After reading this article you will learn about the views of various classical economists like Adman Smith, Ricardo and JS Mill to the utilitarian theory of limited states.
Classical Economist # 1. Adam Smith (1723-1790):
Two famous classical economists, from the standpoint of economics, supported utilitarianism along with limited state. Particularly Smith was pioneer in this field. Ricardo also thought that the state must perform its functions within certain limits and the limits are to be decided by law.
Smith penned two works—Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. The latter work is relevant for the present purpose. Smith heavily emphasized upon the importance of natural order which relates to the spontaneity and natural inclination of human character and behaviour.
That is, what human beings want or desire to do should be left to them, and they should be allowed to enjoy the non-interference of government.
Smith has devised six manifestations of human nature. These he calls motives. They are: self-love, sympathy, the desire to be free, a sense of propriety, and a habit of labour, the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another. By exercising these motives the individuals judge the activities, policies and decision of the state authority and practically they reach the real, reasonable and beneficial conclusion. Smith calls this the natural order.
If they are forced to leave this natural order there will emerge undesirable consequences. He pointed out the perfections of the natural order and imperfections of human institutions.
Smith said (The Wealth of Nations)—Take away artificial preferences and restraints and the obvious and simple system of natural liberty will establish itself. Again that order of things which necessity imposes is promoted by the natural inclinations of man. Human institutions only too often thwart these natural inclinations.
So far we have obtained two points from Smith’s views – human beings have certain inborn motives and the natural order of society should not be disturbed by artificial institutions and governmental interferences.
Naturally each man is the best judge of his own interest and he should be left to himself to attain his best interests.
If everyman is allowed to do this that will ultimately benefit the entire society and common good will be benefited. The implication of Smith’s observation is that individuals understand their utility.
If any external authority proceeds to guide them and to impose restrictions that will create a great damage to their spontaneity. For this obvious reason the power of the state should be reduced to the minimum level.
Smith believed that disturbance of the natural order by the governmental interference would result in the following consequences. Interference of the government would be harmful.
The negative approach of the state authority could bring about positive results.
Eric Roll, summarizing the benefits of non-intervention, makes the following observation:
“Its intervention in human affairs is generally harmful. Let it leave each member of the community to seek to maximize his own advantage and, compelled by natural law, he will contribute to the maximization of common good.”
According to Smith the natural law specifies three important duties of government and beyond this it has nothing to do for society. These three duties are duty of defence from foreign aggressions, the duty of establishing an exact administration for justice, and maintenance of public works and institutions for peace and security.
In all other spheres the individuals will enjoy full freedom. Particularly in economic affairs the subjects will pursue their interests.
It is obvious that Adam Smith was a strong opponent of any form of government intervention. The natural order or the natural law is so arranged or made that it cannot do any harm to the utility or advantage of individuals.
On the contrary, if too many man-made institutions are permitted to function that will ensure corrosive effects upon the spontaneity of men.
Smith has also said that governmental regulations regarding wages and other matters are treated with suspicion. Both Bentham and Adam Smith viewed the role of the state from the standpoint of advantage or utility which the individuals expect from non-intervention of government.
Bentham emphasized upon the political aspects, Adam Smith upon the economic aspects. But the objective of both was to limit the duty of the state for the sake of utility.
Adam Smith is the ‘father of laissez-faire doctrine’. Its central theme is—people should be left alone to pursue their own policies and principles and if the government does not interfere with the functions of the individuals that will lead to the generation of highest amount of utility and economic benefit for the people.
Moreover, individuals are the best judges of the economic policies and their effects. State interference will create a haphazard situation.
So we find that for the economic betterment of society Smith forcefully prescribed non-interference of the state.
It is true that Adam Smith did not directly talk about utilitarianism but one can definitely draw certain interferences from his famous laissez-faire doctrine. But Smith’s involvement in or association with utilitarianism is not direct and not worthy.
Some people think that Adam Smith had a soft corner for Bentham’s utilitarianism.
Classical Economist # 2. Ricardo (1772-1823) and the Idea of Limited State:
David Ricardo, a classical economist, was a supporter of utilitarianism. Following Adam Smith he drew the conclusion that the real objective of a government would be to achieve greatest pleasure of the largest number of people and this could be achieved through the minimum interference of the government in the economic and other private affairs of individuals. Bentham’s Fragment of Government was published in 1776 and Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy & Taxation in 1817.
What idea of limited state function do we get from Smith and Ricardo? Let us put in the words of Plamenatz – “Don’t do what we tell you not to do and men will be the happier for your abstinence, you need only look at the methods whereby they produce and exchange goods and services and you will see that we are right. The classical political economy … from 1776 until middle of the next century was the theory behind the advice given by utilitarians to the successive governments”.
Ricardo advised the government to keep itself aloof from the day-to-day functions of the individuals which may be political, social and economic, or anything else. This will help individuals to reach their coveted goal and this will ultimately help them to reach the zenith of happiness.
The point to note is that both Smith and Ricardo emphasized the economic aspects while Bentham selected legislation and governmental function as weapons. The common factor is the limitation of the states functions. To sum up, Bentham, J. S. Mill, Adam Smith, Ricardo and scores of other’s thinkers advocated liberalism as a broad way to ensure maximum happiness.
Classical Economist # 3. J. S. Mill and Theory of Limited State:
Mill’s political philosophy is a multi-faceted one. He is a great individualist, a great utilitarian, a renowned liberal philosopher, and also a “qualified socialist”. Above all he was a staunch supporter of the limited state activities.
He valued the thought, belief and opinion of individuals so much that he was not in a position to tolerate governmental intervention. Only in limited and special circumstances he allowed the state to interfere with the personal affairs of individuals.
