Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: CASES SUBJECT TO DISPUTE. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law)
Return to Title Page for The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER XIV.: CASES SUBJECT TO DISPUTE. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
CASES SUBJECT TO DISPUTE.
Ought provision for the poor, for public worship, and the cultivation of the arts and sciences, to be ranked among the wants of the state for which provision ought to be made by forced contributions?
In the highest state of social prosperity, the great mass of the citizens will most probably possess few other resources than their daily labour, and consequently will always be near to indigence—always liable to fall into its gulf, from accident, from the revolutions of commerce, from natural calamities, and especially from disease: infancy will always be unable, from its own powers, to provide the means of subsistence; the decays of old age will often destroy these powers. The two extremities of life resemble each other in their helplessness and weakness. If natural instinct, humanity and shame, in concurrence with the laws, generally secure to infants and old persons the care and protection of their family, yet these succours are precarious, and those who give them may stand in need of similar succours themselves. A numerous family, supported in abundance by the labour of a man and his wife, may at any moment lose the half of its resources by the death of one of them, and lose the whole by the death of both.
Decay is still more badly provided for than childhood. The love which descends, has more power than that which ascends: gratitude is less powerful than instinct: hope attaches itself to the feeble beings who are commencing life, but has nothing more to say to those who are closing it. But even when the aged receive every possible comfort, the idea of exchanging the part of a benefactor, for that of the recipient of alms, pours somewhat of bitterness into favours received, especially when, from decay, the morbid sensibility of the mind has rendered painful, changes which would otherwise be indifferent.
This aspect of society is most painful. We picture to ourselves a long train of evils gathering round poverty, and followed up by death, under its most terrible forms, as their ultimate effect. We perceive that it is the centre towards which inaction alone makes the lot of every mortal to gravitate. Man can only rise by continued efforts, without which he will fall into this abyss; whilst these efforts are not always sufficient, and we see the most diligent, the most virtuous, sometimes sliding into it by a fatal declivity, or falling into it from inevitable reverses.
To put an end to these evils, there are only two methods independent of the laws—economy, and voluntary contributions.
If these two resourses were constantly sufficient, it would be proper to guard against the interference of the laws, for the assistance of the poor. The law which offers to poverty an assistance independent of industry, is, so to speak, a law against industry itself; or at least, against frugality. The motive to labour and economy is the pressure of present, and the fear of future, want: the law which takes away this pressure, and this fear, must be an encouragement to idleness and dissipation. This is the reproach which is reasonably brought against the greater number of establishments created for the poor.
But these two means are insufficient, as will appear upon a slight examination.
With respect to economy, if the greatest efforts of industry are insufficient for the daily support of a numerous class, still less will they be sufficient to allow of saving for the future. Others may be able, by their daily labour, to supply their daily returning wants; but these have no superfluity to lay by in store, that it may be used when required at a distant time. There only remains a third class, who can provide for every thing, by economizing during the period of labour, for the supply of the period in which they can no longer work. It is only with respect to this last class, that poverty can be esteemed a kind of crime, “Economy,” it is said “is a duty. If they have neglected it, so much the worse for them. Misery and death may perhaps await them, but they can accuse only themselves: besides, their catastrophe will not be an evil wholly wasted; it will serve as a lesson to prodigals. It is a law established by nature—a law which is not, like those of men, subject to uncertainty and injustice. Punishment only falls upon the guilty, and is proportioned exactly to their fault.” This severe language would be justifiable, if the object of the law were vengeance: but this vengeance itself is condemned by the principle of utility, as an impure motive, founded upon antipathy. Again, what will be the fruit of these evils, this neglect, this indigence, which you regard in your anger as the just punishment of prodigality? Are you sure that the victims thus sacrificed will prevent, by their example, the faults which have led to their suffering?
