Jeremy Bentham’s Democratic Despotism

  • Pedro Schwartz
Part of the British Association for the Advancement of Science book series


The object of this paper is to discuss whether the concept of democracy which appears in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is one which takes liberty as very much.a secondary aim in the good society and inadvertently gives a recipe for a social organisation where virtue is despotically imposed.


Public Choice Prime Minister Welfare State Majority Rule Social Contract 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    M. James ‘Public Interest and the Majority Rule in Bentham’s Democratic Theory’, Political Theory, IX, 1 (February 1981) pp. 49–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. I say inadvertently because, as Dr James noted, Bentham was not open to the charge of ‘majoritarianism’, that is, he did not propose a commonwealth where the majority could do as it wished (p. 52).Google Scholar
  3. See D. C. Mueller, Public Choice (Cambridge University Press, 1979) pp. 2–3 and passim.Google Scholar
  4. ‘What motives (independent of such as legislation and religion may chance to furnish) can one man have to consult the happiness of another? by what motives, or, which comes to the same thing, by what obligations can he be bound to obey the dictates of probity and beneficence? In answer to this, it cannot but be admitted, that the only interests which a man at all times and upon all occasions is sure to find adequate motives for consulting, are his own.’ An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in J. H. Burn and H. L. A. Hart (eds), in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham (CW) (London: The Athlone Press, 1970) p. 284.Google Scholar
  5. Much of what appears in the Constitutional Code was present in a previous text about which I would rather write a separate article, to wit, ‘Rid Yourselves of Ultramaria’. This MS, which Bentham put aside in 1823, had something to say about the agency problem, namely ‘that of the sweets of government the quantity in the hands of the functionaries of government should be as small as possible, consistently with the exercise of the power of government in a manner contributing to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and as to the sweets of misgovemment no such sources of mischief should have place’ (UC, clxxii, 225). I owe my knowledge of ‘Rid Yourselves’ to Dr C. Rodriguez Braun, ‘Pensamiento económico y cuestión colonial en el siglo clásico: los casos de Bentham y Marx’ (Doctoral Dissertation, Madrid, 1984), and to the transcript of the Bentham MS by Miss Claire Gobbi.Google Scholar
  6. This happens if the preferences of all the voters are ‘single-peaked’ (see Mueller, Public Choice, pp. 40–41). See also pp. 99ff. for the predictive consequences of this theorem.Google Scholar
  7. M. de Condorcet, Essai sur Vapplication de l’annalyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix (Paris: 1785).Google Scholar
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  10. V. Pareto, ‘II massimo di utilità per una colletività in sociologia’, Giornale degli Economisti, 3a serie 46 (1913) pp. 337–41. Pareto there defines an index Vi, which represents ‘Pareto’ social optima as seen by each subject i; and another index W, strictly unknowable, which would in theory be a function of the Vs of each individual weighted by appropriate indices. W would represent social welfare as impartially seen by government. The only thing known about W is that it is an increasing function of the Vis: W cannot be a maximum, unless each Vi is at a maximum for given values of the other Vs (see also his Trattato di sociologia generale (1916) sections 2131–9). Three criticisms can be directed at this conception: (a) most political decisions better the position of some only at the expense of all the rest; (b) people are not indifferent to the progress of others even if they are not themselves set back in their own terms as a result; (c) there is no such thing as an imperial government, in other words, speaking about W is simply a ploy to disguise the utilities of the powerful. It would be much simpler to go straight to a contractarian theory of welfare.Google Scholar
  11. The limitation of the ‘Pareto’ criterion have led applied welfare economists to use the Kaldor compensation principle, whereby a change can be effected if it leaves enough benefit in principle to compensate the losers and leave some over. In cost-benefit analysis, this is expressed by saying that beneficiaries would be ‘willing to pay’ for the change if they were asked to do so. This, however, is nothing but contractarian application of the concept of eminent domain misleadingly dressed in Benthamite garb.Google Scholar
  12. J. Buchanan and G. Tullock, The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962).Google Scholar
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    T. W. Schultz, Transforming Traditional Agriculture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), Chapter 3, ‘The Allocative Efficiency of Traditional Agriculture’.Google Scholar
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    K. Brunner and W. Meckling, ‘The Perception of Man and the Conception of Government’ Journal of Credit, Money and Banking, IX, 1, (February 1977), pp. 70–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. C. F. Bahmueller, The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s Silent Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962).Google Scholar
  17. Stanhope Archive K 121/39, General State Archives, Athens (quoted in the Editorial Introduction by F. Rosen and J. H. Burns to the Constitutional Code, Vol. 1, I, CW, p. xxvii).Google Scholar
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    J. R. Dinwiddy, ‘Bentham and the Early Nineteenth Century’, The Bentham Newsletter, VII (June 1984), pp. 15–33.Google Scholar
  19. Rosen and Bums, ‘Editorial Introduction, CC, vol. I, CW, p. xiii.Google Scholar
  20. I am drawing on Sir Karl Popper’s suggestion that people stumble onto logical developments of ideas, developments that are implicit in the original ideas and that will appear in real life if those ideas are applied. In ‘Epistemology without a Knowing Subject’ (1967), reprinted in his Objective Knowledge: an evolutionary approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), Popper uses the example of natural numbers throwing up unexpected problems, as Bentham’s utilitarian republic suffers from unexpected snags, forerunners of the actual difficulties of the welfare state. Says Popper: I agree with Brouwer that the sequence of natural numbers is a human construction. But although we create this sequence, it creates its own autonomous problems in its turn. The distinction between odd and even numbers is not created by us: it is an unintended and unavoidable consequence of our creation. Prime numbers, of course, are similarly unintended autonomous and objective facts; and in their case it is obvious that there are many hard facts here for us to discover (p. 118).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    L. J. Hume, Bentham and Bureaucracy (Cambridge: University Press, 1981), pp. 93ff. Bentham was thus much more of a mercantilist in matters of economic policy than Adam Smith.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. David Lierberman, ‘Bentham’s Digest’, The Bentham Newsletter (June 1985), pp. 7–20.Google Scholar