His strong support for individuals has made him a great advocate of the limited function and role of the state. His theory of utilitarianism may also be cited as a support for it.
J. S. Mill strongly believed that every individual must have the freedom of opinion and the reasons advanced by him are the following – One, any opinion we silence may be the true opinion and by silencing that opinion the authority of the state deprives the society of a true opinion.
This is unjustified. Nobody has any right to deprive one of any true opinion. Two, the silenced opinion may be partly correct and the prevailing opinion may not be completely correct. From the conflict between these two the final truth may come out.
In that case, it would not be prudent for any civilized society to silence an opinion. There should be proper arrangements in every society for the ventilation of all sorts of opinion.
The simple implication is that the activities of the state shall be limited. Three, Mill finally observes that the prevailing opinion may be completely true. But such a complete truth is nothing but a dogma and it must be challenged by the society.
Only the uncontrolled opinion can challenge such a dogma. As to the expression of opinion Mill thus came to the conclusion that it is not the business of the government to seek to control the opinion of individuals. They must enjoy full freedom.
The complete freedom of body and mind was of prime importance to J. S. Mill and he was not prepared to make a large amount of relaxation. Only for the sake of self-protection the intervention of the state can be allowed.
Let us put it in the words of Mill:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Mill thus sanctions state interference only for the purpose of self-protection. He comes to the view that in the present set-up of society the persons may not be in a position to protect or defend him from the assault of others. And, in the absence of state intervention, and in the case of his inability, the person will face destruction which any civilized community cannot allow.
By propounding this concept in a quite bold manner Mill proceeds to advocate a limited state role. Mill prescribed that the state can interfere with the activities of individuals which are likely to affect the interests of other persons. Mill divides the functions of persons into self-regarding and other-regarding.
Mill’s attachment to and love for utility is beyond all sorts of doubt. But the interpretation of the concept is different from Bentham. This has added new meaning to the whole concept.
Some critics say that Mill’s interpretation has created interest in the minds of his readers.
“I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions, but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”
Utility is the guiding and motivating force of every action launched by the individual or the state. Hence any measure devoid of utility cannot be entertained.
To what extent a measure or policy is capable of producing utility is to be judged by the individual himself and not by the state. Because, he believed that individuals possess sufficient reason and intelligence.
So it is the duty of the state authority to allow persons to exercise their intelligence and freedom so that they can reach any fruitful decision regarding the capacity of a policy in producing utility.
It is not the function of the state to decide beforehand which measure has utility and which has not. So Mill’s concept of utility is designed to curb the functions of the state in a considerable way.
It is a fact that Mill’s utility is different from Bentham’s. So far as the present issue is concerned the difference between Bentham and J. S. Mill is quite immaterial. Both Bentham and J. S. Mill wanted to curb the authority of the state.
The idea of self-development inspired, in a spectacular way, to propound a theory of limited state. This point has been emphasized by Ebenstein. “In championing liberty Mill has a broad goal in mind – the “Greek ideal of self-development.” It is the privilege of every human being to use and interpret experience in his own way, and the act of choosing between alternatives brings man’s moral faculties into play”.
The point to be emphasized is that only proper freedom can be a help for the individual in his efforts of self-development. If he is obstructed by the authority his spontaneity will be discouraged, thus harming his own development.
His argument for freedom is for the development of moral character. Mill thought that only in an atmosphere of limited state proper or real freedom gets the opportunity of progress. Self-development, proper freedom, greatest happiness of the largest number and limited power and function all are closely related.
In the opinion of Mill the state is for the individuals and the individuals are not for the state. So it is the primary responsibility of the state to ensure the all-round development of individuals.
In the last few lines in On Liberty Mills says:
“The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of individuals composing it and a state which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill or of the semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a state which dwarfs its men in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.” Mill has said – “state which dwarfs its men”.
These five words are very significant. He had firm belief that the state generally dwarfs the interest, energy and activities of individuals through its cumbersome process of administration. This makes men disinterested in his own mental and intellectual progress and also the also social progress.
So dwarfing men is a phrase that carries a volume of weight. Mill disapproved this type of state’s functions from the core of his heart. He openly declared that under no circumstances the state shall be allowed to impede the mental and all other types of growth of individuals.
He further maintains that the state is very often misguided by wrong ideas and this is harmful for those who are at the receiving end—that is, individuals.
Why was Mill fervently advocating for the limitation of state power? In his judgment the state is a “necessary evil”.
He does not deny the importance of state as a political institution in certain affairs—such as defending the state from external aggression and defending the individuals from doing harm to other persons.
Barker has said that, according to Mill, the state has no right to interfere with the “self- regarding” activities of the individuals. Only the “other regarding” functions come within the jurisdiction of the state. This is a clear proof of Mill’s idea on the limited state activities.
Mill was also very much apprehensive about political tyranny. The authority of the state in the name of majority imposes its decision upon the people without giving due importance to their opinion. This is not only, according to Mill, unfair but also detrimental to the spontaneous development of individual freedom.
He, therefore, comes to the conclusion that the power of the state should be curtailed and on the question how that can be done he suggests two procedures—(1) the formulation of the doctrine of rights, and (2) the establishment of constitutional checks.
Mill has said that large scale participation of people in the governmental affairs can necessarily control the excesses of government’s functions.
The objective- popular participation can be achieved in a representative form of government. His another suggestion is—various institutions are to be formed and nourished within the social framework with the help of which people can develop their inherent qualities. He believes that augmentation of consciousness through the spread of education can put the authority within the desirable limits.