Such an opinion shows little knowledge of the human heart. The distress, the death of certain prodigals—of those unhappy persons who have not been able to refuse themselves the infinitely little enjoyments of their condition, who have not learnt the painful art of striving by reflection against all the temptations of the moment—their distress I say, even their death itself, would have little influence, as instruction upon the laborious class of society. Is it possible that this sad spectacle, in which shame conceals the greater part of the details, should possess, like the punishment of malefactors, a publicity which should strike the attention, and permit no one to be ignorant of its cause? Would those to whom this lesson was most necessary, know how to give to such an event the proper interpretation?—would they always recognise the connexion between imprudence as the cause, and suffering as the effect? Might they not attribute this catastrophe to unforeseen accidents, which it was impossible to prevent? Instead of saying, Behold a man who has been the author of his own losses, and whose indigence ought to excite me to labour and economy without relaxation,—might it not often be said, with an appearance of reason, There is an unfortunate person, who has taken a thousand useless cares, and whose experience proves the vanity of human prudence. This would doubtless be bad reasoning: but ought an error in logic, a simple defect in reflection, among a class of men more called to the exercise of their hands than their heads, to be punished thus rigorously?
Besides, what should be thought of a punishment, retarded as to its execution even to the last extremity of life, which ought to begin by overcoming at the other extremity (that is to say, in youth) the ascendancy of the most imperious motives? How must this pretended lesson be weakened by the distance!—how small the analogy between an old and a young man!—how little does the example of the one operate upon the other! In the youth, the idea of immediate good and evil occupies nearly all the sphere of reflection, excluding the ideas of distant good and evil. If you would act upon him, place the motive near him; show him, for example, in perspective, a marriage, or any other pleasure: but a punishment placed at the extreme distance, beyond his intellectual horizon, is a punishment in pure waste. It is sought to guide those who think little; and in order to draw instruction from such a misfortune, it is requisite that they should think much: of what use, then, I ask, is a political instrument distined for the least prudent class, if it is of a nature to be efficacious only upon the wise?
Recapitulation.—The resource of economy is insufficient:—1st, It is evidently so for those who do not earn a subsistence; 2dly, For those who earn only what is strictly necessary; whilst, as to the 3d class, which embraces all those who are not included in the two former, economy would not be insufficient of itself, but it may become so from the imperfection natural to human prudence.
Let us proceed to the other resource—voluntary contributions. This has many imperfections:—
1. Its uncertainty. It will experience daily vicissitudes, according to the fortune and the liberality of the individuals upon whom it depends. Is it insufficient? These conjunctures are marked by misery and death. Is it superabundant? It offers a reward to idleness and profusion.
2. The inequality of the burden. This supplement to the wants of the poor is formed entirely at the expense of the most humane, of the most virtuous individuals in the society, often without proportion to their means; whilst the avaricious calumniate the poor, in order to colour their refusal with a varnish of system and reason. Such an arrangement is, then, a favour granted to egotism, and a punishment against humanity, the first of virtues.
I say a punishment; for though these contributions bear the name of voluntary, what is the motive from which they emanate? If it be not founded on a religious or political fear, it is a tender, but painful sympathy, which presides over these acts of generosity. It is not the hope of a pleasure, which is purchased at this price; it is the torment of pity, from which we would be set free by this sacrifice: hence it has been observed in Scotland, where indigence is limited to this sad resource, that the poor find the greatest assistance among the class the least removed from poverty.
3. The inconveniences of the distribution. If these contributions are left to chance, as in the giving of alms upon the highway—if they are left to be paid on each occasion without intervention, by the individual giving to the individual asking—the uncertainty of the supply is aggravated by another uncertainty: How, in the multitude of cases, shall the degree of merit be appreciated? May not the penny of the poor widow only increase the ephemeral treasure of an abandoned woman? Will many generous hearts be found, who, with Sidney, will put back the vivifying cup from their parched lips, saying, “I can wait—Think first of that unfortunate soldier, who has more need than I?” Can it be forgotten, that in the distribution of these fortuitous gratuities, it is not modest virtue, it is not honest poverty, often silent and bashful, which obtains the largest share? To be successful upon this obscure theatre, management and intrigue are as necessary as in the more brilliant theatre of fashion. Those who are importunate—who flatter, who lie—who mingle, according to the occasion, boldness and baseness, and change their impostures,—will obtain success, which indigent virtue, devoid of artifice, and preserving its honour in the midst of its misery, will never attain.
What Voltaire here says of talents may be applied to mendicity. In the indiserminate distribution of voluntary contributions, the share of honest and virtuous poverty will be seldom equal to that of the impudent and bold beggar.
