The Return of Demonic Bentham
By Michael Quinn, on 26 November 2013
Jeremy Seabrook provides an arresting and provocative challenge to the rhetoric underlying cuts in welfare spending, and is acute in pointing out historical echoes of the effort—undertaken in tandem with the contradictory assurance that we are all in this together—to divide the recipients of such spending into the deserving and undeserving poor. I know of the stresses and paralyzing anxieties imposed on recipients of disability benefits by the fitness for work assessments, and agree that singling out the most vulnerable (and therefore least able to resist?) to bear a disproportionate burden is wrong, however effective as a political strategy. However, I do want to take issue with Seabrook over the attitude of Jeremy Bentham to poor relief in general, and to the deserving/undeserving dichotomy in particular.
For Bentham, the question of poor relief highlighted the conflicting imperatives of the two most important subordinate ends of legislation, namely subsistence and security. In 1796 he began a detailed analysis of poor relief, fundamental to which was the distinction between poverty (i.e. dependence on investment of labour for subsistence), the unavoidable condition of almost all mankind, and indigence (i.e. exposure to starvation through lack of property, and inability either to labour, or to procure subsistence despite labour). Relief of poverty was neither possible, nor desirable: upon the ‘natural’ connection between investment of labour and acquisition of subsistence depended the production of both the matter of subsistence, and, by accumulation of surplus productivity, the matter of abundance, or wealth. Bentham was thus an unapologetic advocate of economic competition between individuals as the motor of increasing wealth, while the energy for driving the motor was derived from individual responsibility for individual subsistence in the first place, and for that of helpless dependents in the second.
Bentham analysed the contingencies responsible for indigence, rejecting desert as a criterion for receipt of relief, to which the fact of indigence alone constituted the legitimate claim. He refused, that is to say, the attempt to allocate relief according to a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor: ‘Neither by good nor by ill desert, can anything be added to, or taken from, the quantum of demand on the score of indigence.’ That said, the state could and should impose deterrent conditions upon relief, since their absence enhanced the attractiveness of dependence on relief as an alternative to self-maintenance, and since making relief more eligible than (i.e. preferable to) independent labour ultimately threatened generalized indigence or widespread starvation. I hesitate to detail Bentham’s conditions, for fear of putting ideas into heads at the Department of Work and Pensions, but they are: first, since the aim was to prevent starvation, relief should be limited to ‘the necessaries of life’. Second, since labouring for subsistence was mankind’s inescapable condition, the indigent too, excepting only those utterly incapable, should be required to labour. Third, since out-allowances, that is cash welfare payments, were incompatible with the efficient extraction of labour, the indigent should be obliged to enter large-scale Industry-Houses.
Seabrook is also absolutely correct in seeing Bentham as an advocate of the private provision of welfare services. Bentham proposed transferring responsibility for relief to a joint-stock company, the National Charity Company, subsidized by receipt of the existing poor rates. The company would build two hundred and fifty panopticon industry-houses in England and Wales, each accommodating two thousand people. Paupers would be occupied largely in ‘self-supply’, that is the production of their own subsistence. It should also be noted, however, that Bentham’s company would differ from modern private providers in the transparency of its management. It should also be noted that Bentham would have rejected utterly the notion of a cap on benefit spending. He called this idea the ‘Limited or Inadequate Provision System’, and he thought it both intellectually disreputable, in drawing an arbitrary ceiling on that spending, so that once that ceiling is reached, no further claims can be met—‘it admits the propriety of a provision at the public charge, and, at the same time, as far as the deficiency extends, refuses to make any such provision’— and morally bankrupt—pregnant ‘with profusion on one side, homicide on the other’.
Finally, it really is time that Bentham’s reference to ‘that part of the national live stock which has no feathers to it, and walks upon two legs’ was recognized for what it is, namely a humorous allusion to Plato’s definition of man in The Statesman, and its parody by Diogenes the Cynic, rather than as an example of Bentham’s own casual inhumanity. Bentham alluded to the definition twice in his poor law writings, the second time in the admittedly complacent and underwhelmingly funny reference quoted by Seabrook, but first in attacking the notion of the rights of man:
‘the pompous, the wordy, the nonsensical, the pretending Plato, fancying he had discovered and was explaining the secret of man’s nature, defined him a two-footed animal without feathers. Stripping a fowl of its feathers and tossing it down into the street among the by-standers, there, cried a contemporary philosopher of more acuteness and pleasantry than humanity, there, cried he, runs Plato’s man. Take a new-born infant, and setting it down in a cart-rut just before a Cart were passing by, thus (might a philosopher of like complection say to a French Constitution-maker) there lies your man, with all his rights. Hold! What are you about? Dare you snatch him up without his consent?—if you do, he is your slave.’
The relentless economies of the National Charity Company are rebarbative enough to a twenty-first century reader—even when set against the raft of ancillary services which they helped to make possible—without adding ill-founded character assassination.
Michael Quinn is Senior Research Associate at the Bentham Project, UCL and editor of two volumes of Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on the Poor Laws (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2001 and 2010).