New Thinking in Political Economy series
Edited by José Casas Pardo and Pedro Schwartz
Chapter 4: Bentham and Public Choice: Utility, Interests and the Agency Problem in Democracy
4. Bentham on public choice: utility, interests and the agency problem in democracy Pedro Schwartz 1 INTRODUCTION May I be allowed the slight anachronism in the title? The expression ‘public choice’ had not been coined in the 1820s and early 1830s, when Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) wrote extensively on constitutions. However, he did apply the analytical method of what we today would call public choice to discuss the proper arrangement of representative democracy, especially as concerns rent seeking, colonies and political economy, bureaucracy, the organization of legislatures, and the ‘supreme operative’ of a state. The positive theory of utilitarianism lends itself easily to the study of the actual behaviour of politicians, bureaucrats and citizens in a representative democracy for it posits that individuals are governed by self-interest in all walks of life. But Bentham was not content to determine how and why humans act. He also wanted to say how they should act. However, basing the rules of moral and civic conduct on utility is more diﬃcult than factually discovering the consequences of human self-interest in politics. In Section 2 I shall discuss the shortcomings of utilitarianism as an ethical theory despite its usefulness as an explanation of social behaviour. In Section 3 I shall address what Bentham had to say on the agency problem in some of his writings on constitutional matters. Especially interesting was a book he published in 1830, the Constitutional Code, Volume I, the complete text of a ‘Fundamental Law for any nation on Earth’,...
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