Shall these contributions be placed in a common fund, to be afterwards distributed by chosen individuals? This method would be much to be preferred, since it permits a regular examination of wants and persons, and tends to proportion assistance to them; but it has also a tendency to diminish liberality. This benefit, which must be received at the hand of strangers, the application of which I cannot follow, from which I do not derive either the pleasure or the immediate merit, has something abstract in it, which chills the feelings: what I give myself, I give at the moment when I am moved, when the cry of poverty has entered into my heart, when there was no one but me to assist it. What I contribute to a general collection may not have a destination conformable to my wishes. This penny, which is much for me and my family to contribute, will only be as a drop in the ocean of contribution on the one hand, and in the ocean of wants on the other hand: it becomes the rich to succour the poor. In this manner many will reason, and it is on this account that collections succeed better when they are made for a determinate class of individuals than for an indefinite multitude, as the whole mass of the poor. It is, however, for this mass that it is necessary to secure permanent assistance.
From these considerations it appears, that it may be laid down as a general principle of legislation, that a regular contribution should be established for the wants of indigence; it being well understood that those only ought to be regarded as indigent, who are in want of necessaries. But from this definition it follows, that the title of the indigent, as indigent, is stronger than the title of the proprietor of a superfluity, as proprietor; since the pain of death, which would finally fall upon the neglected indigent, will always be a greater evil than the pain of disappointed expectation, which falls upon the rich when a limited portion of his superfluity is taken from him.*
With regard to the amount of a legal contribution, it ought not to exceed simple necessaries: to exceed this would be to punish industry for the benefit of idleness. Establishments which furnish more than necessaries, are only good when supported at the expense of individuals, because they can use discretion in the distribution of their assistance, and apply it to specific classes.
The details of the manner of assessing this contribution and distributing its produce, belong to political economy; in the same manner as inquiries respecting the methods of encouraging the spirit of economy and foresight among the inferior classes of society. We have, upon this interesting subject, instructive memoirs, but no treatise which embraces the whole question.† It would be necessary to commence with the theory of poverty; that is to say, by the classification of the indigent, and the causes which produce indigence, and to proceed to the adoption of precautions and remedies.
Of the Expense of Public Worship.
If the ministers of religion are considered as charged with the maintenance of one of the sanctions of morality (the religious sanction), the expense of their support ought to be referred to the same head as the expenses of police and justice—to that of internal security. They are a body of inspectors and teachers of morals, who form, so to speak, the advanced guard of the law; who possess no power over crime, but who combat with the vices out of which crimes spring; and who render the exercise of authority more rare, by maintaining good conduct and subordination. If they were charged with all the functions which might suitably be assigned to them, such as the education of the inferior classes, the promulgation of the laws, the promulgation of different public acts, the utility of their services would be more manifest. The greater the number of real services they render to the state, the less will they be subject to the diseases of dogmas and controversies, which are engendered by a desire of distinction, and the impossibility of being useful. Their activity and ambition being directed to useful objects, would prevent their becoming mischievous.
In this respect, even those who do not acknowledge the foundations of the religious sanction cannot complain, when called upon to contribute to its support, since they participate in its advantages.
But if there be in a country a great diversity of religious professions, and the legislator is not bound by a previous establishment, or by particular considerations, it will be more conformable to liberty and equality, to apply to the support of each church the contribution of each religious community. The zeal of proselytism on the part of the clergy may, it is true, in this case, be apprehended, but it will also be probable, that from their reciprocal efforts a useful emulation will result, and that by balancing their influence, a species of equilibrium will be established in this ocean of opinions, otherwise so subject to dangerous tempests.
An unfortunate case* may be imagined: that of a people to whom the legislator has denied the public exercise of their religion, and at the same time imposed upon them the obligation of supporting a religion which they consider as opposed to their own. This would be double violation of security. In such a people we must expect to find a sentiment formed, of habitual hatred against its government, a desire of change, a ferocious courage, a profound secrecy. The people, deprived of all the advantages of a public religion, of known guides, of acknowledged priests, would be given up to ignorant and fanatical chiefs; and as the support of this worship would be a school of conspiracy, the use of an oath, instead of being the security of the state would become a source of terror; instead of binding the citizens to the government, it would unite them against it, so that this people would become as formidable from its virtues as its vices.
