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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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Bentham has suffered at the hands of many people. He wrote a great deal, not all of which is easily comprehensible; some of his most influential work appeared in French under the editorship of Dumont before it appeared in English; and his English editor Bowring was rather cavalier in his arrangement of Bentham’s material and sometimes even censorious when it came to his writings on religion. Now and again, from amongst the endless listing and categorization that plagues Bentham’s writings out pops a pithy statement which catches the eye. Here is one of these about the proper function of government. After making some exceptions for defence and the propagation of useful knowledge, Bentham concludes that government could help the public welfare the most by “being quiet”, that is in not doing anything much. This is his rather English way of saying what the Physiocrats urged their government to do: “laissez-faire, laissez-passer”. Just to make sure we understand what he is saying Bentham relates the story of Diogenes’ conversation with King Alexander in which Diogenes told the ruler of the world in no uncertain terms to “get out of my sunlight”.

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4 October, 2010

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Bentham on the proper role of government: “Be Quiet” and “Stand out of my sunshine” (1843)

Read the full quote in context here.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) inspired James and John Stuart Mill with his theory of utilitarianism. His formulation of what the government should do is similar to that of the 18th century French Physiocrats, “laissez-faire”. In an uncharacteristically brief statement he urged the government to “be quiet”, or to “get out of my sunlight”:

We have seen above the grounds on which the general rule in this behalf—Be quiet—rests. Whatever measures, therefore, cannot be justified as exceptions to that rule, may be considered as non agenda on the part of government. The art, therefore, is reduced within a small compass: security and freedom are all that industry requires. The request which agriculture, manufactures, and commerce present to governments, is modest and reasonable as that which Diogenes made to Alexander: “Stand out of my sunshine.” We have no need of favour—we require only a secure and open path.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Intelligence and power may be administered by government at a much cheaper rate. A mite of reward, skilfully applied, is often sufficient to produce an immensity of intelligence. In many instances, it frequently requires nothing more than the removal of coercion from one hand to another, or even the repeal of it altogether, in order to confer the sort and degree of requisite power; the operation, in either case, not being attended, in the shape of pain, with any perceptible effect.

The two most extensive descriptions of the cases in which it is necessary or expedient to interfere for the purpose of regulating the exertions of individuals in respect to the increase of wealth, are those in which it is necessary to regulate the pursuit of the several objects in view, according to the order of their importance:—in giving to the matter of wealth that modification which adapts it to the several purposes of subsistence and defence—security in respect of subsistence, and security in respect of defence—in preference to that which adapts it to the mere purpose of enjoyment.

With few exceptions, and those not very considerable ones, the attainment of the maximum of enjoyment will be most effectually secured by leaving each individual to pursue his own maximum of enjoyment, in proportion as he is in possession of the means. Inclination in this respect will not be wanting on the part of any one. Power, the species of power applicable to this case—viz. wealth, pecuniary power—could not be given by the hand of government to one, without being taken from another; so that by such interference there would not be any gain of power upon the whole.

The gain to be produced in this article by the interposition of government, respects principally the head of knowledge. There are cases in which, for the benefit of the public at large, it may be in the power of government to cause this or that portion of knowledge to be produced and diffused, which, without the demand for it produced by government, would either not have been produced, or would not have been diffused.

We have seen above the grounds on which the general rule in this behalf—Be quiet—rests. Whatever measures, therefore, cannot be justified as exceptions to that rule, may be considered as non agenda on the part of government. The art, therefore, is reduced within a small compass: security and freedom are all that industry requires. The request which agriculture, manufactures, and commerce present to governments, is modest and reasonable as that which Diogenes made to Alexander: “Stand out of my sunshine.” We have no need of favour—we require only a secure and open path.

[More works by Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and on 19th Century Utilitarians]