JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832):

By Axel Davies

Libertarian Heritage No. 15

Axel Kirk Davies received his BA (Hons) Government and Politics from
the City of London Polytechnic in 1992.  He graduated from University
College London in 1994 with an MA in Legal and Political Theory.

An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,
25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street,
London SW1P 4NN, England.


(c) 1995: Libertarian Alliance; Axel Davies.

The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and
not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee,
Advisory Council or subscribers.

LA Director: Chris R. Tame
Editorial Director: Brian Micklethwait



"The general character and disposition of the Rationalist are, I
think, not difficult to identify.  At bottom he stands for
independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from
obligation to any authority save the authority of `reason'.  His
circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is
the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional,
customary or habitual.  His mental attitude is at once sceptical and
optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no
belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates
to question it and to judge it by what he calls his `reason';
optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his
`reason' (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing,
the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action."(1) 
Michael Oakeshott

During the course of this essay I wish to return to a debate that has
concerned political and economic historians throughout the twentieth
century.  What influence, if any, did Jeremy Bentham's doctrine of
utilitarianism have on the changing conceptions of governmental
responsibility in the life of the nation during the Victorian era?
The argument consists of many parts.  What did the nineteenth century
`revolution in government' consist of and why did it come about?
Simultaneously, what influences were brought to bear on liberalism
that transformed it from a predominantly laissez-faire ideology to
one more predisposed to follow an interventionist path?  Did
Bentham's utilitarian philosophy have any part to play in both these
transformations and, if so, for what reasons and in what way?

In his Lectures on the Relationship Between Law and Public Opinion in
England during the Nineteenth Century (1905) A. V. Dicey sparked off
the debate by planting Bentham firmly in the individualist camp.
Since then opinion has swung from equating Bentham with laissez-faire
to suggesting that he was responsible for the growth of the welfare
state to denying that he had any real influence at all, and back
again.  It is notoriously difficult to discover a direct link between
thought and practice, yet if one accepts that ideas have
consequences, as I do, then it will be the main contention of this
essay that one consequence of the doctrine of utility involved a
weakening of the existing ideological constraints on government
intervention.  In other words, not only did utilitarian doctrines
exert a considerable influence but that influence also ran
concurrently with, if not actually anticipated at times, the main
thrust of government activity during the nineteenth century.

While acknowledging that "any attempt to pigeon-hole or classify
Bentham is bound to be particularly misleading and any attempt at a
precise and concise generalisation about his views on the role of the
state especially hazardous",(2) by concentrating primarily on the
implications of his philosophical doctrine, rather than on what
specific conclusions Bentham himself might have reached on any
particular issue, one can see how the seeds of interventionist
liberalism were sown.

Some commentators such as Lionel Robbins and G. Kitson Clark have
argued that the terms of the debate are mistaken and that a false
dichotomy exists when analysing the nineteenth century, because there
was no clear-cut distinction between a period of laissez-faire and
one of interventionism.(3) Robbins' revisionist study of the
classical economists refuted the common caricature of them as
proponents of `social Darwinism' in economics (although Malthus and
Ricardo may have sometimes given that impression).(4) Even Adam Smith
believed that the state played an important role in "erecting and
maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions,
which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small
number of individuals, to erect and maintain."(5) Nevertheless, I
wish to maintain that utilitarianism sanctions a more activist state
and expansionist social programme than classical liberals would have
desired or tolerated.

My reasons for holding such a view will not centre so much on the
debate as to whether Bentham was more of an authoritarian than a
liberal.  I will accept, for argument's sake, and take at face value
Bentham's professed liberal beliefs.  Nor will I be proposing that
because Bentham sanctioned certain and limited interventions by the
state on specific matters such as the relief of indigence, then that
automatically places him in the dirigiste camp.  As was noted
earlier, none of the classical economists were anarchists; all
assumed that certain functions were the prerogative of the state and
could be carried out by no other.  I think it can be conceded that
where it concerned economic policy Bentham was generally a proponent
of the prevailing laissez-faire orthodoxy: "With the view of causing
an increase to take place in the mass of national wealth ...  the
general rule is, that nothing ought to be done or attempted by
government.  The motto, or watchword of government, on these
occasions, ought to be - Be quiet."(6)

Yet, as I hope to show later, Bentham's utilitarian doctrine was
principally concerned with the legislation of morals.  Although he
may have been non-interventionist in economic matters, it does not
automatically follow that therefore the philosophy of utilitarianism
must necessarily be so in general.  I would not go so far as J.
Bartlet Brebner in describing Bentham as "The archetype of British
collectivism".(7) My somewhat different contention is not that
utilitarianism is totally laissez-faire or wholly interventionist.
Rather, that it allowed for a greater degree of government activity
than ideologically inclined liberals had previously sanctioned and
therein lies its interventionist roots.  While Bentham himself may
have believed that the greatest happiness of the greatest number be
best achieved without the help of government, others who followed the
same utilitarian premise could conceivably (and often did) arrive at
different conclusions.

Furthermore, by discussing Bentham's political thought via an
Oakeshottian analysis of the rationalist frame of mind, and with
reference to the constructivistic utilitarian conception of the
nature of political and social processes, I will attempt to explain
why liberal doctrines, and utilitarianism in particular, became
increasingly predisposed towards seeing the state, not as an
impediment to the general welfare, but rather as an active agent in
the quest for `real' emancipation.  However, before turning directly
to the influence Bentham's doctrines may have exerted on the changing
role of the Victorian administrative state, an overview as to what
that change consisted of and possible explanations for it will be
helpful in providing a backdrop to the debate.


"There is no more fascinating theme in contemporary history than to
follow the stages through which the laissez-faire `night-watchman
state' of the nineteenth century has been transformed into the
`welfare state' of today."(8) 
E. H. Carr

Conceptions as to what role the state should play in the life of the
nation during the nineteenth century were so bound up with the
prevailing liberal notions of the time, that a brief examination of
these notions is necessary in order fully to appreciate the changes
that occurred concerning the public/private sphere between the start
and the end of this century.

Early Victorian liberalism, carrying on a tradition prevalent since
the seventeenth century, still held closely to a belief in the
`inalienable' rights of man to `life, liberty and property', a
doctrine closely connected to the writings of John Locke.  Over time
this doctrine evolved into notions of the autonomous will of the
individual and liberty, defined as the absence of all unnecessary
restraints, was lauded as the supreme value in political discourse.
This `rugged individualism' naturally led to a distrust of the state
and most forms of government intervention.  Also, the belief in
self-help as expounded by Samuel Smiles coupled with the political
economy of Smith, Malthus and Ricardo amongst others, was ideally
suited to the opinions of the growing commercial, industrial and
merchant middle-classes who were becoming increasingly influential in
national affairs.  Progress would be ensured if the government
removed restraints to trade and let individual enterprise flourish.
Reform meant repeal.

However, if most of the nineteenth century can be considered as the
`golden era' of laissez-faire, self-reliance, individual
responsibility, and minimal government intervention in economic and
social affairs, it is clear that by the end of the century these
ideas were in decline as popular ideology.

