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Editor's Introduction to "More Nonsense on Stilts: Mr. Bentham Is At It Again"

David M. Hart*

This bibliographical essay is David Hart's introduction to More Nonsense on Stilts: Mr. Bentham Is At It Again, by Anthony de Jasay.

In this article Jasay criticises a recent attempt by a British labour economist to justify progressive taxation on the grounds of utilitarianism. This economist believes that modern science now enables us to accurately measure the amount of "pleasure" and "pain" caused by any given economic policy (in this case taxation) and thus finally achieve the Utilitarians' dream of having a "felicific calculus" which would enable legislators to determine the "greatest happiness of the greatest number."

Classical liberals and political economists in the 19th century were divided in their views of the justification for economic intervention by the state. On the one hand, there were the followers of Jeremy Bentham and his theory of utilitarianism—James Mill, John Stuart Mill and the school of thought know as the Philosophic Radicals—who had an enormous impact on British political and economic reform throughout the 19th century. The Utilitarians believed that government intervention in the economy could be sometimes justified on the grounds that it improved the "happiness of the greatest number" of citizens. On the other hand, many classical liberals (like Herbert Spencer in England) and some Contintental political economists (like Bastiat and Molinari in France), although sometimes using utilitarian arguments preferred to ground their defence of individual liberty on ideas of natural rights and justice.

The works of both schools of classical liberal thought can be found online at Econlib or from Liberty Fund's online book catalogue.


Additional Readings

I. Websites

Professor Lord Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics—website at http://www.lse.ac.uk/people/r.layard@lse.ac.uk/. His lectures on Happiness were the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures 2002/3 and were given on 3-5 March, 2003 at the London School of Economics:

  1. Lecture 1. "Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue?— http://cep.lse.ac.uk/events/lectures/layard/RL030303.pdf
  2. Lecture 2. "Income and Happiness: Rethinking Economic Policy"— http://cep.lse.ac.uk/events/lectures/layard/RL040303.pdf
  3. Lecture 3. What Would Make a Happier Society?— http://cep.lse.ac.uk/events/lectures/layard/RL050303.pdf

The Bentham Project, University College London— http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/

II. Bibliography: Primary Sources

Bentham's works at Econlib:

  1. Jeremy Bentham, Defence of Usury. (1818).
  2. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. (1789).

Nonsense upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man, ed. Jeremy Waldron (London: Methuen, 1987).

The "nonsense on stilts" expression comes from "Anarchical Fallacies" published in vol. II of The Works of Jeremy Bentham (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843).

Utilitarian Logic and Politics: James Mill's 'Essay on Government', Macaulay's critique and the ensuing debate, ed. Jack Lively and John Rees (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

J.S. Mill's works at Econlib:

  1. Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (1848)
  2. Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1844)

James Mill works at Econlib:

  1. Elements of Political Economy (1821)

Frederic Bastiat's works at Econlib:

  1. Economic Harmonies (1850)
  2. Economic Sophisms (1845)
  3. Selected Essays on Political Economy (1848)

Gustave de Molinari's works at Econlib:

  1. The Society of To-morrow: A Forecast of Its Political and Economic Organisation (1899)

Herbert Spencer:

  1. The Man Versus The State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (1884) online at Econlib or available from Liberty Fund's online book catalogue— http://www.libertyfund.org/details.asp?displayID=1698
  2. The Principles of Ethics (1891-93) available from Liberty Fund's online book catalogue— http://www.libertyfund.org/details.asp?displayID=1723

Liberty Fund has begun publishing an extensive series of "Natural Law and Enlightenment Classics" which will explore the intellectual origins of the "anti-utilitarian" tradition of classical liberalism. See the online book catalogue for details.

III. Bibliography: Secondary Sources

Biography of Jeremy Bentham in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at Econlib— http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Bentham.html

Elie Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, trans. Mary Morris Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty: David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). Available from Liberty Fund's online book catalogue— http://www.libertyfund.org/details.asp?displayID=1727

Douglas Long, Jeremy Bentham's Idea of Liberty in Relation to his Utilitarianism (University of Toronto Press, 1977).

Joseph Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

William Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).


* David M. Hart is Director of the Online Library of Liberty Project.

For more articles by David M. Hart, see the Archive.
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