Jeremy Bentham’s Views on Democratic Government as the Best Method to Ensure the Welfare of the Citizens

The raison d’etre of government is to attach sanctions to certain unhappiness producing actions so that individual citizens will not be motivated to perform them. Or, as we said the coercion which is, by definition, part of the nature of government, is essential to create a system of rights and obligations to further the welfare of society.

The general end of government is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In specific terms, the ends of government are “subsistence, abundance, security, and equality; each maximised, in so far as it is compatible with the maximisation of the rest.” Bentham defined subsistence as the absence of everything leading to positive physical suffering.

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He advised the government to encourage industrialisation to generate employment so that each individual could look after his own subsistence. But if an individual was unable to do so, the government was to set up a common fund from contributions from the rich, for the well being of the poor.

If subsistence keeps the citizens from being unhappy, abundance is necessary to maximise their happiness. By ensuring prosperity, that is, surplus wealth in the hands of individuals after their basic needs are met, the government encourages the citizens to fulfill all their desires.

Bentham thought that affluence could best be increased by guaranteeing to each man the due reward of his work and security of his possessions.

The state should also encourage the invention of new tools and gadgets, and offer rewards, for socially useful inventions; it should develop technical manpower, and encourage thrift and hard work. “Above all it should fight those aspects of religious thought that encourage men to despise comforts and luxuries.”

For Bentham, security had several components the security of person, of property, of power, of reputation, and of condition of life. By the latter, Bentham meant something like social status. Every citizen’s security, in each of these aspects, was to be provided for by the government; security of property, for instance, is provided by seeing to it that valid contracts are kept by everyone.

Bentham was concerned about four kinds of inequality moral, intellectual, economic and political. He did not propose any measures to reduce moral and intellectual inequalities, but inequalities of wealth and power were to be mitigated.

Differences between the rich and the poor were to be evened out “the more remote from equality are the shares possessed by the individuals in question, in the mass of the instruments of felicity, the less is the sum of felicity, produced by the sum of those same shares” it not at the cost of the security of property. Inequalities of power could be “minimised by reducing the amount of power attached to public offices to the barest minimum, by declaring every sane adult eligible for them, and by making their incumbents accountable to those subject to their power.”

The last service to be provided by the government was that of encouraging benevolence in the citizen body so that every member of the body politic voluntarily, and with enjoyment performed the ‘countless small services’ of which the fabric of the felicity of society was built. The government could, for example, “fight the religious and sectarian prejudices which limit men’s sympathies and incline them to treat outsiders as less than fully human.”

Bentham believed man to be a creature so dependent on others for his well being that human life would be miserable and even impossible if men did not render various types of services to one another society ultimately only systems of services men render one another. Government makes sure of these services by creating a system of obligations and rights.

It does this by putting in place a system of offences with their corresponding punishments: it is a punishable offence, for example, not to pay one’s taxes; it is a punishable offence to steal someone else’s money. These punishable offer ground the services men render each other the positive service, or obligation, of contributing to the fund of common resources, or the negative service, or obligation of not interfering with someone’s right to property.

These services, or obligations, in turn, then ground everybody’s rights my right to property, or my right to subsistence. Each right only exists because of a corresponding obligation, and the government is to be very careful in specifying these obligations.

“My rights may or may not be a source of pleasure to me, but the corresponding obligations they impose on others are certain sources of pain to them.

The government, therefore, should never create rights, ‘instruments of felicity’ though they are, unless it can be absolutely certain that their probable advantages would more than compensate for their certain disadvantages.”

In a political society the sovereign can get the citizens to act as he wants through two ways, by influencing their will, which Bentham calls imperation, and by the threat of corporeal punishment, which Bentham calls contrectation. Although the former power is based on the latter, making the latter the basis of the sovereign’s sovereignty, Bentham points out that a political society based on imperation is stabler and longer lasting than a society based on contrectation.

The right of every adult to vote, frequent national elections, as frequent as one every year, transparency of government business which meant a free press, unlimited access to government offices, and the right to attend legislative sessions. ‘”Once annual election, universal franchise, and fullest publicity are established, no government, Bentham things, would ever ‘dream’ of pursuing its interest at the cost of that of the community.”

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