Many reasons have been put forward as to why governmental controls
grew during the Victorian era, and they mainly concern the rapid
changing social conditions of that time and the response many thought
necessary to meet them.  In other words, well-meaning people believed
new measures were needed to meet new problems or even old problems
which had now moved from the local to the national stage.  Of
greatest importance was industrialisation and its corollary,
urbanisation, which was facilitated by a rapid increase and greater
mobility in the population.  As towns and cities grew so did the
problems related to their growing density, such as general squalor
and poor sanitary conditions.  These changing social and economic
conditions impacted so strongly on those who had to endure them that
the general public became increasingly favourable towards
interventionist reform to alleviate the problems.

Of equal significance is the extension of the franchise, particularly
the second Reform Act of 1867, which ensured that government became
more responsive to a wider segment of society.  This may explain in
part why Dicey dated the end of laissez-faire at about 1870.
Laissez-faire capitalism, with its concern over property rights and
the inviolability of contracts, had always held more appeal to the
middle-classes than those lower down the social scale who were more
concerned with better conditions of employment, etc.  In other words,
the needs of employees as well as employers now came into the
equation.  Yet even those who were believed to have benefited most
from the free play of market forces such as industrialists, merchants
and traders also began to question laissez-faire doctrines at about
this time.  Certainly increasing competition from abroad and the
economic slump this country suffered in the 1870's and 1880's shook
the conviction of many in the supremacy of private enterprise.

It was not only a reaction to external events, however, that forced
the pace of change concerning governmental involvement in society.
Liberalism itself underwent ideological change that could not but
have had some influence on how public opinion and those more directly
involved in government perceived political and social concerns.  Yet
it is not at all clear whether this evolving liberalism ran
concurrently with changing external factors or whether it responded
to these in order to survive as a still relevant and going concern.
In short, whether liberalism influenced public opinion or whether it
was influenced by it.  Whatever the case, a growing segment of
liberal opinion believed that if it did not loosen its ties to
laissez-faire doctrines then it would be superseded by the growing
ideology of socialism.

Throughout the nineteenth century non-interventionist liberalism had
come under increasingly hostile cultural and literary criticism from
figures such as Dickens, Coleridge, Southey, Arnold, Carlyle and
Ruskin, to name but a few.  The common caricature of political
economy as heartless ideology concerned only with `atomistic' and
`economic' individuals they considered too limiting as a description
of the human condition.  Furthermore, unregulated capitalism was
condemned for the dehumanising effect it was perceived to have and
for breaking the traditional bonds that held society together as an
organic whole.  For those with an aesthetic sensibility, capitalism
was seen as the engine by which ugliness had replaced beauty.

Unfortunately, some liberal thinkers responded to this criticism by
conceding the argument over the perceived inadequacies of many of
liberalism's basic tenets, particularly those concerning the nature
of individuality and the traditional way freedom was defined as
merely the absence of constraints on individual action.  T. H. Green
played an important role in changing liberal assumptions by moving
from a `negative' conception of freedom towards a more `positive'
one.  He argued that freedom should be conceived in broader terms
than had been previously allowed.  Moral and ethical considerations
were now brought to bear so that "the ideal of true freedom is the
maximum of power for all members of human society alike to make the
best of themselves."(9) A belief in the autonomy of the individual
was discarded in favour of an organic notion of the individual as a
part of society and with corresponding obligations to it.  Rather
than restricting freedom, the state should now be used as the means
to enhance it as well.  The traditional liberal antithesis between
the state and the individual, Green argued, should be discarded,
particularly in an emerging democratic nation.

Green was followed by other liberal thinkers such as David Ritchie,
John Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse who all contributed to the movement
of liberalism away from laissez-faire towards a more interventionist
path.  Significantly enough, Hobhouse acknowledged the debt that
Bentham and utilitarianism had bequeathed to the changing emphasis of
liberal ideology: "men ...  like Bentham and Mill, who had principles
and knew how to apply them, were the real spiritual leaders who moved
the masses of social prejudice and political obstruction and made the
way plain for reform."(10) Would Hobhouse have acknowledged a debt to
previous thinkers if he had not seen them as forerunners of his own
thought?  I can only assume that his reference to John Stuart Mill
concerns The Principles of Political Economy which, while still
laying down Mill's laissez-faire credentials, nevertheless expressed
some sympathy with socialist aspirations and sanctioned a fairly
impressive number of exceptions to the `non-interference principle'.

Before examining Bentham's role in all this, a brief survey of what
growing state involvement and the `administrative revolution' meant
in practice will be useful when later on in the essay Bentham's
influence on these developments comes under scrutiny.

Although evolving hand in hand, there are really two aspects to the
changing role of the state in the Victorian era.  Firstly, the
specific areas where legislation was felt necessary and, secondly,
the administrative machinery required to carry it out.

It is not particularly difficult to list just some of the areas
involving legislation where governments had previously not concerned
themselves.  Hours and conditions at work were regulated in factories
and mines.  To take just one example, the Mines Act 1842 ensured that
women and children under ten years of age would not be required to
work underground.  (Mining gradually became one of the most regulated
industries in this country.) Various Factory Acts were similarly
enacted in 1833, 1844 and 1847 to regulate hours of work.
Legislation concerning urban sanitation and public health was also
introduced through the Public Health Act of 1848 which, amongst other
things, made the provision of drains and clean water compulsory.  The
provision of relief was re-modelled in 1834 by the centralising Poor
Law Amendment Act, and regulation of the railways proceeded apace
because of fears of monopolistic practices (thus eventually turning
it into one big monopoly!).  Another sphere where government took on
responsibilities for the first time was in the field of education,
with the passing of Forster's Education Act of 1870.

While political opinion discussed the merits or otherwise of
government regulation, those involved in the regulatory process
increasingly came to understand "that if a social policy was to be
effective government machinery would have to be created to put it
into force."(11) This came to be known as the `administrative
revolution', a term used to describe the evolving administrative
regulation of social affairs and the form that it took.  It also
describes the growth of a more efficient bureaucracy staffed by a
growing professional class of `experts' and administrators.  This
may, in part, be due to reforms in the civil service such as the
introduction of competitive examinations in an attempt to eliminate
nepotism and incompetence.  What alarmed many observers were the
centralising tendencies of much of this legislation.  The Poor Law
Amendment 1834 and the Public Health Act 1848 were seen as typifying
this process by trespassing on the rights of elected local
authorities and impinging on the traditional duties of local
government.  This `empire-building' on behalf of the central
bureaucracy was perhaps no more than an outward expression of inner
convictions about their own competence successfully to `manage' or
`engineer' social change.

What is clear is that the `administrative revolution' in government
was an evolutionary process rather than an abrupt change, so much so
that many did not realise it was happening.  A few libertarian
thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, Wordsworth
Donisthorpe, William Mallock and Thomas Mackay, were more perceptive
than most in recognising the underlying trend of social policy.
Herbert Spencer disparagingly referred to the `New Toryism' of the
Liberal Party.(12) Yet by the end of the century, the ideological
tide had turned to such an extent that growing state involvement was
perceived as a generally beneficial process and critics who bemoaned
the new consensus were regarded as antiquated and out of touch.

