Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII.: POPULAR CORRUPTION—( ad superbiam. ) - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER VII.: POPULAR CORRUPTION—( ad superbiam. ) - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
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POPULAR CORRUPTION—(ad superbiam.)
Exposition.—The instrument of deception, of which the argument here in question is composed, may be thus expressed:—The source of corruption is in the minds of the people; so rank and extensively seated is that corruption, that no political reform can ever have any effect in removing it.*
Exposure.—This fallacy consists in giving to the word corruption, when applied to the people, a sense altogether indeterminate—a sense in and by which all that is distinctly expressed is the disaffection of the speaker as towards the persons spoken of, imputing to them a bad moral character or cast of mind, but without any intimation given of the particular nature of it.
It is the result of a thick confusion of ideas, whether sincere, or affected for the purpose.
In the case of a parliamentary election, each elector acts as a trustee for himself and for all the other members of the community, in the exercise of the branch of political power here in question. If, by the manner in which his vote is received from him, he is precluded (as by ballot) from the possibility of promoting his own particular interest, to the prejudice of the remainder of the universal interest,—the only interest of his which he can entertain a prospect of promoting by such his vote, is his share of the universal interest: and for doing this, he sees before him no other possible means than the contributing to place the share of power attached to the seat in question in the hands of that candidate who is likely to render most service to the universal interest.
Now, how inconsiderable soever may be in his eyes this his share in the universal interest, still it will be sufficient to turn the scale where there is nothing in the opposite scale: and, by the supposition, the emptiness of the opposite scale has been secured in the mode of election by ballot, where the secresy thereby endeavoured at is accomplished, as to so complete a certainty it may be. If, then, to continue the allusion, the value of his share in the universal interest, in his eyes, is such as to overcome the love of ease—the aversion to labour—he will repair to the place, and give his vote to that candidate who, in his eyes, is likely to do most service to the universal interest: if it be not sufficient to overcome that resisting force, he will then forbear to give his vote; and though he will do no good to the universal interest, he will do no harm to it.
Thus it is that, under an apposite system of election procedure, supposing them in the account of self-regarding prudence equal, the least benevolent set of men will, on this occasion, render as much service to the universal interest as the most benevolent: the least benevolent, if that be what is meant by the most corrupt; and if that is not meant, nothing which is to the purpose, nor in short anything which is determinate, is meant.
On the other hand, in so far as the system of election is so ordered, that by the manner in which he gives his vote a man is enabled to promote his own separate interest, what is sufficiently notorious is, that no ordinary portion of benevolence in the shape of public spirit will suffice to prevent the breach of trust in question from being committed.
In the case, therefore, of the subject-many, to whom exclusively it was applied, the word corruption has no determinate and intelligible application. But to the class of the ruling few, it has a perfectly intelligible application—application in a sense in which the truth of it is as notorious as the existence of the sun at noonday. Pretending to be all of them chosen by the subject-many,—chosen, in fact, a very small proportion of them in that manner—the rest by one another,—they act in the character of trustees for the subject-many, bound to support the interest of the subject-many: instead of so doing, being with money exacted from the subject-many bribed by one another acting under the ruling one, they act in constant breach of such their trust, serving in all things their own particular and sinister interests, at the expense and to the sacrifice of that interest of the subject-many, which, together with that of the ruling few, composes and constitutes the universal interest. Corrupt, corruption, corruptors, corruptionist, applied to conduct such as hath been just described,—the meaning given to these terms wants assuredly nothing of being sufficiently intelligible.
A circumstance that renders this fallacy in a peculiar degree insidious and dangerous, is a sort of obscure reference made by it to certain religious notions—to the doctrine of original sin as delivered in the compendium of Church of England faith, termed the 39 articles.
