home | 18-19th centuries index


previous | next

Bentham, Malthus, Ricardo and Mill

Jeremy Bentham

One of Smith's followers was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an Englishman twenty-five years younger than he. With Smith, Bentham stood apart from those preaching the benefits of self-denial. He wanted betterment for common people and put a political and democratic spin on Smith's economics, describing everyone his own best judge as to his own advantage, removing this determination from some kind of authority rather than a free market and free people.

In response to those who were supporting the status quo and talking about liberty, in his book Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham asked, What liberty? And liberty for whom? He thought those supporting the status quo (in some cases including slavery) and talking about "natural law" and "natural rights" were nonsensical. Bentham saw liberty, law and rights as political achievements. He advocated legislating laws that benefitted the common people, not just the wealthy. Laws, Bentham believed, should be made for "the greatest good for the greatest number" – a point that was labeled utilitarianism. For Bentham this wasn't morality by arithmetic, it was politics and the economy working for the interest of the many over the interests of a few.

Bentham advocated legislation that created fire departments and agencies to fight diseases. He favored government stimulating the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and the like. He believed that laws should be passed that provided people in general with a guarantee against starvation.

He combined the interest of the many with the interests of individuals – as opposed to any one source of moral authority or a regimented or people's authoritarian order. He advocated freedom of expression, the decriminalizing of homosexual acts note99 and the right to divorce along with equal rights for women. He called for the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, and the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. He also opposed the wanton abuse of animals.

Bentham was influential in the United States. He was recognized as a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. In France in 1792, during the third year of the Revolution, he was made a French citizen.

Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo

Another Englishman influenced by Smith was David Ricardo (1772-1823). Ricardo expanded on the benefits of free trade. If Portugal was more efficient producing wine than England and England more efficient in producing cloth, it was in the interest of both if they traded rather than have Portugal erect a barrier against English cloth for the sake of its own cloth industry and Britain erect a barrier for the sake of its own wine industry. This has been called the theory of comparative advantage, which Ricardo wrote about in his 1817 book The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

Smith focused on benefits to society as a whole, without favor to people of different economic classes. Ricardo was a successful stockbroker and a man of wealth and saw conflicting interests among people of different economic classes. He was influenced by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a British clergyman and economist. Malthus wrote an Essay on the Principles of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society – published in 1798. Malthus proposed that increasing amounts of food would be accompanied by increasing rises in population, leaving common people always on the edge of insufficient food. Ricardo combined the economics of Adam Smith and Thomas Mathus.

In his Principles of Political Economy, published in 1817, Ricardo wrote of increases in population allowing employers to bid wages lower. He theorized that the price of food was always rising and that industrialists frequently had to raise wages to the level that allowed their workers to survive. Having to keep their workers at a subsistence level, industrialists were paying their workers enough to cover their rent. Those charging rent, in some cases renting land to industrialists and to farmers in addition to workers, were in the best position. He viewed landlords as tending to squander their wealth on luxuries rather than investing and thereby contributing to economic stagnation.

James and John Stuart Mill

James Mill (1773-1836) was a Scotsman who became one of Britain's leading liberals. He began his career as a scholar of Greek. Then he became a journalist, historian, philosopher and an economist. He was Jeremy Bentham's friend and ally in support of democracy. Mill was critical of Britain's governance in India, and his three volumes titled the History of British India, published in 1817, resulted in changing British rule there. His Elements of Political Economy was published in 1821. Following his contemporary, Ricardo, he considered population growth as a problem, and he proposed that the value of a commodity depended in part upon the amount of labor that went into producing it.

The son of James Mill, John Stuart Mill (1806-73), followed his father's liberal leanings. In his book On Liberty, published in 1859, John Stuart Mill tempered his support for democracy with a concern about the rights of individuals to express unpopular opinions. He wrote of a "tyranny of the majority." He didn't like group-think and proposed that politics allow people to pursue self-development and individuality, and pursuing an unpopular position he supported women's rights.

He favored economic activity based on private property and the free market, and he was optimistic enough to argue that these had not yet been adequately tried. He was suspicious of societies merely imagined – utopias. He favored tinking with the system that existed, with adjustments through regulations. Struggle and challenge, he claimed, would work better than would aiming at a blissful economic utopia.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.