The eighteenth century was a time of significant change, where the landed nobility were losing their supremacy to mercantile and capitalist entrepreneurs. However, as Manderville shows in his economic assessment of the conditions that needed to be managed to ensure prosperity and growth, stability meant knowing your place and not levelling up.

Mandeville began with the premise that demand economics brought rising production and high employment. The problem was people’s desires were naturally limited. Therefore, society must artificially create wants, enforce the division of property to induce scarcity and praise industriousness to reinforce a sense of pride. By creating a sense of deprivation in terms of material goods, people never build up sufficient capital to maintain a comfortable fortune. Mandeville saw avarice as necessary to help sustain demand for goods and services. Pride becomes a desire to buy more expensive goods than your neighbours, increasing consumption and raising debt with the need to work harder. He argued that commercial prosperity—increased demand and greater productivity—improved the conditions of the poor in a pre-commercial society. This improvement helped compensate the poor for having to work harder and the fact that the law defended private property and not individual rights. If, however, instead of avarice, virtue prevailed and everyone lived a frugal life, then only clothing, food and shelter are needed. The labouring classes would become unemployed and may die because of lack of food. There would be little crime as there is no conflict of interest and people would have peace of mind as they were not constantly dissatisfied with their present condition. For Mandeville, it was a contrast between being vicious and rich and virtuous and poor.

In Mandeville’s society, each class emulates the one above them, with the nation’s wealth being measured in work, or productivity, rather than money. The lower classes looked at the goods owned by their social superiors and sought to emulate them, to match how they viewed themselves with how society saw them. As work is their only source of income, they worked harder, ensuring maximum productivity. Providing the balance between satisfaction and desperation is maintained, a person’s desire will drive them to work. The desire for social advancement created wealth and promoted the existing social order. The psychological motivation was egalitarian, both the aristocrat and the labourer had the same desire to amass wealth. After the South Sea Bubble of 1720, it was claimed moral standards had been eroded. Thomas Gordon, writing in the London Journal in December 1720, stated a hope based on avarice and ambition had made people wretched and poor in a desire to grow rich.

Merchants relied on the trade between nations. The goods brought into the country (imports) and those sent abroad (exports), the difference between the two being the balance of trade. To reduce imports, the state needed to discourage the purchase of luxury goods. In 1723, after the South Sea Bubble, Mandeville revised his earlier views and argued that the vices managed by politicians could be turned into public benefits. This involved the state taking a central role in manipulating individual desires for the good of the state, where the state is separate from the people.

Mandeville’s post-bubble writings concentrated on the organisation of labour. He said labour needed to be divided and not motivated by pride but satisfied by their subsistence. He now saw social mobility and aspiration as damaging. The labourer needs to be distanced from all forms of luxury to prevent their self-image from rising above the menial concerns of daily life and making them unhappy, avaricious, and unsatisfied with manual labour. Economic stability would therefore be provided by the virtuous labouring classes as they performed the jobs essential to society. The metropolis would allow both high and low to mix, but anonymity would permit them to construct their own identity. A growing agricultural sector was necessary to feed a growing population, but high wages were damaging to the system. The rural poor needed to be unaware of the luxury in the towns and the role of the government was to maintain a barrier between the two with education of the poor through charity schools not to be encouraged. Educating the poor only made them unfit for labour and reducing the number of labouring poor undermined the balance of society. Knowledge increases desire, therefore, the less men know, the easier they are satisfied. This general lack of knowledge also included what was going on in the world.

In the 1714 version, consumption played a significant part, but in later revisions, this was removed as the majority could not play a part in buying luxury goods. There are two distinct relationships, the more affluent view consumption as a way of satisfying pride, and the labouring population only sees it as a desire for self-preservation. Therefore, an excess of vanity and avarice are unknown to the poor. Through careful management, the labouring population will accept their position and even be happy as their avarice becomes dormant. When the labouring classes encounter luxury, they are not affected in the same way as their social superiors. There is no economic gain through increased consumption, only envy and social tension. Mandeville believed that desire would not motivate everyone to labour and people may choose to be idle over self-advancement. The role of the state is then to keep labour working and not idle.

To maintain production levels within society, the labouring classes need to be ordered, disciplined and accepting of their place in the social hierarchy. Mandeville believed material advancement arose from a desire for social advancement and to promote a stable society. This needed to be managed through restricted education and the separation of different groups in society.