Into that doctrine, considered in a religious point of view, it is not necessary on this occasion to make any inquiry. The field here in question is the field of politics; and, applied to this field, the fallacy in question seeks to lay the axe to the root of all government. It applies not only to this, but to all other remedies against that preponderance of self-regarding over social interest and affection, which is essential to man’s existence, but which, for the creation and preservation of political society, and thence for his well-being in it, requires to be checked—checked by a force formed within itself. It goes to the exclusion of all laws, and in particular of all penal laws; for if, for remedy to what is amiss, nothing is to be attempted by arrangements which, such as those relative to the principle and mode of election as applied to rulers, bring with them no punishment—no infliction,—how much less should the accomplishment of any such object be attempted by means so expensive and afflictive as those applied by penal laws!
By the employment given to this fallacy, the employer of it afforded himself a double gratification: he afforded an immediate gratification to his own anti-social pride and insolence, while he afforded to his argument a promise of efficiency, by the food it supplied to the same appetite in the breasts of his auditors, bound to him, as he saw them to be, by a community of sinister interest.
Out of the very sink of immorality was this fallacy drawn: a sentiment of hatred and contempt, of which not only all the man’s fellow-countrymen were the declared, but all mankind in at least equal degree were the naturally supposable object:—“So bad are they in themselves, no matter how badly they are treated: they cannot be treated worse than they deserve: Of a bad bargain (says the proverb) make the best; of so bad a crew, let us make the best for ourselves: no matter what they suffer, be it what it may, they deserve it.” If Nero had thought it worth his while to look out for a justification, he could not have found a more apt one than this: an argument which, while it harmonized so entirely with the worst passions of the worst men, screened its true nature in some measure from the observation of better men, by the cloud of confusion in which it wrapped itself.
In regard to corruption and uncorruption,—or to speak less ambiguously, in regard to vice and virtue,—how then stands the plain and real truth? That in the ruling few there is most vice and corruption, because in their hands has been the power of serving their own private and sinister interest, at the expense of the universal interest: and in so doing, they have, in the design and with the effect of making instruments of one another for the accomplishment of that perpetual object, been the disseminators of vice and corruption:—That in the subject-many, there has been least of vice and corruption, because they have not been in so large a degree partakers in that sinister interest, and have thus been left free to pursue the track pointed out to them, partly by men who have found a personal interest in giving to their conduct a universally beneficial direction—partly by discerning and uncorrupted men, who, lovers of their country and mankind, have not been in the way of having that generous affection overpowered in their breasts by any particular self-regarding interest.
Nearly akin to the cry of popular corruption is language commonly used to the following effect:—“Instead of reforming others—instead of reforming your betters, instead of reforming the state, the constitution, the church, everything that is most excellent,—let each man reform himself—let him look at home, he will find there enough to do, and what is in his power, without looking abroad and aiming at what is out of his power,” &c. &c.
Language to this effect may at all times be heard from anti-reformists—always, as the tone of it manifests, accompanied with an air of triumph—the triumph of superior wisdom over shallow and presumptuous arrogance.
One feature which helps to distinguish it from the cry of popular corruption, is the tacit assumption that, between the operation condemned and the operation recommended, incompatibility has place: than which, when once brought clearly to view, nothing, it will be seen, can be more groundless.
Certain it is, that if every man’s time and labour is exclusively employed in the correcting of his own personal imperfections, no part of it will be employed in the endeavour to correct the imperfections and abuses which have place in the government; and thus the mass of those imperfections and abuses will go on, never diminishing, but perpetually increasing with the torments of those who suffer by them, and the comforts of those who profit by them: which is exactly what is wanted.
[* ]This was an argument brought forward against parliamentary reform by William Windham in the House of Commons, and by him insisted on with great emphasis. This man was among the disciples, imitators of, and co-operators with,Edmund Burke—that Edmund Burke with whom the subject-many were the swinish multitude:—swinish in nature, and apt therefore to receive the treatment which is apt to be given to swine. In private life, that is, in their dealings with those who were immediately about them—at any rate, such of them as were of their own class—many of these men, many of these haters and calumniators of mankind at large, are not unamiable; but, seduced by that sinister interest which is possessed by them in common, they encourage in one another the anti-social affection in the case where it operates upon the most extensive scale. If, while thus encouraging himself in the hating and contemning the people, a man of this cast finds himself hated by them, the fault is surely more in him than them; and, whatever it may happen to him to suffer from it, he has himself to thank for it.