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The Economics of Sin

Rational Choice or No Choice at All?

Samuel Cameron

The Economics of Sin examines the definition and evolution of sin from the perspective of rational choice economics, yet is conscious of the limitations of such an approach. The author argues that because engaging in activities deemed to be sinful is an act of choice, it can therefore be subject to the logic of choice in the economic model.
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Chapter 4: Greed, Lust, Sloth and Waste

Rational Choice or No Choice at All?

Samuel Cameron


INTRODUCTION Let us begin this chapter with a quote from the best-known poem (an allegory from the life of bees) in the history of economics: Vast Numbers thronged the fruitful Hive; Yet those vast numbers made ’em thrive; Millions endeavouring to supply Each other’s Lust and Vanity; Whilst other Millions were employ’d To See their Handy-works destroy’d; [Harth (1970, p. 64)] Admittedly Bernard Mandeville’s ‘Fable of the Bees’, published first as a sixpenny pamphlet, The Grumbling Hive in 1705, is probably the only wellknown poem in the history of the literature of economics. Further, by the final edition in 1724 the thrust of the book was also buttressed by numerous prose remarks which Mandeville had appended to the poem in response to his critics. The prose text had effectively overtaken the poem as an exposition of his ideas. Although he was attacked by noted critics using puns on his name as ‘man devil’, Mandeville was not actually advocating sin but was rather engaged in a polemic to highlight the hypocritical state to which society had sunk. Mandeville was essentially modernist. Commentators perceive his economic thinking as being mercantilist and thus devoid of the insights of marginal utility and general equilibrium models, even in the nascent form of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Yet his pithy comments on the subjects of this and the next two chapters are quite in line with remarks made from the mainstream of economics in those areas. Mandeville identified the simultaneous presence of greed, lust, sloth and...

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