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Benthamite Lessons from a Scandal

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It is important not to let a scandal go to waste. If you follow world politics, then you must know about the recent events in Great Britain. According to the Financial Times, 'For the past two weeks, Britain has been in a state of stupefied anger at the ingenious ways in which elected politicians have used their expenses system to milk the taxpayer'. As a result, says the same report, 'public fury over scandalous expenses claims has pushed lawmakers, in fear of losing their jobs and their reputations, towards constitutional reform'. (Financial Times, May 23/May 24 2009.)

Now, I am a student of the constitutional thought of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the British utilitarian philosopher and jurist. Thus, as I have followed the scandal  Bentham's words have been ringing in my ears. For, one of the great battles of Bentham's long life was the reform of parliament. But Bentham was a universalist. He was confident that his ideas for constructing a form of government that would provide 'securities against misrule' were universally applicable. Bentham believed that government should be as open and as transparent as possible. This is his Panopticon principle, all round transparency with very few exceptions. Note that a request under the Freedom of Information Act got the scandal under discussion going.

Second, Bentham believed in a free, vigorous and untramelled press. In fact, he once wrote that a newspaper editor is as important as a Prime Minister in a properly organized representative democracy. Note that a newspaper - The Telegraph - got the information on the expenses claims of politicians and ran with the story...with devastating consequences.

Finally, Bentham believed in public opinion - its power and its centrality in any system of government if you want accountable government, if you want to provide, in his unique words, 'securities against misrule'. In Bentham's constitutional thought, he calls this critical force in politics the Public Opinion Tribunal. He does not believe in checks and balances, separation of powers, all the usual devices of constitutional democracy. He says informed and engaged public opinion is the key to securing accountability and preventing misrule. Well, he has a point. Note the role that public fury is playing in bringing about reform as the Financial Times reports above.

In conclusion, it is important  to restate Bentham's universally applicable teaching. Open, Transparent Government + A free and vigorous press + A functioning Public Opinion Tribunal = Accountable Government via the certainty of public sanction when misrule occurs.

For me, that is as powerful a formula as any in political thought.

Photo Credit: University College London

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