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And no one should be in any doubt as to the severity of the harm to those long-term interests. By levelling we destroy human motivation, including our own. We make it impossible for anyone to attempt the increase of their wealth. Curiosity about the world dies; risk and experiment become pointless. Without the motivating possibility of advantage for self and family, the population relaxes into tense inactivity, and the aggregate wealth of the society stagnates and may even fall away for lack of repair.

Nearly all individuals will secretly resist this situation, for in demanding equality they sought limits to the success of others, not to their own freedom. In order to avoid confiscation they will be driven to conceal what wealth they possess and can create. Worst of all, the most sincerely tender of any human acts, those by which people care for their children and aim to give them some advantage, however slight, will be turned into crimes, and so in the absence of that delight, demoralisation of the parent is inevitable.

Evasion will be frequent, of course, but detection will be common, since with frozen and even declining income every individual will be strongly motivated to observe and inform on the behaviour of others in order to prevent them gaining advantage. As a result, such systems of enforced equality are remarkably stable and can persist until the aggregate wealth falls to very low levels, rendering the society feeble in the face of external competition and natural shocks, which alone can destroy them. Recent history provides many examples amongst the populations governed under the aegis of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites such as the German Democratic Republic. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are grim warnings that the dream which is actually a nightmare lives on. Milder, less extreme and less dispiritingly tragic cases are not unknown even in Europe. France is one, and, let us be honest with ourselves, the United Kingdom is another.

So the paradox is now evident. In order to serve the common good, and emphatically there is such a thing, tomorrow or in the more distant future, it is necessary to have at hand for immediate use or redeployment a high, stable and rising level of aggregate societal wealth. But the best, indeed the only means known to us for delivering, maintaining, and increasing that aggregate wealth, especially in difficult and rapidly changing circumstances, is to permit individuals to put all their inventiveness, meticulous observation, sensitivity to error and willingness to admit and correct mistakes, all their physical energy and intellectual passion into serving their own immediate short-term requirements, and to become, if they are successful, richer than their neighbours.

It was this to which Bernard Mandeville, the author of the scandalous early 18th-century economic satire, The Fable of the Bees, wittily referred when he observed that “private vices” lead to “public benefits”. Mandeville’s joke has from the first confused readers; it is rather more than the trickle-down theory that Keynes admired in him, and it must be granted that Mandeville could have been clearer in the meaning he attached to the term “vice”. But in a religiously doctrinaire age his caution was understandable, for, to a degree astonishing even by the very advanced standards of his native Netherlands, Mandeville was a moral sceptic, and held that there is no absolute definition of moral or immoral behaviour. We invent right and wrong, as J.L. Mackie put it in his much later book of that title.
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Lawrence James
July 7th, 2018
5:07 PM
'Laws that restrain an individual's adventures' . . . eg the outlawing of the slave trade, the banning of the adulteration of food and legislation which insists upon safety in mines and factories. Victorian laws framed in the knowledge that adventurous capitalists could never be trusted.

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