Jeremy Bentham: From Laissez-Faire to Statism
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) began as a devoted Smithian but more consistently attached to laissez-faire. During his relatively brief span of interest in economics, he became more and more statist. His intensified statism was merely one aspect of his major — and highly unfortunate — contribution to economics: his consistent philosophical utilitarianism. This contribution, which opens a broad sluice-gate for state despotism, still remains as Bentham’s legacy to contemporary neoclassical economics.
Bentham was born in London the son of a wealthy lawyer, whiled away his youth at Oxford, and was admitted to the bar in 1772. But it soon became clear that Bentham was not interested in a career as an attorney. Rather, he settled down for life with his inherited wealth to become a cloistered philosopher, legal theorist, and “projector” or crank, eternally grinding out schemes for legal and political reform which he urged upon the great and powerful.
Bentham’s first and enduring interest was in utilitarianism (which we shall examine further below), and which he launched with his first published work at the age of 28, the Fragment on Government (1776).
Most of his life, Bentham functioned as the Great Man, scribbling chaotically on endless and prolix manuscripts elaborating on his projected reforms and law codes. Most of the manuscripts remained unpublished until long after his death. The affluent Bentham lived in a capacious house surrounded by flunkies and disciples, who copied revision after revision of his illegible prose to get ready for eventual publication. He conversed with his disciples in the same made-up jargon with which he peppered his writings. While a cheery conversationalist, Bentham brooked no argument from his aides and disciples; as his precocious young disciple John Stuart Mill later recalled with kindly understatement Bentham “failed in deriving light from other minds.” Because of this trait, Bentham was surrounded not by alert and knowledgeable disciples but by largely uncomprehending aides who, in the perceptive words of Professor William Thomas, “looked on his work with a certain resigned skepticism as if its faults were the result of eccentricities beyond the reach of criticism or remonstrance.” As Thomas continues,
The idea that he was surrounded by a band of eager disciples who drew from his system a searching critique of every aspect of contemporary society, which they were later to apply to various institutions in need of reform, is the product of later liberal myth-making. So far as I know, Bentham’s circle is quite unlike that of any other great political thinker. It consisted not so much of men who found in his work a compelling explanation of the social world around them and gathered about him to learn more of his thoughts, as of men caught in a sort of expectant bafflement at the progress of a work which they would have liked to help on to completion but which remained maddeningly elusive and obscure.1
What Bentham needed desperately were sympathetic and candid editors of his work, but his relationship with his followers precluded that from happening. “For this reason,” adds Thomas, “the steadily accumulating mass of manuscripts remained largely a terra incognita, even to the intimate members of our circle.” As a result, for example, such a major work in manuscript, Of Laws in General, astonishingly remained unedited, let alone unpublished, until our own day.
If anyone could have played this role, it was Bentham’s outstanding follower, James Mill. In many ways, Mill had the capacity and personality to perform the task, but there were two fatal problems: first, Mill refused to abandon his own intellectual work in order to subordinate himself exclusively to aiding the Master. As Thomas writes, “Sooner or later all Bentham’s disciples faced the choice of absorption or independence.” Though he was a devoted follower of Benthamite utilitarianism, Mill’s personality was such that absorption for him was out of the question.
Second, the slipshod and volatile Bentham desperately needed shaping up, and the brisk, systematic, didactic, and hectoring James Mill was just the man to do the shaping. But, unsurprisingly, Bentham, the Great Man, was not about to be shaped up by anyone. The personality clash was too great for their relationship to be anything but arm’s length, even at the height of Mill’s discipleship, before Mill achieved economic independence from his wealthy patron. Thus, in exasperation, Mill wrote to a close mutual friend about Bentham: “The pain he seems to feel at the very thought of being called upon to give his mind to the subject, you can have but little conception of.” At the same time Bentham, even long afterwards, confided his lingering resentment of Mill to his last disciple, John Bowring:
He will never willingly enter into discourse with me. When he differs he is silent.… He expects to subdue everybody by his domineering tone — to convince everybody by his positiveness. His manner of speaking is oppressive and overbearing.
There is no better way to summarize the personality clash between them.2
Bentham’s first published work, the Fragment on Government (1776), gained young Bentham an entrée into leading political circles, particularly the friends of Lord Shelburne. These included Whig politicians like Lord Camden and William Pitt the younger, and two men who were quickly to become Bentham’s close friends and earliest disciples, the Genevan Etienne Dumont and Sir Samuel Romilly. Dumont was to be the main carrier of Benthamite doctrine to the continent of Europe.
While utilitarian political and legal reform continued to be his main interest throughout his life, Bentham read and absorbed The Wealth of Nations in the late 1770s or early 1780s, quickly becoming a devoted disciple. Although Bentham praised practically no other author, he habitually referred to Adam Smith as “the father of political economy,” a
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