Of the Cultivation of the Arts and Sciences.
I do not here speak of what may be done for what may be designated the useful arts and sciences: no one doubts but that objects of public utility ought to be supported by public contributions.
But with regard to the cultivation of the fine arts, of the embellishment of a country, of buildings of luxury, of objects of ornament and pleasure—in a word, for these works of supererogation, ought forced contributions to be levied? Can the imposition of taxes, which have no other than this brilliant but superfluous destination, be justified?
I would not plead here, for that which is agreeable, in opposition to what is useful,† nor justify the starving of the people, to give feasts to a court, or pensions to buffoons. But one or two reflections may be presented, by way of apology:—
1. The amount expended, and which can be expended, upon these objects, is commonly but little, compared with the mass of necessary contributions. If any one should advise that his portion of this superfluous expense should be returned to each person, would it not be an impalpable object?
2. This supererogatory part of the taxes, being confounded with the mass of those which are necessary, its collection is imperceptible: it does not excite any distinct sensation, which can give rise to any distinct complaint; and the evil of the first order, being limited to so trifling an amount, is not sufficient to produce an evil of the second order.
3. This luxury of pleasure may have a palpable utility, by attracting a concourse of foreigners, who will spend their money in the country, and thus other nations will by degrees, be made tributary to that which sways the sceptre of fashion. A country fertile in amusements, may be considered as a great theatre, which is supported in part at the expense of a crowd of spectators attracted from all parts.
It may even happen that this pre-eminence in the objects of pleasure, of literature, and of taste, may tend to conciliate to a nation the benevolence of other nations. Athens, which has been called the Eye of Greece, was more than once saved by this sentiment of respect, which its superiority of civilization inspired. A crown of glory, which surrounded this land of the fine arts, served for a long time to conceal its weakness; and every thing which was not barbarous was interested in the preservation of this city, the centre of politeness and mental enjoyment.
After all, it must be acknowledged that this seductive object may be abandoned, without risk, to the single resource of voluntary contributions. At least, nothing essential ought to have been neglected, before expenses of mere ornament are undertaken. Comedians, painters, architects may be employed, when the public credit is satisfied, when individuals have been indemnified for the losses occasioned by wars, by crimes, and physical calamities, when the support of the indigent has been provided for: until then, a preference accorded to these brilliant accessories, over these objects of necessity, cannot be justified.
It is even extremely contrary to the interest of the sovereign, inasmuch as reproaches are always exaggerated, because thought is not required in making them, but only passion and temper. The extent to which these topics have been employed in our days, in certain writings, for the purpose of exciting the people against the government of kings, is well known. But though every thing conspires, in this respect, to throw princes into the illusion, have they fallen into the same excesses, with regard to the luxury of amusements, as many republics? Athens, at the period of its greatest dangers, disregarding equally the eloquence of Demosthenes and the threats of Philip, recognised a want more pressing than its defence—an object more essential than the maintenance of its liberty: the greatest neglect of duty consisted in diverting, even for the good of the state, the funds destined for the use of a theatre. And at Rome, the passion for shows was carried almost to madness. It became necessary to waste the treasures of the world, and to strip the subject nations, in order to captivate the suffrages of the majesty of the people. Terror was spread through a whole country, because a proconsul had to give a fête at Rome; one hour of the glories of the circus threw a hundred thousand of the inhabitants of the provinces into despair,
[* ]If this deduction were established upon a fixed footing, each proprietor, knowing beforehand what he would have to give, the pain of disappointment would disappear, and make way for another pain, a little different in its nature, and less in its degree.
[† ]In 1797, Mr. Bentham addressed a letter on pauper management to Mr. Arthur Young, editor of the Annals of Agriculture, which was inserted in that work, and afterwards translated and published in Paris, an. X. under the title of “Esquisse d’un ouvrage en faveur des Pauvres.”
[* ]This was once not an imaginary case: it was the case of Ireland.
[† ]I do not mean that there is a real opposition between the useful and the agreeable: every thing which gives pleasure is useful; but in ordinary language, that is exclusively called useful which possesses a distant utility; that agreeable, which has an immediate utility, or is limited to present pleasure. Very many things, whose utility is contested, have therefore a more certain utility than those to which this denomination is appropriated.