British economist Jeremy Bentham is most often associated with his theory of utilitarianism, the idea that all social actions should be evaluated by the axiom “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Counter to Adam Smith’s vision of “natural rights,” Bentham believed that there were no natural rights to be interfered with.
Trained in law, Bentham never practiced, choosing instead to focus on judicial and legal reforms. His reform plans went beyond rewriting legislative acts to include detailed administrative plans to implement his proposals. In his plan for prisons, workhouses, and other institutions, Bentham devised compensation schemes, building designs, worker timetables, and even new accounting systems. A guiding principle of Bentham’s schemes was that incentives should be designed “to make it each man’s interest to observe on every occasion that conduct which it is his duty to observe.” Interestingly, Bentham’s thinking led him to the conclusion, which he shared with Smith, that professors should not be salaried.
In his early years Bentham professed a free-market approach. He argued, for example, that interest rates should be free from government control (see Defence of Usury). By the end of his life he had shifted to a more interventionist stance. He predated Keynes in his advocacy of expansionist monetary policies to achieve full employment and advocated a range of interventions, including the minimum wage and guaranteed employment.
His publications were few, but Bentham influenced many during his lifetime and lived to see some of his political reforms enacted shortly before his death in London at the age of eighty-four.
About the Author
David R. Henderson is the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is also an emeritus professor of economics with the Naval Postgraduate School and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. in economics at UCLA.