  23. A Fragment on Government, CW, p. 439.Google Scholar
  24. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, CW, p. 6.Google Scholar
  25. Bentham, despite his criticisms, liked the 1812 Cádiz Constitution, mainly for its initial declaration in art. 12: ‘The object of Government is the happiness of the nation, since the end of every political society is none other than the welfare of the individuals that compose it?’Google Scholar
  26. I saw them with the remains of the Valle library in Guatemala City, in the house of Mr and Mrs Asturias. In the preface to Volume 1, Bentham said that he had written the Code with the new nations appearing on the American Continent in mind, and later for those of the British Commonwealth.Google Scholar
  27. All the utilitarians adopted a paternalistic attitude towards coloured subject races. Bentham himself, in his 1830 ‘Postscript’ to ‘Emancipate your Colonies’, doubted the ripeness of the Chinese and the Indians for self-government.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    F. Rosen, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 236.Google Scholar
  29. Ibid., p. 94.Google Scholar
  30. Ibid., p.92.Google Scholar
  31. Rosen quotes this passage on p. 49. The source is UC, xxxviii, 217.Google Scholar
  32. ibid., p. 50.Google Scholar
  33. In 1831 Bentham changed this passage of the ‘Inaugural Declaration’ to delete the expression ‘of the greatest number’. I will comment on this further on Compare Rosen, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, pp. 201, and 202–3.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    J. Bentham, ‘Defence of a Maximum’, in W. Stark (ed.) Jeremy Bentham’s Economic Writings (London: Allen & Unwin, 1952–4), Vol. 3, p. 258.Google Scholar
  35. This volume contains among others the following works, all proposing administrative interventions in the financial markets. ‘A Plan for the Augmentation of the Revenue’ (MS, 1794); ‘A Proposal for the Circulation of a [New] Species of Paper Currency’ (MS, 1795–6); ‘Abstract or Compressed View of a Tract Intituled Circulating Annuities’ (MS, 1800); ‘Paper Mischief [of country bankers, Exposed]’ (MS, 1800–1).Google Scholar
  36. Stark, (ed.) Jeremy Bentham’s Economic Writings Vol. 1, pp. 377–412.Google Scholar
  37. Rosen, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, p. 195. Mill says so in his essay on Bentham (1838) — Essays on Religion and Society, Collected Works, X: ‘Is it… the proper condition of man, in all ages and nations, to be under the despotism of Public Opinion?’ (p. 107); ‘We cannot think that Bentham made the most useful employment which might have been made of his great powers, when, not content with enthroning the majority as sovereign, by means of universal suffrage without king or house of lords, he exhausted all the resources of his ingenuity in devising means for riveting the yoke of public opinion closer and closer round the necks of all public functionaries, and excluding every possibility of the exercise of the slightest or most temporary influence, either by a minority or by the functionary’s own notions of right’ (p. 108).Google Scholar
  38. J. S. Mill, Autobiography and Literary Essays, in J. M. Robson and J. Stillinger (eds), Collected Works of J. S. Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), Vol. I, p. 149.Google Scholar
  39. Georges Vedel, Les démocraties marxistes (Paris: 1953).Google Scholar
  40. J. Bentham, Preface to the Constitutional Code, Vol. I, pp. 4, 6.Google Scholar
  41. H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).Google Scholar
  42. Quoted by Rosen, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, pp. 201, 202–3.Google Scholar
  43. Ibid., p.201.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Dan Usher The Economic Prerequisite to Democracy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), Chapter ii.Google Scholar
  45. Traités de législation civile et pénale M. Jeremie Bentham, Jurisconsulte anglois. Publies en françois par Ét. Dumont, de Genève, d’après les manuscrits con-fiés par Vauteur (Paris, 1802) vol. II, ‘Principes du Code Civil’, ch. 6, ‘Propositions de Pathologie sur lesquelles se fonde le bien de l’Égalité’.Google Scholar
  46. Rosen, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, pp. 101ff.Google Scholar
  47. For Hayek, should the rule of law be seen ‘as an impracticable or even undesirable ideal’, individual freedom would in the end disappear. F. von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), p. 206.1 was reminded of this text by J. A. Dorn, ‘Law and Liberty: a comparison of Hayek and Bastiat’, Journal of Libertarian Studies, V, 4 (Fall, 1981) p. 382. By rule of law, Hayek understands a system of formal guarantees for legal instruments, wider than that of their having been promulgated by the Queen in Parliament. The act must be ‘general, equal, certain, and just’ to be a law. By ‘just’, Hayek means four further qualities: the law should not endanger the spontaneous market order; it should allow individuals to pursue their own interests while not infringing the equal rights of others; it should limit itself to the protection of ‘life, liberty, and the possessions of a man’; it should pass the test of universal applicability (pp. 376–7).Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    H. Demsetz, ‘Towards a Theory of Property Rights’, American Economic Review, LVII (May 1967) pp. 347–59, shows that every change in preferences or, in production conditions, modifies what it is worth our whole to appropriate and defend. ‘The emergence of new property rights takes place in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost opportunities,’ (p. 350). Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of the Law (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), sees legal and judical decisions as increasing social efficiency, by adjudications which innovate on rights made obsolete by changes in demand or supply conditions: these decisions tend to attribute new rights directly to the most efficient prospective user, thus short cutting his bargains to buy out the less efficient owners.Google Scholar

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© The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1986

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  • Pedro Schwartz

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