After reading this article you will learn about the Contribution of Hobbes, Hume, Bentham and James Mill to the “Theory of Limited State”
1. Thomas Hobbes on Limited State:
Hobbes’s sovereign was no doubt endowed with absolute power. But he was extremely cautious about the reason and calculating power of the individual. The sovereignty had no authority to deny the individual to deprive him this quality.
Hobbes believed that each man had the right to pursue and maximize his happiness and none could aggress upon this right of man. To pursue one’s own happiness unhindered or unmolested by others is nothing but selfish motive. But this was the view of Hobbes and it was subsequently shared by Bentham.
Now if the person were to be allowed to pursue his own happiness with complete freedom it is quite obvious that the authority of the state must be curtailed. Hobbes did not directly channelize his thought in that direction but one can reasonably draw such an inference. If the sovereignty were allowed to exercise its power over individual’s efforts to maximize happiness it would definitely be affected.
Hobbes and other utilitarian’s have regarded the state as a means of reconciling men’s selfish interests. Its implication is that the state is not for the fulfillment of certain ethical or heavenly desires and ambition.
Attainment of happiness is an earthly desire and the residents of the state of nature planned to build up a civil society for that purpose only. It shall never be the function of the state to prevent individuals from that effort.
Commenting upon Hobbes’s view, on utilitarianism Plamenatz observes the English Utilitarians, “It (the state) exists not to protect their rights, but to give men more abundantly the happiness they always seek. Hobbes, it is true, speaks of natural rights that men possess before they enter political society, but he does not mean by this phrase what others have meant who used it. When Hobbes says that in the state of nature, men had an unlimited right to acquire whatever takes their fancy provided they have the strength to do so, he can only mean that, outside there is no sense in saying that it would be wrong for them to take it.”
In the state of nature people had enough power to fulfill their desires because in that atmosphere there was no authority to curb the demands or unnatural desires. Hobbes believed that this was contrary to civilization. He devised a technique of contract through which the foundation of a civil society was laid.
The laws of such a society and the command of sovereignty will put curbs on the functions of individuals. The theory of contract envisages that people have very little to do beyond the contract.
The contract has set up a civil society and sovereign power is its supreme authority. Though his power is enormous he cannot exercise this power because he has not that scope. The contract is again a “convenient fiction”.
Hobbes thought of a civilized society and in such a society the desires of people must be limited and along with it the power of the civil society is to be limited.
Hobbes thought that in an atmosphere of anarchy people’s personal or self- interests will be seriously affected and for this reason he wanted the sovereignty to ensure peace and security.
If he had in mind a conception of unlimited power of state he could have designated them. Hobbes’s Leviathan does not throw any light upon it.
As to the absolute sovereignty it may naively be observed that the government will enjoy absolute power only in respect of the maintenance of peace and security. Other affairs or aspects of society will remain outside the jurisdiction of sovereignty.
So we come to the conclusion that Hobbes had in mind the limited power of state and this is not a figment of imagination. We may quote several passages from his Leviathan but such an attempt will over-burden the analysis.
2. Hume and Limited State:
David Hume—another founder of utilitarianism was not directly associated with the theory of limited state. It is observed that utilitarianism clearly envisages that beyond the attainment of utility the state has very little functions to do.
That is, it is the mandatory duty of the state to help individuals to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Again, in this regard, the decisions of the individuals are final. Hence the state cannot do whatever it likes.
Many critics are of view that the idea of utilitarianism is reasonably a theory of limited state and Hume falls into this category. Explaining Hume’s idea about utilitarianism Plamenatz says that men normally approve of those states of mind or actions that are pleasant or means of pleasure and disapprove those that are painful or means to pains no matter whose the pleasure or pain. Pleasure or pain is the determiner of action or policy.
3. Bentham on Limited State:
The theory of limited state received a better treatment in the hands of Jeremy Bentham. It is generally observed that he was the first exponent of the theory. He expounded the theory of utilitarianism with the avowed purpose of limiting the functions of the state. In his opinion the state cannot claim unlimited authority and power over the individuals.
The definition of state suggested by Bentham is it is a group of persons organized for the promotion and maintenance of utility. By propounding this concept Bentham was in line of several 18th century thinkers, specially Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, Hume and Burke.
Since Bentham has clearly stated that the functions of the state are confined in the attainment of pleasure, its functions cannot be wide-ranging and at the same time numerous. This is simply the theory of the limited state.