Having described in some detail the changing role of the state during
the nineteenth century and possible influences on that change, both
ideological and non-ideological, I will now go on to concentrate on
the role Bentham and his followers played in all this.  Some
historians, such as Harold Perkin, Jennifer Hart and C. R. Fay,
consider Bentham as the architect of the reform process.  J. Bartlet
Brebner even goes so far as to claim that these reforms were
"Benthamite in the sense of conforming closely to that forbidding,
detailed blueprint for a collectivist state, the Constitutional
Code."(13) Yet others, like David Roberts and Oliver Macdonagh,
believe that these changes would have occurred no matter what
ideological assumptions were prevalent at the time, and they suggest
that Bentham's influence was minimal.  The state was no more than
responding pragmatically to events.  Once the `non-interference
principle' was breached the growth of government took on a momentum
of its own and ideas were of secondary importance.  It is to this
debate over Bentham's role that I now wish to turn.


"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they
are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly
understood.  Indeed, the world is ruled by little else."(14) 
John Maynard Keynes

Macdonagh and Roberts argue that the `administrative revolution'
during the Victorian era cannot be considered as ideologically
inspired.  Instead it evolved organically and as a purely pragmatic
response to changing social conditions.  Or, as Kitson Clark
maintains, there was no hidden agenda: "it was the work of
individuals reacting as best they might to particular problems and
situations."(15) In a sense, it can be understood as a
self-perpetuating process.  Once legislation was deemed a permissible
response to a particular social injustice, then further legislation
could always be called upon to remedy any remaining problems not
foreseen when the original legislation was enacted.  As Macdonagh
makes clear, "A precedent was established, a responsibility
assumed."(16) Furthermore, once legislatory action had been taken in
one field it could be cited as an example as to why there was little
reason for it not to be enacted in another.  As for the trend towards
increasing centralisation, they argue that this was merely a means
towards greater efficiency in government while also helping to define
clearer lines of authority.

As for Benthamism, Macdonagh concedes that "In its concern with the
regulatory aspects of law and the problems of legal enforcement, in
its administrative ingenuity and inventiveness, in its downright
rejection of prescription, in its professionalism and its faith in
`statistical' enquiry, it worked altogether with the grain of our
(administrative) revolution'."(17) Nevertheless, Macdonagh sees this
as coincidental and denies that Bentham's doctrines were an operative
force Bentham may have influenced particular individuals but his
influence on the general public and civil servants was strictly
limited.  In short, his philosophy did not dictate the tenor of the
times.  At most it ran concurrently with, or even reinforced,
existing trends rather than initiating them.

Others, however, find ample evidence to suggest Bentham and his
followers played a significant role in nineteenth century legislation
and that "the majority of essential reforms accomplished between 1820
and 1875 had the Benthamite impress upon them."(18) Support for the
view that utilitarian doctrines were an important factor can be
separated into two related parts.  Firstly, it is contended that
ideas do indeed play a part in the political process and, secondly,
that those ideas can be discerned when judging the policies enacted
in that process.

Henry Parris is one historian who supports the contention that
political actions do not operate in an intellectual vacuum and that
allowance must be made "for the unconscious influence of ideas on
men's minds", even if it is a process that cannot be empirically
verified.(19) In other words, if it is rarely possible to find
empirical evidence the endeavour should not therefore be discarded.
Why else discuss the ideas of historical figures if we cannot presume
that in some way they permeate the general discourse of their time?
If one accepts that ideas have consequences then it is surely
permissible to suggest that Bentham's ideas had a determining
influence on the nineteenth century, even if the contention cannot be
proved to the satisfaction of everyone.  As Stephen Conway makes
clear, "historical study in general is, by its very nature, based on
incomplete information about historical characters and their motives;
but this does not mean that it is impossible to suggest connections
that might further our understanding of the past."(20)

Parris claims that there is nothing inevitable about how institutions
respond to changing social factors, they must be guided as much by
prevailing theoretical assumptions concerning society as by practical
considerations.  If this be the case, then Parris suggests that the
dominant current of opinion during the second half of the nineteenth
century was utilitarian in origin and stemmed from the pen of Jeremy
Bentham.  Although abstract thought alone does not transform society
(it must co-exist alongside, and respond to, material
transformations) "it does not follow that the same (political)
solutions would have been reached had he never lived." The growth of
government "though not attributable to Benthamism as sole cause,
cannot be understood without allotting a major part to the operation
of that doctrine."(21)

While it would be rash to assume that politicians and legislators
were solely concerned with implementing a coherent philosophical
doctrine, it would appear that Macdonagh and Roberts have gone too
far the other way in arguing that the `administrative revolution' was
a purely pragmatic, nonideological and incoherent response to events.
As Michael Freeden points out, "Legislation does not occur in a
vacuum ...  At the very least, the mental climate of an age defines
and constrains the options open to the politician (who) cannot help
being guided by the hard core of existing thought that has
accumulated on a certain issue."(22) That Bentham's ideas were
certainly in the air and common currency at that time, even if not
consciously appreciated as coming from that source, is suggested by
one disciple's rueful reflection that "many writers had drawn upon
Bentham without acknowledging whence they had derived their

If it can be conceded that utilitarian thought played an important
role in legislative affairs, it still needs to be established how
this came about.  By what route did theory become practice?  How were
Bentham's ideas disseminated and with what practical results?

That Bentham was notoriously difficult to read and that he produced
no best-sellers during his lifetime is common knowledge.
Nevertheless, it would appear that his ideas filtered through into
the general consciousness via the writings and activities of a small
number of dedicated and remarkably active advocates of his
philosophical position.  Secondary sources played an vital role in
this process.  The Westminster Review was established for the sole
purpose of discussing public policy in terms of utilitarian analysis,
and through the writings of James Mill, John Stuart Mill and other
`philosophic radicals' many of Bentham's ideas reached a wide
audience.  It must also be remembered that the political class
involved in public policy at this time was a still relatively small
coterie of intellectuals, civil servants, politicians and men of
affairs.  Through prolific correspondence and extensive personal
contacts utilitarian ideas began to make inroads on the opinions of
these policy makers.(24)

Benthamic ideas had an even more direct impact when a number of his
followers achieved positions that enabled them to play a prominent
role in Government social policy.  John Dinwiddy claims that in this
respect Benthamites "played a major role in publicising abuses and
framing legislation to remove them - in fields such as public health,
poor relief, and the restriction of child-labour in factories."(25)

Edwin Chadwick, an enthusiastic proponent of Bentham's ideas,
epitomises the new breed of administrative `expert' involved in
nineteenth century legislation.  He perhaps played the most important
proselytising role in the moulding of social administration.  Besides
sitting on the commission of enquiry into factory conditions which
produced the Factory Act of 1833, he also played a prominent role,
along with other Benthamites such as George Grote and Walter Coulson,
in drawing up the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.  He advocated new
principles in poor relief that echoed Bentham's proposals as set out
in Pauper Management Improved (1798).  These included the acceptance
of central government responsibility for the relief of poverty and
national uniformity in provision where previously this had been left
to the sole discretion of the various parishes.

Yet Chadwick was not the only Benthamite disciple involved in
administrative reforms.  John Roebuck was a forceful proponent of a
national and uniform educational system.  He saw those opposed to
state interference in educational affairs as misguided, now that
government was becoming increasingly democratic and more
representative of the people.  Similarly, Joseph Hume, Sir Samuel
Romilly and Thomas Southwood Smith, actively promoting reform in the
fields of public health, law reform and factory legislation
respectively, were all either personal friends of Bentham or his
avowed disciples.  Other measures that Bentham had advocated at one
time or another that finally found their way onto the statute books
include the setting up of a permanent police force; the official
registration of births, marriages, and deaths; and separate
ministries responsible for the provision of education, health and
poor relief.

