Bentham on the proper role of government: “Be Quiet” and “Stand out of my sunshine” (1843)

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) inspired James and John Stuart Mill with his theory of utilitarianism. His formulation of what the government should do is similar to that of the 18th century French Physiocrats, “laissez-faire”. In an uncharacteristically brief statement he urged the government to “be quiet”, or to “get out of my sunlight”:

We have seen above the grounds on which the general rule in this behalf—Be quiet—rests. Whatever measures, therefore, cannot be justified as exceptions to that rule, may be considered as non agenda on the part of government. The art, therefore, is reduced within a small compass: security and freedom are all that industry requires. The request which agriculture, manufactures, and commerce present to governments, is modest and reasonable as that which Diogenes made to Alexander: “Stand out of my sunshine.” We have no need of favour—we require only a secure and open path.

Bentham has suffered at the hands of many people. He wrote a great deal, not all of which is easily comprehensible; some of his most influential work appeared in French under the editorship of Dumont before it appeared in English; and his English editor Bowring was rather cavalier in his arrangement of Bentham’s material and sometimes even censorious when it came to his writings on religion. Now and again, from amongst the endless listing and categorization that plagues Bentham’s writings out pops a pithy statement which catches the eye. Here is one of these about the proper function of government. After making some exceptions for defence and the propagation of useful knowledge, Bentham concludes that government could help the public welfare the most by “being quiet”, that is in not doing anything much. This is his rather English way of saying what the Physiocrats urged their government to do: “laissez-faire, laissez-passer”. Just to make sure we understand what he is saying Bentham relates the story of Diogenes' conversation with King Alexander in which Diogenes told the ruler of the world in no uncertain terms to “get out of my sunlight”.