He has said that it is the primary responsibility of every government to see that the greatest good of the greatest number in the society is achieved through its activities. This is due to the fact that every person always tries to get maximum amount of pleasure and, for that reason, his objective is to avoid painful actions.
If individual fails to avail the required amount of happiness he desires because of the unfavourable circumstances the existence of the state authority will appear to the citizens unnecessary.
He has said that when the greatest happiness or the greatest number is realized the concept of public good will find its proper nourishment. If the government neglects the greatest happiness principle it will neglect the public good.
Common people because of their limited knowledge and experience cannot always determine what is pleasure and what is meant by pain. It is because their knowledge about these is very limited.
Naturally people’s preference can never be the determiner of states policy or decision. But this should not be a bar to the enunciation of the doctrine or principle and government’s determination of policy in accordance with the principle.
He has maintained that people understand what pleasure, pain and happiness mean. This is due to the fact that individuals are quite reasonable and they possess sufficient reasoning and understand their own interests.
Bentham’s clear opinion is it is not the function of the state to make thorough enquiry about people’s knowledge and understanding about pain and pleasure. The government cannot also determine the extent of power and reasoning.
His argument is every man has certain amount of common sense and that enables him to have conception about pain and pleasure. Bentham categorically stated that the government ought to interfere with the activities and purposes of individuals as little as possible.
His belief was that bringing the governmental interference to a minimum level would ensure the attainment of happiness in its maximum form. This type of state function envisaged by Bentham can be called a negative one.
What is the role of the state in realizing happiness? Since according to Bentham the state cannot interfere with all the aspects of human affairs the role is limited to the task of removing the hindrances to the attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
The state will maintain peace by keeping law and order within normal condition. The state authority will prevent certain behaviour and activities and encourage others. For the prevention of activities harmful for happiness the government will sanction punishment.
Bentham has said that since the motto of every good government and good citizen is the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers it is within the right of every good citizen to “censure” the principles, policies and activities of government.
He has further maintained that the censure may be ill-founded. But that does not matter. Such censure may help the reform. He believed that the existing institutions and Structure of state were not helpful for the greatest happiness of the greatest number principle.
These are to be reformed. Bentham’s implicit assumption is that the existing set-up has given power to the state. This is to be curtailed. He was highly critical of the political and other systems of social life.
Viewed from his angle Bentham is regarded as a radical thinker but his radicalism aims at curtailing the power of the state. To sum up, Bentham had enough faith on the reason and power of judgment of individuals.
He believed that in order to implement the greatest happiness of greatest number principle the social and political structures are to be reformed and laws are to be enacted.
In the Fragment on Government he has admitted that the political power is always limited and it is shared by several agencies. By sovereignty he does not mean the unconditional obedience to the authority.
The citizens shall have the full right criticize and watch the activities of government. If the citizens are deprived of this right government’s procedures and actions may not be able to ensure pleasure and avoid pain. Though it is the duty of government to enact laws, the citizens will judge them.
The proper function of various laws is to promote and maximize happiness of the subjects. These laws are mainly of two types-moral rules and laws made by the legislator. Bentham apprehended that there might be conflict between these two laws and in that case that law is to be preferred which maximizes happiness.
Thus the reasonability and utility of a law is to be decided not by the criterion that behind it there is sanction of sovereignty but by the criterion that it is capable of promoting happiness that is, ensuring maximum pleasure and reducing pain to the lowest level While the government (or the legislator) is enacting law it must bring this aspect into active consideration.
Bentham, in this way, rules out freehand of the lawmaker Law making thus emphasizes the limited nature of state authority. When law is endowed with such characteristic the subjects will show obedience to these laws. Any deviation will inspire people to withdraw allegiance.
The critics have cast doubt on the whole concept of Bentham. If the power of the state is limited how can it be possible for such a state to ensure happiness of individuals? Sufficient power may be required to do the job.
Bentham, perhaps was not worried at all. He had enough faith on the reasonability of people and ability of the legislator to enact good laws. These two combinedly could ensure the happiness of individuals and the state could not face any trouble.
Besides this he believed that the separation of state functions could check one organ against another .This idea he borrowed from Montesquieu. Finally, we hold the view that he did not make any concession about his idea on the theory of limited state.
Bentham’s idea about the theory of limited state is revealed from his concept of supremacy of legislature. He has clearly stated that supreme legislative authority does not mean it will have unlimited power. Its power must be limited by morality and fact.