A proviso, however, must be included at this point.  Was someone like
Chadwick implementing consistent policies that conformed to coherent
philosophical principles, or was he just responding to perceived
social evils in a humane way and without prior ideological
commitments having any part to play?  One can certainly point-to
areas where regulation was advocated and yet in others where the
`non-interference principle' was maintained.  For example, Chadwick,
Roebuck and Hume all opposed any attempt to regulate the hours of
work when applied to adult labour.  And as Dr Conway makes clear,
these reformers were much more than narrow-minded and dogmatic
advocates of Benthamite doctrines.  Indeed, Bowring, Southwood Smith
and Chadwick were as much influenced by religious conviction, and it
would therefore be erroneous to assume that utilitarian reformers
drew up their proposals on solely utilitarian grounds.(26) Yet
bearing this in mind all at one time or another acknowledged a debt
to Bentham either publicly or in private correspondence.(27)

Equally it must be admitted that many involved in the reform process
had very good reasons of their own that did not involve any knowledge
of Bentham's back catalogue.  Nevertheless, William Thomas maintains
that Bentham's followers played a predominant, if indeterminable,
role in much of the reforming process: "They are the moles of
nineteenth century legislation: you never see them, but the mounds of
earth show where they have been at work."(28) In a similar vein, John
Dinwiddy has no doubt that almost by means of osmosis, utilitarian
ideals influenced not only the actions of reformers but also the
purpose of reforms.  That many of Bentham's reform proposals never
came to pass, such as the private contracting out of prisons, the
Panopticon scheme, and much of the Constitutional Code, can be
explained by the fact that reform "was a process of infiltration and
piecemeal improvement ...  of a general and rather intangible kind"
and therefore did not result in the total reconstruction - of law or
political institutions - that Bentham himself would have wished.(29)

Although it will never be possible to pinpoint with any precision the
exact degree to which Bentham's influence impacted on each specific
reform and legislative proposal, when all probabilities are taken
into account one must concur with Harold Perkin that "there were, no
doubt, reforming administrators who had not read Bentham, and some
perhaps - although it is very hard to believe - who had not heard of
his name ...  (yet) those who had read Bentham, or talked to those
who had, could travel all the faster for knowing where they were


"The liberty of the subject is only the means towards an end; it is
not itself the end; hence, when it fails to produce the desired end,
it may be set aside, and other means employed."(31) 
William Jevons

As Stephen Conway suggests, those who reject the notion of any
Benthamite influence on the changing role of the state do so, not
only on the grounds that growing state involvement was an
inevitability in the circumstances, but also because Bentham is still
considered by many as a laissez-faire individualist and "that his
general aim was to remove restrictions, not to create new ones; to
reduce state interference, not to increase it."(32) In other words,
if Bentham really was an advocate of laissez-faire ideology then he
could have had little influence on the latter half of a century that
slowly but surely moved away from such notions.

A.  V. Dicey, who labelled the years between 1825 and 1875 the
`period of Benthamism or Individualism', had no doubt that
"laissez-faire was practically the most vital part of Bentham's
legislative doctrine."(33) Certainly one can find in Bentham's
writings many instances of such a position.  In his Defence of Usury
(1787) Bentham went beyond Adam Smith in criticising government
interference concerning interest rates and instead advocated the free
play of market forces.  He also supported the efficacy of private
over public initiatives in many other respects.  Take, for example,
his proposal that prisons be run privately so that they would not
become a drain on the public purse.  Bentham always believed that
pervasive corruption, `sinister interests' and general government
incompetence meant that, wherever possible, government should stand
aside in favour of the private sector.

James Steinrager, for one, has no truck with those like Gertrude
Himmelfarb and J. Bartlet Brebner who concentrate on Bentham's
authoritarian tendencies.  Bentham's work as a law reformer was
concerned with the removal of archaic and outdated restrictive laws
such as those concerned with sexual freedom and religious liberty.
The removal of unnecessary restrictions on freedom of speech and the
press, and on individual freedoms that were `self-regarding' (to use
a phrase of Mill's) would increase the happiness of the people and
thereby conform to the principle of utility.  "In Bentham's eyes one
of the appeals to the principle of utility was its profoundly
liberating potential."(34) As Stephen Conway points out, in his
opposition to deference, aristocratic institutions and traditional
government practices, with his support for democratic reform and
universal suffrage, and in his advocacy of greater economy and
efficiency in government, in the minds of the general public at
least, he was often "connected with the proponents of vigorous

Another reason why Bentham was considered an advocate of
laissez-faire was his concern over the sanctity of property, which he
considered essential for the maintenance of stability.  Indeed,
security of private property took preference over the principle of
equality as one of his four legislative ends of government.  By
opposing protectionism, subsidies, price controls and other forms of
government intervention, by supporting the principle of free trade
and in his distrust of costly and expensive foreign adventures,
Bentham does appear as a fairly representative figure of the school
of Political Economy.  There may well be justification, in times of
general hardship, for government limits on the price of grain and the
prohibition of food exports, but such times he considered exceptions
to the rule.  In general, intervention by the state was unnecessary,
People knew best what their own interests were and intervention would
for that very reason be ineffective.

Yet I do not wish to stake my claim for the interventionist
tendencies of utilitarianism in the purely economic sphere, as there
seems little controversy as to which camp Bentham belonged.  Nor do I
wish to dwell on the specific policies Bentham himself advocated on
this or that issue, for it is the implications of his philosophical
position that concerns me most.  One cannot presume that because as
an individual Bentham was laissez-faire then that necessarily implies
that utilitarianism must always be so, for there are various elements
in his philosophy that can be interpreted, by those who wish to do
so, in a much more interventionist light.

Bentham argued that the sole purpose of all legislation should be to
promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.  Following on
from Adam Smith's identification of a natural harmony of interests by
means of an `invisible hand', he also believed that his principle of
utility could be best secured with minimal government interference.
Yet in changing circumstances there is no reason why that principle
could not also be used to support a large degree of government
intervention in society if it was felt necessary in order to secure
happiness, and this is indeed what happened.  In other words, while
the end remained the same, the means to achieve that end were not
prescribed in tablets of stone.

That the `greatest happiness principle' could be used to justify a
much wider and more extensive degree of government intervention than
Bentham had conceived of was something many of his followers, as
personified in the work of Edwin Chadwick, clearly recognised.  They
certainly did not believe they were departing from utilitarian
principles by sponsoring government interference in the economy, and
they began to see the state as having a pivotal role to play in
promoting the welfare of the people and, as a consequence, their
general happiness.  If utilitarianism did not directly advocate state
intervention, then neither did it proscribe it as the earlier liberal
doctrine of `natural rights' had done.

