Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Jeremy Bentham on how the interests of the many (the people) are always sacrificed to the interests of the few (the sinister interests) (1823)

The English lawyer and utilitarian political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) scathingly denounces the English political system which had emerged during the 18th century. A trinity of statesmen, lawyers, and priests had gathered around the monarch forming a “sinister interest” of privilege which exploited the ordinary people:

Sinister interests, two in the same breast—lawyer’s interest and ruling statesman’s interest: lawyer’s interest, hostile to that of all suitors, and of all those who may have need to be so, that is to say—of all who are not lawyers. Ruling statesman’s interest, hostile to all subjects’ interest, in a form of government, which, to the inclination common to all breasts, adds in the ruling hands adequate power: power, to an amount sufficient for winding up to the pitch of perfection the system of depredation and oppression: power, by means of the corruption and delusion, which are the essence of this form of government, in addition to that physical force and those means of intimidation and remuneration, which belong of necessity to every form of government.

Sinister interests, two in the same breast—lawyer’s interest and ruling statesman’s interest: lawyer’s interest, hostile to that of all suitors, and of all those who may have need to be so, that is to say—of all who are not lawyers. Ruling statesman’s interest, hostile to all subjects’ interest, in a form of government, which, to the inclination common to all breasts, adds in the ruling hands adequate power: power, to an amount sufficient for winding up to the pitch of perfection the system of depredation and oppression: power, by means of the corruption and delusion, which are the essence of this form of government, in addition to that physical force and those means of intimidation and remuneration, which belong of necessity to every form of government.

Of the three confederated interests, that of the lawyer tribe is in a more particular degree mischievous: mischievous, in as much as, to their share in the common sinister interest, they add one which is peculiar to themselves, and in as much as, by the peculiar strength given to their minds by exercise, they take the lead of all the other members of the confederacy, and are the men by whose exertion whatsoever is most difficult of that which is wished to be done, is done.

And thus will be seen an exemplification of the obstacle-indicating—the universal-self-preference indicating—principle.

So long as the form of Government continues to be what it is,—not better and better, but continually worse and worse,—must the condition of the people be, until the sinister sacrifice—the sacrifice of the interest of the many to the interest, joint or several, of the one or the few—shall have been consummated. In that which Austrian Italy—in that which English Ionia—in that which Ireland is—may be seen even now that which England is hastening to be. Forms continuing what they are, Englishmen cannot too soon prepare themselves for being shot, sabred, hanged, or transported, at the pleasure of the placed and momentarily displaceable creatures, of a Monarch, free from all check, but the useless one of an Aristocracy, sharing with him in the same sinister interest. Precedents have already been established: and, by whomsoever made, whether by those who claim to make law, or by those who in the very act disclaim it, every thing for which a precedent has been made is regarded as justified. Of the several particular interests of the Aristocrat in all his shapes, including the fee-fed lawyer, and the tax-fed or rent-fed priest, all prostrate at the foot of the throne—is composed the everlastingly and unchangeably ruling interest. Opposite to the interest of the greatest number—opposite through the whole field of Government—is that same ruling interest. That which this interest requires, is—that the quantity of power, wealth, and factitious dignity, in the possession and at the disposal of the ruling few, should be at all times as great as possible. That which the interest of the subject many requires, is—that the quantity of power and wealth at the disposal of the ruling few should at all times be as small as possible: of these necessary instruments, the smallest quantity; of that worse than useless instrument—factitious dignity, not an atom: no such instrument of corruption and delusion, no such favoured rival, and commodious substitute, to meritorious and really useful service: no such essentially disproportionate mode of remuneration, while, for really useful service, apt notification would afford the only remuneration, which in the shape of honour can be proportionate. Can opposition be more complete? But, to be governed by men, themselves under the dominion of an interest opposite to one’s own, what is it but to be governed by one’s enemies? In or out of office; possessors or expectants; Tories or Whigs; leaning most to the Monarchical side, or most to another side equally hostile to that of the people—what matter is it in which of these situations a man is, if to all the interest, he adds more than the power, of an enemy? Vain, therefore—vain for ever, will be all hope of relief, unless and until the form given to the Government is such, that those rulers in chief, whose particular interests are opposite to the universal interest, shall have given place to others whose particular interests have been brought into coincidence with that same universal interest; in a word, till the interest-junction-prescribing principle, as above, shall have been carried into effect. In the Anglo-American United States, this problem—has it not been solved?

About this Quotation:

When he came to write an Introduction to the second edition of A Fragment of Government (1776) in 1823 Bentham’s views about the English government had become quite jaundiced, but perhaps more realistic following the expansion of the powers of the British state during the Napoleonic wars. His view now was that a “conclave” of powerful political groups had formed around the monarch in order to better extract “the industry of the people … out of their pockets.” He called this conclave or “rulers in chief” the “sinister interest” in order to distinguish it from the “universal interest” which was that of the majority of the ordinary working people of England. The members of the sinister interest included the ruling monarch and his supporters, such as the aristocrats, the statesmen, the “fee-fed lawyers”, the “tax-fed priests”, and the myriad of other hangers-on who made up what he called “the keepers and workers of the state engines.” Together they made up a “system of depredation and oppression' which exploited the wealth and income of ordinary workers. His ideas known as "Benthamism” were very influential on James Mill and John Stuart Mill, especially the former who continued Bentham’s exploration the impact “the sinister interests” were having on British society in the 1820s and 1830s.

More Quotations