“It is not true that subjects ought to obey any law which the supreme legislature may choose to make, nor is it true that all its laws are in fact habitually obeyed”.
The law of the state must aim at protecting and furthering public good and if any legislature which has supreme power makes any law with the purpose of curtailing or adversely affecting the public well that will definitely be an immoral act on the part of the legislature. It is clear that Bentham has mixed morality with law and it is somewhat surprising and inconsistent.
He says that the legislature is supreme and it is capable of making good laws that will ensure happiness. But in the next stage he has talked about morality. A good and supreme legislature will not venture to make bad laws because it believes that such an act would be immoral. Being an enlightened man it is unbecoming on his part to talk about morality.
The legislature is mainly concerned with the legal aspects of anything and politics. It has nothing to do with morality. Bentham has thus viewed the concept of sovereignty from the spectacular standpoint of limited state authority.
This obviously results in a bit of confusion However, if we try to follow what he actually wants to say, this confusion will forthwith evaporate. He did never attempt to prepare a well-knit theory of absolute sovereignty.
It is just an aspect of his political idea. His chief objective was to build up a theory of limited state which, in his opinion, could ensure happiness Plamenatz has stated – “Bentham does not, as some theorists have done, assume that in every well-regulated state there must be a sovereign legislature, nor does he treat sovereignty as monopoly of power.” In fact, after Locke, Bentham has succeeded in projecting the state as a truncated political organisation. It is not the Hobbesian state
4. James Mill and the Theory of Limited State:
James Mill (1773-1836) was another utilitarian thinker who strongly advocated the Benthamite utilitarianism and its associated concept theory of limited state all the interpreters of Western political thought are of the view that James Mill practically added nothing to Bentham’s utilitarianism. But, as Maxey says – “He was a genius in dressing those ideas to achieve the best effect”. His credit in this field also lies in illuminating Bentham’s chief concept of utilitarianism.
He believed that the happiness of individuals could be raised to the maximum level through limiting the powers of the governors. But the senior Mill (J S Mill is called junior Mill), could not lay his faith on the separation of governmental powers. Like Bentham he insisted upon the supremacy of the legislature.
The interests of the legislature are identical with the general interest of the state. The members of the legislature might have no motive to gratify personal interests through the usurpation of state power.
Again, if power in full form is vested in the legislature that will be able to control the executive organ of the government.
Elder (or senior) Mill has said that the greatest happiness of the greatest number shall be the motto of every society. But he was suspicious about the attainment of this lofty goal.
He believes that is general human nature that a man wants to seize as much fruits as he can and thinks nothing about others.
A man desires to make other men subservient to his pleasures. But elder Mill says that if this process is allowed to continue it will never be able to produce the greatest happiness for the largest number of persons.
Hence there is a suggestion of senior Mill and this can be better said in the words of Plamenatz:
“It is, therefore, desirable, if the means of happiness are to be produced in the greatest abundance, that every man should retain as much as possible of the fruits of his labour. But this he can only do if all men unite together and delegate to some few of their number to protect them all those who exercise this protective power are the government”.
How can the powers of this government be limited? Elder Mill had no faith on general government that is, monarchy or its variations. There remains always the possibility of the abuse or misuse of political authority leading to the deprivation of pleasure and enhancement of pains.
The device suggested by James Mill is the introduction of representative government, because in such a government the governors are always responsible to the governed. So elder Mill thought that representative government is a limited government and its rule is favourable for attainment of greatest happiness of the greatest number. This theory of senior Mill resembles that of Jeremy Bentham.
James Mill advocates a wide franchise so as to intensify and ensure people’s control over the government. No class of people will be excluded from this franchise. Through their right to vote electors will be able exercise control over the government. In the opinion of senior Mill a narrow ruling elite always acts badly and keeps it busy in protecting its own interests at the cost of other’s interests.
In conclusion few words may be said. Both Bentham and James Mill reposed their faith on the system of representative form of government and both were convinced that only a representative form of government that prevailed in Britain could ensure maximum amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people.
Though Britain had a monarchical form of government, theoretically parliament was all in all and this parliament consisting of people’s representatives could provide a brake on the functions of the executive and make the entire structure of state limited both theoretically and practically.
The boundary of British electorate was gradually expanding. This created enthusiasm in the minds of the educated people that parliament could provide enough check to the power the of government.
Bentham and James Mill were no exceptions. We thus see that utilitarianism and the concept of limited state and representative form of government all are inextricably related with each other.