Nor is it always obvious that the traditional liberal emphasis on
individual freedom and autonomy can be reconciled with the greatest
happiness of the greatest number.  For it is at least conceivable
that this could be achieved by restricting the freedom of some in
order to promote the happiness of the many.  That such utilitarian
notions began to influence liberal thought is suggested by the
following remark of Nassau Senior, once considered a committed
adherent of laissez-faire doctrines: "The only foundation of
government is expediency, the general benefit of the community.  It
is the duty of government to do whatever is conducive to the welfare
of the governed.  The most fatal of all errors would be the general
admission that a government has no right to interfere for any purpose
except the purpose of affording protection."(36)

Certainly, both `New Liberals' and Fabians saw Bentham as a
forerunner of the social welfare doctrines they started to advocate.
By placing new emphasis on the reforming character of liberalism
"conceived as the rational and planned remedying of social ills",
Michael Freeden believes that "utilitarian reform - political, legal
and social - left an indelible mark upon the ideological development
of English social thought."(37) And as is well known this ideological
development moved slowly but surely in an increasingly collectivist

That "there was undoubtedly an inclination on Bentham's part to
favour active and attentive government, and, correspondingly, no
disposition to shy away from legislative interference" seems beyond
doubt.(38) However, it is not always clearly apparent why this should
be so.  I will now attempt to show that due to the constructivistic
basis of utilitarian philosophy, the Benthamic view of the nature of
social processes implicitly requires constant legislative
interference in social affairs, as do all rationalistic or
constructivist ideologies.


"...  much of his political activity consists in bringing the social,
political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before
the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational
Michael Oakeshott

In the above quote, Oakeshott was commenting on the nature of
rationalism in general, but it is difficult to believe that he did
not have Jeremy Bentham very much in mind as he wrote it.  Friedrich
Hayek suggests that a term more appropriate to the Benthamic frame of
mind, and one that particularly leads in an interventionist
direction, is `constructivism' - a belief that "since man has himself
created the institutions of society and civilisation, he must be able
to alter them at will so as to satisfy his desires or wishes." This
erroneous belief, of which Bentham was a supreme exponent, can easily
mislead one "into thinking that morals, laws, skills and social
institutions can only be justified in so far as they correspond to
some preconceived design."(40)

Although overlapping in many areas and sharing similar ideals, there
are really two distinctive traditions in liberalism.(41) One
tradition, associated with the `Scottish Enlightenment', Mandeville,
Hume, Smith, Ferguson, Burke and the English Whigs, takes an
evolutionary approach to the work of social processes in society.
According to this view, traditional ways and means of social
co-operation and interaction, for example, language, the common law,
money and even the market economy, emerged in a spontaneous and
evolutionary manner: "nations stumble upon establishments, which are
indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human

In other words, many of the institutions in society that are
necessary for the maintenance of advanced civilisations were not
purposely designed for their respective uses and there was no overall
preconceived plan in their development.  "Language, religion, law,
even the state itself, and to mention a few economic and social
phenomena of markets, of competition and money, and numerous other
social structures are already met within epochs of history where we
cannot properly speak of purposeful activity of the community as such
directed at establishing them."(43)

The very survival of certain laws and fundamental rules of behaviour
found present in all societies throughout history suggest they serve
a purpose, one that we might not be able to discover or immediately
articulate because they evolved spontaneously as general rules of
conduct.  Humans evolve and prosper by stumbling upon rules of
conduct conducive to their survival, while those that do not adapt to
these evolving rules will tend to remain at a fairly primitive stage.
The same could be said for societies in general, and therefore it
would be a mistake to discard traditional practices and established
ways of conducting our affairs on a rationalist whim.  Or as Burke
put it: "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own
private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each
man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail
themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages."
`Latent wisdom' is to be found in `general prejudice'.(44)

The second liberal tradition stemmed from the Continent and took a
more rationalist approach concerning the structure of human
institutions, demanding a "deliberate reconstruction of the whole of
society in accordance with principles of reason."(45) It emerged from
the scientific method of reasoning attributed to Rene Descartes and
is closely associated with the writings of the philosophers Voltaire
and Rousseau, the Encyclopedists and the French Physiocrats.
Descartes himself exemplified the constructivistic nature of the
rationalist approach: "those nations which, starting from a
semi-barbarous state and advancing to civilisation by slow degrees,
have had their laws successively determined, and, as it were, forced
upon them simply by experience of the hurtfulness of particular
crimes and disputes, would by this process come to be possessed of
less perfect institutions than those which, from the commencement of
their association as communities, have followed the appointment of
some wise legislator."(46) Or, as Voltaire put it more succinctly:
"if you want good laws, burn those you have and make yourselves new

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between these two schools of
thought is that one stresses the unforeseen and unforeseeable
consequences of individual actions resulting in a social order that
nevertheless works to the benefit of society, while the other
attempts to trace all social phenomena to deliberate design: "the
former is a product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of
the individual mind which induces an attitude of humility toward the
impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help
to create things greater than they know, while the latter is the
product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason
and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been
consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it."(48)

Unlike the prescriptive view as expounded by the British Whigs,
Continental liberalism consisted of "a general mental attitude, a
demand for an emancipation from all prejudice and all beliefs which
could not be rationally justified."(49) Rules or laws not founded on
any rational basis should, be swept away in favour of those
constructed solely by man's reason to serve a predetermined and
definitive end.  That this characterises Bentham's thought is
suggested by his comment concerning the possible implementation of
his Constitutional Code: "To the whole contents of this proposed code
...  In whatever political community, by which it were adopted, it
would ...  probably to a very large extent, involve the abolition of
existing institutions."(50) It is this brand of liberalism that
appears to have influenced Bentham, the Philosophic Radicals and the
English radical tradition in general.  And it is this brand of
liberalism, with its emphasis on re-designing society, that is much
more prone to seeing the role of government as the means by which
this may be achieved.

That Bentham was a fairly representative figure of this school of
liberalism and the rationalist belief "that the human mind is capable
of knowing all the facts relevant to the understanding of any
situation" comes out clearly in his proposed `felicific calculus'
whereby pleasures and pains could be measured objectively and
policies pursued that would maximise the greatest amount of objective
pleasure.  As Norman Barry claims, "this approach represents all too
well the hubris of reason - the arrogance and insolence of `rational
man'.  It is impossible, in a necessarily uncertain world, to know
the consequences of political (or any human) action with anything
approaching certainty.  Indeed, most political actions by government
generate unintended consequences which are impossible to control,
even if they can be predicted."(51) In other words, the legislator
cannot possibly know all the consequences of his actions no matter
how `scientific' his calculus.

It is not so much that opponents of Cartesian rationalism are in some
way anti-rationalist or that Hume and Burke were opposed to the use
of reason.  Rather it is a form of what Karl Popper termed `critical'
rationalism, an acknowledgement of the limits to human understanding
and the frailties of human wisdom, as opposed to the `naive'
rationalism of the Continental approach.(52) In a sense, reason is
used as a means to debunk `reason' and the presumption that one can
restructure society according to some grand design.

Once the implications of constructivistic thought can be discerned
the interventionist tendencies of utilitarianism become more
apparent, and it is these tendencies which I will now go on to


"He liked to think that he had discovered in the principle of utility
a simple positive principle on which all men would be able to agree
so as to reform society on a systematic plan."(53) 
Elie Halevy

Bentham's 'Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation'
(1780) was a critical denunciation of existing English legislative
practice, mainly because much of it was unintelligible, or because no
rational justification could be found in its support.  In response he
proposed that laws should only be enacted if they conformed to the
principle of utility as defined by the greatest happiness of the
greatest number: "A measure of government ...  may be said to be
conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like
manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the
community is greater than any which it has to diminish it."(54) In
other words, Bentham was setting up an ideal ethical system by which
to judge existing institutions in relation to how far they conformed
to or fell short of that ideal.  All proposals concerning public
policy were evaluated by the same criteria.

