even the older drones who kept an eye on the honey-laden young bees and passed on knowledge about the life of bees; all lived well amid clean, well-manicured grasses, flowers, and trees.

All, that is, except the black ants who chewed the lawn to keep it neat, and carried dirt and waste out of the hive. Once these creatures had been worker-bees, but they had been transformed to worker-ants ten seasons earlier, and placed under the charge of a company of wasps. Most of the ants did not speak bee-language very well, and they received enough honey to keep themselves alive, but not a drop more. The ants asked for more honey, and for a small safety net so that if they fell out of the hive, it would catch them and they would be able to survive.

But to the ants who asked for another drop or two of honey per day, the bear and her predecessor echoed what the big bears said: “You should be happy with what we give you, which is what the market dictates. If you wanted to be more highly valued, you should have been clever enough to be born as bees or bears, who have had their hands on honey for generations.” And so the bees and bears continued to be comfortable in their beautiful, tranquil hive, while the ants who cleaned for them barely survived.

That was the way things remained for five seasons before the little bear came to the hive, and they remained that way for five seasons after she arrived. And then one day, after many of the bees and drones in the hive joined with the ants in claiming that they deserved more, the little bear announced that indeed they would be given an additional drop or two of honey per day. Since they had only been receiving six or seven drops per day, this was a big increase, and it pleased many in the hive, who remembered when the ants were bees and knew some of them by name.

Now the ants also wanted to band together and return to a place in the hive. But the little bear did not allow this, although other bears who used wasps in other hives allowed their ants to organize into bands. “In this struggle between ants and wasps,” she announced, exchanging a wink and a nod with the wasps, “we will remain strictly neutral.” Just so, the shepherd is neutral in the struggle between his dog and his sheep. And so, not being restrained, the wasps continued to sting the ants and keep them in line, especially any who wanted to organize themselves and discuss how much honey they should receive.

On this note, the fable broke off, and I haven’t been able to find the second part. It may seem a curious ending, but perhaps it is in keeping with a modified Mandevillean vision. The bear in the fable gave the ants a substantial increase, but she may have given less than she will get credit for. In particular, she did not insist on a guaranteed safety net, and did not acknowledge the hive’s moral responsibility for the welfare of the worker ants. Moreover, the bear retains control of most of the means of disseminating information in the hive and about the hive. The bees can help effect change, but they need to keep their eyes and ears open, and be willing to speak and act as well.

Dr. Frank Palmeri is a professor of English. He can be contacted at fpalmeri@miami.edu.

March 24, 2006

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