Bernard Mandeville's Defense of Imperfection and Human Flourishing

21 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 7 Apr 2010

Conor Williams

Georgetown University - Department of Government


Instead of arguing on the grounds of the ultimate perfection or natural character of markets, Mandeville focuses on the ways in which markets serve as tools of measurement as well as cushions against human failure and ineradicable empirical uncertainty. He understands that human life is characterized simultaneously by the potential for progress and the reality of limits, and thus he offers markets (where individuals can freely pursue their self-interest) as a means for humans to survive more comfortably than they would otherwise. I attempt to show that instead of promising perfection at the end of history, Mandeville's free market (properly understood) represents an attempt by humans to work within a flawed, uncertain world. Put simply, the free market makes opportunities of calamities, and promotes the sort of activity that makes progress (measured against nearly any standard, economic, political, social, scientific, or otherwise) possible. Conceiving of the market in terms of motion, activity, and expansion instead of in terms of balance and equilibrium is central to Mandeville's understanding of the best human economic life. The market is frenzied, full of activity, and impulsive, but it does offer a means of translating individual self-interest into measurable social benefit. In Mandeville's marketplace, individuals engage in economic life to better achieve their self-interested ends, and this is all we can expect or hope for.

Suggested Citation

Williams, Conor, Bernard Mandeville's Defense of Imperfection and Human Flourishing. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN:

Conor Williams (Contact Author)

Georgetown University - Department of Government ( email )

ICC, Suite 681
Washington, DC 20057-1034
United States

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