If existing institutions or practices did not conform to this
utilitarian agenda then no impediment should be found to their
abolition.  "Bentham saw himself as an engineer ...  and he had a
pioneer inventor's faith in his blueprints as well as a distaste for
piecemeal alterations and adaptions of his plans."(55) Hence, if no
rational justification could be found for following traditional rules
and practices then they should be discarded forthwith in favour of
rational designs that served a recognisable purpose, in Bentham's
case that purpose being the greatest happiness of the greatest
number.  The common thread that runs through all of Bentham's work is
the belief that "human institutions will serve human purposes only if
they have been deliberately designed for these purposes ...  and
always that we should so re-design society and its institutions that
all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes."(56) Wise
legislation was all that was needed to bring about this state of

Bentham, as John Stuart Mill observed, was "the great questioner of
things established", and appeals to historical precedent, to
tradition or to the principle of prescription all fell on deaf ears.
They were mere "political fallacies" designed to protect the
"sinister interests" of those who governed.  That Bentham took this
approach is hardly surprising.  "To the Rationalist, nothing is of
value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has
existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing
is to be left standing for want of scrutiny ...  The conduct of
affairs is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope
to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to
habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition."(57) In other words,
binding constitutional rules and practices were regarded as archaic
impediments to the implementation of a rational utilitarian agenda.

Bentham was not merely content, however, with debunking the existing
shibboleths of political theory and practice.  His utilitarian
philosophy was also advanced as an objective guide to legislative
practice.  "In an iconoclastic frame of mind ...  the Philosophic
Radicals demanded the submission of all institutions - legal,
constitutional, ecclesiastical - to the rationalist criterion of
utility."(58) I will now go on to show now this relates to the
changing nature of liberalism during the nineteenth century and why
it also came to be seen as a doctrine that encouraged the state to
assume a much larger role concerning its functions in society.

Michael Freeden argues that utilitarian thought played a major part
in the evolution of liberalism towards a growing acceptance of
government intervention, and that "it bequeathed to the new
liberalism important modes of thinking about society even after it
had ceased to exist as a definite philosophical movement."(59)
Because happiness came to replace liberty as the sole end of
legislation, utilitarianism initiated the increasing emphasis on
social rather than individual welfare.  Since happiness incorporated
the notion of welfare and was not solely concerned with individual
autonomy it preceded the new liberal thinking which emphasised the
social responsibilities of government.  Indeed, the provision of
welfare came to be seen as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of `real'
freedom and opportunities so that "Liberty and welfare became twin
goals, each in a way defining and explaining the other."(60) In other
words, utilitarianism as a philosophical creed fitted in as easily
with the new liberal assumptions about society as it had done with
the old.

By placing happiness rather than liberty as the ultimate end of all
legislation, utilitarianism sanctioned a much more extensive role for
the government than liberalism had previously admitted.  From Locke
onwards, liberals argued that the state's two main functions were to
act as `umpire' by ensuring that the rules of the game were played
correctly, and as `protector' by upholding the natural rights of
individuals against injury and injustice.  Yet now the state was seen
as having a more active role to play in positively promoting the
happiness of its subjects.

It would appear that if happiness is the ultimate goal, then freedom
can be considered beneficial only in so far as it promotes that
happiness.  What this implies is that if freedom came to be seen as
an inadequate means of achieving Bentham's principle then it would be
logical to discard it in favour of a process that would.  In other
words, positive action by government is in no way prohibited if it
could shown to produce a beneficial outcome in terms of happiness.
Those who follow the logical implications of utilitarianism must
accept that "If it could be shown that happiness could be more
effectively promoted by restricting freedom than by enlarging it,
they would be bound by their own principles to favour restricting

Whereas liberty had once been conceived of as an end in itself, with
the advent of utilitarianism it came to be seen not as an end but as
the means to a further end, that of happiness.  It would seem that
much of Bentham's opposition to government interference was due to
the inadequate, mistaken or selfish reasons that were propounded in
its support.  Yet if the reasons provided could be shown to promote
the greatest happiness of the greatest number then government
interference would be considered permissible.  In utilitarianism the
means are determined by the end.  Or to put it another way, while the
end as defined by the greatest happiness principle remained fixed the
means to achieve it were not.  The debate concerning the respective
roles of laissez-faire or government intervention now revolved around
which, in each particular case, was the most appropriate in the
circumstances.  As Stephen Conway makes clear, Bentham was "from
first to last and above all else, a utilitarian.  Actions were to be
judged by their consequences not on their intrinsic merits."(62) The
result being that it was no longer necessary for those liberals who
accepted the utilitarian position to be inherently hostile towards
the state.

Michael Freeden also makes the point that once utilitarianism
concerned itself with happiness as an equal right of each individual,
rather than the prerogative of a majority, if governments could
intervene to facilitate the happiness of the few without
substantially reducing the happiness of the many then it would be
incumbent on them to do so.

What I hope to have shown is not that utilitarianism is inherently
collectivist, rather that it was, by implication, more
interventionist than traditional liberal doctrine in that it did not
proscribe from the outset, as natural rights theory had done, limits
to that intervention.  By replacing the protection of individual
liberty with the procurement of happiness as the main function of
government, it allowed for a greater degree of state responsibility.
The roots of liberal interventionism were thus planted.


"His philosophy is essentially a philosophy written for legislators
and men engaged in government, that is to say for men whose
profession is to restrict liberty."(63) 
Elie Halevy

Bentham's constructivist approach to social processes also naturally
led him to espouse a philosophy of law, legal positivism, that is not
always an obvious defender of individual rights or liberties.  Legal
positivism subscribes to the view that all law, conceived of as "an
instrument of organisation for particular purposes", derives from the
expressed will of a sovereign law-giver.(64) It demands that the
sovereignty of the legislature be supreme as a logical necessity, for
it cannot be considered sovereign if its power can be limited by
another placed above it.  In short, sovereignty cannot be limited by
law for it precedes it, and as a consequence there can be no limits
to the legislative authority.

As Stephen Conway points out, not only is it a logical necessity for
the sovereign to wield unlimited power, it is also demanded by the
all encompassing agenda of utilitarianism: "Any imposition of
boundaries, any endeavour to declare, in advance, that certain areas
were beyond legislative control, was a derogation of sovereign power,
and therefore a limitation on the ability of the sovereign power to
maximise happiness."(65) On a similar note, in the Constitutional
Code Bentham argued that, because sovereignty lies in the people, the
legislature which represents them should therefore be `omnicompetent'
(all-powerful).  In other words, there was no need for a separation
of powers, a second chamber of debate, a Bill of Rights, or any form
of judicial review or veto on government legislation.  Bentham failed
to see that without constitutional checks or limits, a majoritarian
democracy may well result in a majority insisting on extensive
government intervention in society if it was perceived that as a
consequence it would increase their happiness.

