Utilitarian economists have often been – in my view properly – accused of trying to substitute ‘efficiency’ for ethics in advocating or developing public policy. ‘Efficiency’, in contrast to ‘ethics’ sounds unsentimental, hard-nosed and ‘scientific’. Yet extolling ‘efficiency’ only pushes the ethical problem under the rug. For in whose interests, and at whose expense, shall social efficiency be pursued? In the name of a spurious science, ‘efficiency’ often becomes a mask for exploitation, for plundering one set of people for the benefit of another. Often, utilitarian economists have been accused of being willing to advise ‘society’ on how to build the most efficient ‘concentration camps’. Those who have held this charge to be an unfair reductio ad absurdum should contemplate the life and thought of the prince of utilitarian philosophers, Jeremy Bentham. In a profound sense, Bentham was a living reductio ad absurdum of Benthamism, a living object lesson of the results of his own doctrine.
number’. But, as Gertrude Himmelfarb points out in her scintillating and devastating essays on Bentham, of all his numerous schemes and tinkerings in pursuit of this elusive goal, the one closest to Jeremy's heart was his plan for the panopticon. In visiting his brother Samuel in Russia, in the 1780s, Bentham found that his brother had designed such a panopticon, as a workshop, and Bentham immediately got the idea of the Panopticon as the ideal physical site for a prison, a school, a factory – indeed, for all of social life. ‘Panopticon’, in Greek, means ‘all-seeing’, and the name was highly suitable for the object in view. Another Benthamite synonym for the panopticon was ‘the Inspection House’. The idea was to maximize the supervision of prisoners/school children/paupers/employees by the all-seeing inspector, who would be seated at a tower in the centre of a circular spider-web able to spy on all the cells in the periphery. By mirrors and other devices, each of the spied-upon could never know where the inspector was looking at any given time. Thus the panopticon would accomplish the goal of a 100 per cent inspected and supervised society without the means; since everyone could be under inspection at any time without knowing it.
It was in 1768, at the age of 20, when Jeremy Bentham, returning to his alma mater, Oxford, for an alumni vote, chanced upon a copy of Joseph Priestley's Essay on Government, and came across the magical phrase that changed and dominated his life from then on: ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest
Bentham's apologists have reduced his scheme to merely one of prison ‘reform’, but Bentham tried to make it clear that all social institutions were to be encompassed by the panopticon; that it was to serve as a model for ‘houses of industry, workhouses, poorhouses, manufactories, mad-houses, lazrettos, hospitals, and schools’. An atheist hardly given to scriptural citation, Bentham nevertheless waxed rhapsodic about the social ideal of the panopticon, quoting from the Psalms: ‘Thou art about my path, and about my bed; and spies out all my ways...’
As Professor Himmelfarb aptly puts it:
Bentham did not believe in God, but he did believe in the qualities apotheosized in God. The Panopticon was a realization of the divine ideal, spying out the ways of the transgressor by means of an ingenious architectural scheme, turning night into day with artificial light and reflectors, holding men captive by an intricate system of inspection.10
Bentham's goal was to approach, or simulate, the ‘ideal perfection’ of complete and continuous inspection of everyone. Because of the inspector's ‘invisible eye’, each inmate would conceive himself in a state of total and continuing inspection, thus achieving the ‘apparent omnipresence of the inspector’.
Consistent with utilitarianism, the social arrangement was decided upon by the social despot, who acts ‘scientifically’ in the name of the greatest happiness of all. In that name, his rule maximizes ‘efficiency’. Thus, in Bentham's original draft, every inmate would be kept in solitary confinement, since this would maximize his being ‘safe and quiet’, without chance of unruly crowds or planning of escape.
In arguing for his panopticon, Bentham at one point acknowledges the doubts and reservations of people who appear to want maximum inspection of their children or other charges. He recognizes a possible charge that his inspector would be excessively despotic, or even that the incarceration and solitary confinement of all might be ‘productive of an imbecility’, so that a formerly free man would no longer in a deep sense be fully human: ‘And whether the result of this high-wrought contrivance might not be constructing a set of machines under the similitude of men?’ To this critical question, Jeremy Bentham gave a brusque, brutal and quintessentially utilitarian reply: who cares? he said. The only pertinent question was: ‘would happiness be most likely to be increased or diminished by this discipline?’ To our ‘scientist’ of happiness, there were no doubts of the answer: ‘call them soldiers, call them monks, call them machines; so they were but happy ones, I should not care.’11 There speaks the prototypical humanitarian with the guillotine, or at least with the slave-pen.
Bentham was only willing to modify the solitary confinement of each inmate in the panopticon because of the great expense of constructing an entire cell for each person. Economy was an overriding concern in running the panopticon – economy and productivity. Bentham was concerned to maximize the coerced labour of the inmates. After all, ‘industry is a blessing; why paint it as a curse?’ Seven-and-a-half hours a day sufficed for sleep, and an hour-and-a-half total for meals, for after all, he admonished, ‘let it not be forgotten, meal times are times of rest: feeding is recreation.’ There is no reason why inmates should not be forced to work 14 or even 15 hours a day, six days a week. Indeed, Bentham wrote to a friend that he had been ‘afraid’ of revealing many of his proposed savings, ‘for fear of being beat down’. He had in mind working the inmates no less than ‘sixteen and a half profitable hours’ a day, dressing them without stockings, shirts or hats, and feeding them exclusively on potatoes, which at that time were regarded even by the poorest citizens as fit only for animal fodder. Bedding was to be as cheap as possible with sacks used instead of sheets, and hammocks instead of beds.
Bentham's overriding concern with economy and productivity is made understandable by a crucial element in his panopticon plan – an element often neglected by later historians. For the Great Inspector was to be none other than Bentham himself. Prisons of the realm, and presumably eventually schools and factories, were to be contracted out to Bentham, who would be contractor, inspector and profit-maker from the scheme. It is no wonder then, that Bentham had such supreme confidence in the ability of the inspector to maximize his own happiness along with the happiness of the ‘greatest number’ of panopticon inmates at the same time. Bentham's long-term gain, if not the ‘greatest happiness’ of the prisoners, was also to be ensured by long-run provisions that would keep ‘released’ prisoners in the almost permanent thrall of the inspector. In Bentham's final plan for his panopticon, no prisoner would be released unless he enlisted in the army; enlisted in the navy; or had a bond of £50 posted for him by a ‘responsible householder’. It must be realized that £50 was a handsome sum at a time when the average unskilled labourer received a wage of about 10 shillings a week – or about two year's salary. The bond was to be renewed annually, and any failure to renew would subject the prisoner to be shipped back to the panopticon, ‘though it should be for life’. Why would any responsible householder be interested in posting a £50 bond for an ex-prisoner? To Bentham, the answer was clear: only if the prisoner was willing to contract his labour to that householder, with the understanding that the householder would have the same power over the labourer as that ‘of a father over his child, or of a master over his apprentice’. Since this mammoth bond had to be renewed every year, the ex-prisoner was envisioned by Bentham as a perpetual slave to the householder. If there was no bond, the prisoner would have to shipped to a ‘subsidiary establishment’, also run on panopticon principles. And who better to run such establishments than the main prison contractor, i.e. Bentham himself? Indeed, all the conditions of the panopticon were designed to induce the prisoners or other inmates to be enslaved to the contractor (Bentham) virtually for life.
In view of Bentham's overriding concern with the panopticon, and of his explicit identification of himself as the contractor, we must remark on what Himmelfarb points to as;
the strange, almost willing inattentiveness of biographers and historians to the most striking feature of the plan and the decisive cause of its rejection. To them Bentham was a philanthropist who sacrificed years of his life and most of his fortune to the exemplary cause of penal reform and who was inexplicably, as one biographer put it, ‘not to be allowed to benefit his country’. Most books on Bentham and even some of the most respectable histories of penal reform do not so much as mention the contract system in connection with the Panopticon, let alone identify Bentham as the proposed contractor.12
Finally, