Previously: American Socialism, Part I: Beginnings

The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, inadvertently set the stage for American Socialism, especially in the areas of theology and technology.

In theology, Thomas Paine argued an apathetic god of the universe at best, and that the state should look to nature for all its answers. “Instead then, of studying theology, as is now done, out of the Bible and Testament,” Paine concludes, “the meanings of which books are always controverted and the authenticity of which is disproved, it is necessary that we refer to the Bible of the creation. The principles we discover there are eternal and of divine origin; they are the foundation of all the science that exists in the world, and must be the foundation of theology.”

Immanuel Kant took the empiricist bait that knowledge primarily is of ourselves and our sensations, and therefore concluded answers to the questions of essence and spirit were permanently inaccessible.

In technology, the telescope and microscope answered questions about nature we didn’t even know we were asking. And the pocket watch and pendulum clock demonstrated machines could be tinkered with to measure time itself with precsion and consistency. Isaac Newton had showed the world the same laws that apply to watches and clocks apply to the universe itself. Civilization was a machine, and a wise enough tinkerer could improve that machine. Machines rely on order and cannot abide chaos; machines rely on collective operation; independent or unpredictable variables are dangerous. Above all, machines are agnostic to transcendent morality, and are strictly concerned with utility.

The “progressive society” has been traced back to the utilitarian philosophies of Jeremy Bentham, who believed that actions “with respect to the community at large,” may be “conformable to the principle of utility…when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.”[1] For Bentham, the measure of a successful government was not its ability to protect rights or liberty, but its active role in the shaping of the community. A good utilitarian government intervened on behalf of the citizens–a guide, a teacher, a shepherd; it was not simply a bulwark or bodyguard for the rights of man.

Bentham, an Englishman who in 1776 published a rebuttal to the American Declaration of Independence, was a dissident to the Natural Rights and Natural Law theories that had pervaded the Scottish Enlightenment, and seeped into the founding constitutions of the newly-organized American states. For Bentham, rights were not “endowed by our Creator,” nor were they inherent in humanity through the laws of nature. They were a positive bequest of a benevolent government.

In criticizing the Declaration of Independence, Bentham thought it absurd that Jefferson would declare “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” unalienable. “[N]othing which can be called Government,” said the Briton, “ever was, or ever could be, in any instance exercised, but at the expense of one or the other of those rights.–That consequently in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.”[2] To the utilitarian, Liberty, which was so valued in British society as well as American, was a thing to be toyed with by the conferrer — i.e., government — so long as it benefitted the “greatest good of the greatest number.”[3] “Liberty,” he says “ought to yield to general security, since it is not possible to make any laws but at the expense of liberty. It is not possible, then, to obtain the greatest good, but by the sacrifice of some subordinate good.”[4]

The liberal (perhaps idealistic) propositions of the Enlightenment, which culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in the Constituent Assembly of Revolutionary France, were not just impractical to Bentham. They were “Absurd and miserable nonsense!”

All men are born free?” asks the incredulous sophist. “All men remain free? No, not a single man: not a single man that ever was, or is, or will be. All men, on the contrary are born in subjection, and the most absolute subjection–the subjection of a helpless child to the parents on whom he depends every moment for his existence. In this subjection every man is born–in this subjection he continues for years–for a great number of years–and the existence of the individual and of the species depends upon his so doing.”[5]

This logic of familial dependence was extended to society, in which the nation was a family, and government the father of it. Speaking on reforming the excess of government spending, Bentham warned against it. As an anachronistic or proto-Keynesian, he saw government salaries not as private property redistributed through the medium of taxation, but as a living bequest, or allowance, equal in principle to the gift given to the private individual.[6]

He did not believe that eliminating wasteful spending or government employees would be in the public’s best interest, and even denied that it would put more money in the pockets and purses of private persons. “Will it be said, that the immediate suppression of these [government] offices would be a gain to the public?” he asked.

“This would be a mere sophism. The sum in question would, without a doubt, be gained by the public, if it came from abroad, if it were obtained by [international] commerce, etc.; but it is not gained when it is taken from individuals [i.e., the government employees] who form a part of that same public [i.e., everyone else]. Would a family be richer, because the father disinherited one of his children, that he might the more richly endow the others? In this instance, as the disinheriting of one child would increase the inheritance of the others, the mischief would not be without some countervailing advantage; it would be productive of good to some part of the family. But when it relates to the public, the emoluments [salaries] of a suppressed place being divided amongst the whole community,–the gain, being distributed among a multitude, is divided into impalpable quantities; whilst the loss, being confined to one, is felt in its entirety by him who supports it alone. The result of the operation is in no respect to enrich the party who gains, whilst it reduces the party who loses to poverty. Instead of one place suppressed, suppose a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand [government employees],–the total disadvantaged will remain the same: the plunder taken from thousands [of government employees] will have to be distributed among millions [of private citizens]; your public places will be filled with unfortunate citizens who you will have plunged into indigence, whilst you will scarcely see one individual who is sensibly enriched in consequence of all these cruel operations.”[7]

The above paragraph — as arduous as it may is seem to a 21st-century reader — is a pivotal description of utilitarian economics, the logic of which naturally led to socialistic enterprises, and which, in turn, led to communistic ideals. It supposes firstly that all men not in government are children of the government. Since government is the only thing to which all people belong, He is a patriarch who rightly decides, as a father would, who among His children may receive His bounty, and how much those children may receive. Government is not accountable to His citizens; government is gracious to His citizens, and His only responsibility is to treat His children fairly — or, in other words, by doing that which “is consistent with the greatest good of the community.”[8]

Essentially, this is a mercantilist philosophy on economics. It posits that there is within a closed society a finite amount of wealth, and that an increase in the total sum of wealth may only be attained by an accumulation from external sources. In mercantilism, the measure of value is in the amount of stuff; value is not measured in how stuff is employed. The pie has been baked, and it is up to the parents to distribute that pie fairly to their children.

We see in Bentham the socialistic paradox that baffles modern conservatives, for he immediately seems to contradict himself by saying, “The interests of individuals are the only real interests. Take care of individuals;–never molest them–never suffer them to be molested, and you have done enough for the public.”[9] This no longer seems authoritarian, but rather libertarian. Indeed, the modern liberal seems a contradiction when he holds a libertarian view on sexuality, reproduction, or intoxication while holding a socialistic view on wealth and influence.

This is a paradox for modern conservatives only because there is held amongst them a different premise of the government-citizen relationship. In the utilitarian-statist perspective Liberty of body and mind was still desirable, though Liberty of property was rejected, or qualified.[10] There could be no liberty of property because property was not rightly the citizen’s to be liberal with. Since property was kept by citizens only by the Grace of Government, Government could dictate how liberally an individual may employ it. But since the liberality of body and mind were advocated, property — through the medium of taxation — was the method for a utilitarian (and socialistic) government to ensure all individuals could pursue their best interest.

Bentham speaks a maxim that modern conservatives might agree with, that it is a “vague and false notion, that the interest of individuals ought to give way to the public interest…Which, then, is the most selfish–he who would preserve what he already possesses–or he who would seize, even by force, what belongs to another?”[11]

But what does a person in a utilitarian society actually possess? That is to say, what part of a person cannot be alienated from itself? Only his body and mind; and it would be selfish, says Bentham, for a citizenry to enact laws that take the free use of self-propriety from an individual. Furthermore, it would be selfish to demand that the government cut its public spending on individual welfare so that the remainder of society may enjoy the savings. Since a child’s allowance is first the property of the father, the child may never completely call it his own.

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In other words, it would be avarice for one child to demand of his brother that which the father was pleased to distribute. It is an absurdity to Bentham and those whom he influenced to assert fundamentally that the people own the government. This would be the same as saying that children own their parents; that subjects own their sovereign. That slaves own their masters.

But to say that the people belong to the government is completely consistent with utilitarianism and the idea that a child’s labor may be utilized for the benefit of the family as a whole–the benefit being determined ultimately by the father.

Jeremy Bentham had a profound influence on the utopian philosophers of the 19th century, including the self-described founder of socialism, Robert Owen. There were differences, to be sure, among the utilitarians and the socialists, but the idea that society was a machine that could — or should — be manipulated for the greatest good was a common denominator. And it was, as in the later theories of communism, not who really owned the machine who determined its value, but who worked the machine. If society was funded by the people, their value was subordinate to those who worked society. In socialism, it is the capitalist who funds the operation of machinery, but it is the workers who are deemed most valuable to its operation. In socialism, it is the citizenry who fund the government, but it is those who work the government who are deemed most valuable.

Thus it is that the individual — even in the pursuit of liberty — may eventually be enslaved by the very object they originally claimed to own.

Perhaps we should not wonder that the man who originally criticized the premises of natural and inalienable rights contained in the Declaration of Independence, was the same man whose prodigy would influence the philosophy of Marx and Engels, and whose logic would pit the naturally inherited freedom of Americanism against the government-imposed freedom of Europeanism two centuries later.

[1] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (London: T. Payne and Son, 1789), iii.

[2] Jeremy Bentham, Short Review of the Declaration (London: T. Caddell in the Strand, 1776), 120.

[3] Jose del Valle to Jeremy Bentham, Guatemala, April 18, 1827 in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, 11 vols (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843), 10:934 [hereafter cited as Works]. While “Greatest Good for the Greatest Number” was never used by Bentham, his formula was that a Constitution “has for its general end in view, the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (Leading Principles of a Constitutional Code, in Works, 2:507).

[4] Jeremy Bentham, Fragment on Government, in Works, 1:545.

[5] Bentham, A Critical Examination of the Declaration of Rights, in Works, 2:909

[6] See Ibid., 2:909-953 passim.

[7] Bentham, The Rationale of Reward in Works, 2:480

[8] Bentham, Critical Examination, in Works, 2:922

[9] Bentham, Rationale of Reward in Works, 2:481

[10] In his Constitutional Code, Bentham differentiates between security (ergo, liberty) of persons, “body and mind included,” and the security of property — the latter being distinguished between matters of “subsistence” and “abundance.” “Subsistent” property was, “everything, the non-possession of which would be productive of positive physical suffering:–that and nothing more.” “Abundant” property were the superfluous possessions which “its usefulness may be still greater to those who possess it not, than to those who possess it.” See Constitutional Code in Works (2:507-508, notes included). In addition to Bentham, see John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, and cf. with John  Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, especially his later editions (1871), which followed the logic toward a socialistic bent.

[11] Bentham, Rationale of Reward in Works, 2:481