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Economy and Polity in Bentham's Science of Legislation


The article examines the account of human nature and social action which Bentham adopted in his legislative theory, or what might be considered the sociology informing Bentham's jurisprudence. I first explore what for numerous scholars has seemed the single most important feature of Bentham's thought: his reliance and valorization of "rational economic man" in his legislative program. Drawing on recent scholarship on Adam Smith and eighteenth-century political economy, I counter these interpretations by emphasizing Bentham's frequently limited and pragmatic use of economic theory. Economics did not furnish Bentham with a master-sociology, and market-oriented conduct was not taken to be characteristic of social action in general.

The final part of the article takes up a neglected element of Bentham's legislative program: his reliance on publicity and critical public opinion to ensure the operation of responsible government in the Constitutional Code. I argue that the past preoccupation with Bentham's "economic presuppositions" has prevented scholars from recognizing his no less fundamental and contestable assumptions concerning the active, political orientation of social actors.

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