In his classic Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1724), Bernard Mandeville, the Dutch-born British philosopher and satirist, described – in verse – a prosperous society (of bees) that suddenly chose to make a virtue of austerity, dropping all excess expenditure and extravagant consumption. What then happened?The Price of Land and Houses falls;
Mirac’lous Palaces, whose Walls,
Like those of Thebes, were rais’d by Play
Are to be let; . . . .
The building Trade is quite destroy’d
Artificers are not employ’d; . . .
Those, that remain’d, grown temp’rate strive
Not how to spend, but how to live . . .
That sounds a lot like what many advanced countries have been going through, after financial-crisis-induced austerity plans were launched, doesn’t it? Is Mandeville a genuine prophet for our times?