Furthermore, in advocating the unlimited authority of the
legislature, Bentham criticised natural rights theory as "nonsense
upon stilts".  He believed that only government had the power to
confer rights, and that it was therefore illogical to presume that
rights could be enforced against it in return.  By claiming that
there exist no absolute rights that can be upheld against the state,
Bentham not only attacked a competing ideology that would have
impeded the implementation of his own agenda, but also undermined a
doctrine that proscribed from the outset any activity by the
government that interfered with the `natural right' to liberty and
property.  In other words, whereas previously one could appeal to a
higher authority of Natural Law in defence of one's rights,
utilitarianism placed no such impediments on government interference
and there was no longer any sphere of activity that could now be
considered off-limits to the state.  "By denying that there were
limits to legislative activity ...  Bentham was opening the door to a
very considerable degree of state intervention."(66)

The theory of natural rights was predominantly concerned with
individual `space' and autonomy.  It preceded Kantian ethics in its
concern that individuals be treated as ends in themselves rather than
as means to some other aggregate end, irrespective of what that end
might be.  If one takes the greatest happiness of the greatest number
principle literally, it is at least conceivable that some individuals
may be sacrificed in order to increase the aggregate sum of happiness
for the rest of the community.  As Hobhouse stated, if utilitarian
principles were taken to their logical conclusion it could mean that
society "may do with the individual what it pleases provided that it
has the good of the whole in view...  It contemplates, at least as a
possibility, the complete subordination of individual to social
claims."(67) After all, by dismissing natural rights theory
individuals now had no natural rights that could be violated if such
a process were to occur.  If maximisation of utility is the sole
criteria of public policy then no rights can be raised in opposition
to it.  As Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams remark, "persons do not
count as individuals in this any more than individual petrol tanks do
in the analysis of the national consumption of petroleum."(68) This
is particularly true of `act-utilitarianism' which assesses any
action purely by the results it produces.

That Bentham conceived of happiness as being more important than
freedom is suggested in his oft quoted remark; "Call them soldiers,
call them monks, call them machines, so they were but happy ones, I
should not care."(69) Indeed, liberty does not even warrant a
separate mention in Bentham's four proposed legislative ends of
Government - security, subsistence, abundance and equality.

Frederick Rosen, in an essay re-affirming Bentham's libertarian
credentials, makes much of the fact that, for Bentham, security was a
more appropriate term to denote liberty because it "established the
framework within which each person could realise his or her own
happiness".(70) Yet when Rosen writes that "As security, liberty
played the most fundamental role as the main end of legislation", I
remain to be convinced.(71) To take just one example, in his
proposals for the relief of indigence, Pauper Management Improved
(1798), Bentham argued that it would be in the best interests of
everyone concerned if beggars were confined to the workhouse whether
they consented to this treatment or not.  There they would remain
until they had paid the expenses, not only of maintaining them, but
also of the cost involved in capturing them.

Yet it was not only those who applied for relief who would be
apprehended and forced into the workhouse, but also those considered
in need of assistance even if they did not actively seek it.
Furthermore, neither was it only the National Charity Company that
would be given the power to arrest beggars: "even the ordinary
citizen would be allowed - indeed encouraged - to apprehend and
convey any beggar to the nearest Industry-House."(72) As Gertrude
Himmelfarb goes on to say: "there was no such thing as the `rights'
of paupers, for there was no such thing as rights at all.  There were
only interests, and the interests of the majority had to prevail.
The greatest happiness of the greatest number might thus require the
greatest misery of the few."(73)

While Rosen would not agree with Himmelfarb that security as
perceived by Bentham could result in repressive restrictions on
liberty, he does recognise, nevertheless, that Bentham's conception
of security sanctions a considerable degree of Government
intervention in society, even if for different reasons, for it
"enabled him to move beyond the Lockean conception of the minimal
state ...  where security would be conceived more widely in terms of
education, health, and welfare."(74) Exactly.  As shown earlier, that
Bentham's legislative ends of government allowed for a more activist
role for the state than John Locke would have sanctioned stemmed from
the utilitarian principle that ends matter more than the means by
which they are reached.

So far I have attempted to indicate to the reader where the
interventionist roots in utilitarian philosophy spring from.  I will
now go on to briefly examine how Bentham believed his utilitarian
agenda was to be implemented by discussing the role of the legislator
in Bentham's thought.

One indication of how Bentham perceived the role of the legislator
can be discerned in the following quote; "if it were possible to
suppose a new people, a generation of children, in which the
legislator would find no ready formed expectations to contradict his
views, he might fashion them to his will, like the sculptor deals
with a block of marble."(75) Now Bentham goes on to admit that this
is not possible, but one can almost imagine him regretting the fact.
Indeed, many commentators have seen in Bentham a "tendency to treat
individuals as human materials to be conditioned and manipulated by
the managers of society."(76) And the fact that the end in sight is
the generally beneficial one of happiness does not detract from the
fact that conditioning and manipulation are still involved.

Bentham saw utilitarianism as a `science' of legislation to be
mastered by the legislator who would then be in a position to
restructure society in conformity with the greatest happiness
principle: "The legislator is the great dispenser of pleasures and
pains in society.  It is he who creates the moral order ...  Society
is the work of his artifices."(77) In short, the legislators' task
was to engineer psychological hedonism in such a way that it
conformed to the utilitarian ethic.  This is what Halevy termed "the
principle of the artificial identification of interests".

In the economic sphere, if people were left alone to pursue their own
self-interest Bentham believed that, due to the working of Adam
Smith's `invisible hand', it would generally tend to produce
unintentional but desirable outcomes or, in other words, a natural
identification of interests.  Conversely, in the social sphere
Bentham argued that legislative intervention would be required to
prevent this natural self-interest of the individual from coming into
conflict with other individuals which would tend to produce
undesirable outcomes.  In other words, the legislator would need
artificially to channel this self-interest in a more harmonious
direction.  Halevy claims that this is why, at least in social
affairs, Bentham tended towards a degree of paternalistic
intervention by the state.  This dichotomy between the natural and
artificial identification of interests may go some way to explaining
why increasing government intervention in social welfare during the
nineteenth century was not immediately accompanied by a similar
involvement in purely economic matters.

The paternalistic trend in utilitarian thought can also be discerned
in the field of educational provision.  Bentham argued that no-one
knew better than the individual concerned what was in his own best
interest.  Yet this in turn requires that individuals be sufficiently
educated and knowledgeable to appreciate where their real interests
lie.  John Stuart Mill, for one, did not believe that they were and
hence that "the case is not one in which the interest and judgement
of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the
commodity."(78) And it was for this reason that utilitarians could
sanction government provision of compulsory education.  Yet as Halevy
points out, why stop at education?  The same reasoning concerning the
general ignorance of the population could be used to admit a wide
discretion for paternalistic interventionism.

If Henry Parris is correct in stating that the question was "not
laissez-faire or state intervention, but where, in the light of
constantly changing circumstances, the line between them should be
drawn",(79) then on the basis of all the preceding evidence, it is my
contention that utilitarianism increasingly allowed this line to be
drawn in favour of government intervention.  Thus "a generation
reared in the doctrines of laissez-faire" nevertheless proceeded to
lay "the foundations of modern collectivism".(80)


"No reformer has put more trust in rational planning to improve men's
lives, nor worked out the details with such care."(81) 
William Thomas

While this essay could not even attempt to have been exhaustive in
its analysis of the impact utilitarianism had on the political and
social thought of the nineteenth century, I hope to have shown that,
at the very least, Bentham was not the supreme laissez-faire exponent
of Dicey folklore.  I also attempted to show that not only did
Bentham influence ideological developments, but that he influenced
those developments in a particular direction.

Even if one accepts that Bentham considered himself an individualist,
and there are many instances in his work that suggest this was the
case, it in no way detracts from the interventionist tendencies of
his doctrine.  Once the greatest happiness principle replaced the
liberty of the individual as the ultimate goal in political practice
it let the interventionist cat out of the liberal bag.  It may even
be that Bentham's influence led to certain developments in the
nineteenth century that he himself would not have intended or
desired.  But as Harold Schultz points out, "political theorists
plan, their plans make a difference in society, but not necessarily
the difference planned."(82)


1.  Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, Methuen, London,
1962, p. 1.

2.  T. W. Hutchinson, "Bentham as an Economist", Economic Journal,
LXVI, 1956, p. 301.

3.  "I do not myself think that the conception of a period of
laissez-faire is helpful.  It has just enough truth to conceal its
defects, which are many, and it is an encouragement to error." G.
Kitson Clark, An Expanding Society: Britain 1830-1900, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1907, p. 162.  See also Harold Perkins,
"Individualism versus Collectivism in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A
False Antithesis", Journal of British Studies, XVII, 1977.

4.  Lionel Robbins, The Theory of Economic Policy in English
Political Economy, Macmillan, London, 1952.

5.  Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth
of Nations (1776), eds., R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, Clarendon,
Oxford, 1976, Book IV, ix, p. 51.

6.  Jeremy Bentham, "The Test of Utility", in H. J. Schultz, ed.,
English Liberalism and the State, D C Heath and Co., Massachusetts,
1972, p. 7.

7.  J. Bartlet Brebner, "Laissez-faire and State Intervention in
Nineteenth Century Britain", The Journal of Economic History, VIII,
1948, p. 61.

8.  Quoted from the introduction in H. J. Schultz, ed., English
Liberalism and the State, D C Heath and Co, Massachusetts, 1972, p.

9.  Quoted in Anthony Arblaster, The Rise and Decline of Western
Liberalism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984.  p. 286.

10.  Quoted in Michael Freeden, The New Liberalism, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 1978, p. 253.

11.  Kitson Clark, An Expanding Society: Britain 1830-1900, p. 138.

12.  Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State: With Six Essays on
Government, Society and Freedom, Foreword by Eric Mack, Introduction
by Albert J. Nock, Liberty Classics, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1981
(first published as The Man Versus The State by Williams and Norgate,
London, 1884).

13.  J. Bartlet Brebner, "Laissez-faire and State Intervention in
Nineteenth-Century Britain", The Journal of Economic History, Vol.
VIII, 1948, p. 62.

14.  John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest
and Money, Macmillan, London, 1936, p. 383.

15.  Kitson Clark, An Expanding Society, p. 147.

16.  Oliver Macdonagh, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution in
Government: A Reappraisal", The Historical Journal, Vol.  1, 1958,
pp.  57-67.

17.  Ibid.

18.  Charles R. Fay, Great Britain from Adam Smith to the Present
Day, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1928, p. 57.

19.  Henry Parris, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Government:
A Reappraisal Reappraised", The Historical Journal, Vol.  III, 1960,
p. 28.

20.  Stephen Conway, "Bentham and the Nineteenth-Century Revolution
in Government", in Richard Bellamy, ed., Victorian Liberalism,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1990, p. 77.

21.  Parris, The Historical Journal, p. 37.

22.  Michael Freeden in The New Liberalism, p. 249.

23.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 79.

24.  For an extensive and more detailed analysis of this process see
Conway in Victorian Liberalism, pp.  71-90.

25.  John Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform in Britain: 1780-1850,
Hambledon Press, London, 1992, p. 311.

26.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 78.

27.  Ibid., p. 79.

28.  William Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 1979, p. 9.

29.  Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform, p. 312.

30.  Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1969, p. 269.

31.  Quoted in Michael Freeden, in The New Liberalism, p. 53.

32.  Stephen Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 73.

33.  A. V. Dicey, Lectures in the Relation Between Law and Public
Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan, London,
1905, p. 147.

34.  James Steinrager, Bentham, Allen and Unwin, London, 1977, p. 30.

35.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 74.

36.  Marian Bowley, Nassau Senior and Classical Economics, George
Allen and Unwin, London, 1937, p. 265.

37.  Michael Freeden in The New Liberalism, p. 13.

38.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 75.

39.  Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, Methuen and Co.,
London, 1962, p. 4.

40.  Friedrich Hayek, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics,
and the History of Ideas, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p.

41.  Hayek, New Studies, pp.  119-151.

42.  Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (first
edition 1767), Edinburgh University Press with an Introduction by
Duncan Forbes, 1978, p. 187.

43.  Carl Menger, Problems of Economics and Sociology, University of
Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1963, p. 146 (reprinted as
Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special
Reference to Economics, New York University Press, 1985).

44.  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790),
Everyman's Edition, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1960, p. 84.

45.  Hayek, New Studies, p. 120.

46.  Quoted in Hayek, Order - With or Without Design?, Centre for
Research into Communist Economies, London, 1989, p. 44.

47.  Quoted in Hayek, New Studies, p. 5.

48.  Hayek, Order - With or Without Design?, p. 42.

49.  Hayek, New Studies, p. 120.

50.  Jeremy Bentham, Constitutional Code, Bowring, Edingburgh, 1843,
p. 1.

51.  Norman Barry, End-States and Processes: Two Conflicting
Explanations of Society, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 1988,
p. 39.

52.  Hayek, Order - With or Without Design?, p. 79.

53.  Elie Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, Faber and
Faber, London, 1972, p. 34.

54.  Jeremy Bentham, "On the Principle of Utility", in Schultz, ed.,
English Liberalism and the State, p. 6.

55.  Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals, p. 19.

56.  Hayek, Order - With or Without Design?, p. 75.

57.  Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, p. 4.

58.  Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock, The Liberal Tradition from Fox
to Keynes, A and C Black, London, 1956, p. xxvi.

59.  Freeden in The New Liberalism, p. 15.

60.  Ibid., p. 14.

61.  John Plamenatz, "Introduction", in Halevy, Philosophic
Radicalism, p. x.

62.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 75.

63.  Halevy, Philosophic Radicalism, p. 74.

64.  Hayek, Order - With or Without Design?, p. 162.

65.  Conway in Victorian Liberalism, p. 76.

66.  Ibid., p. 76.

67.  L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism (1911), Galaxy Books, New York, 1964,
p. 38.

68.  Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, ed., Utilitarianism and
Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1982, p. 4.

69.  Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1965 p. 182.

70.  Frederick Rosen, "The Origin of Liberal Utilitarianism: Jeremy
Bentham and Liberty", in Bellamy ed., Victorian Liberalism, p. 61.

71.  Ibid., p. 60.

72.  Gertrude Himmelfarb, "The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham", in
Herr and Parker, eds., Ideas in History, Duke University Press,
Durham, North Carolina, 1965, p. 233.

73.  Ibid., p. 235.

74.  Rosen in Victorian Liberalism, p. 68.

75.  Quoted in Halevy, Philosophic Radicalism, p. 503.

76.  Ibid., p. 487.

77.  Ibid., p. 17.

78.  John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1970, p. 956.

79.  Parris, The Historical Journal.

80.  Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1965, p. 215.

81.  Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals, p 20.

82.  Schultz, ed., English Liberalism and the State, p. xi.

Jeremy Bentham
Happiness Is Back
Jeremy Bentham: the founder of utilitarianism
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

swan image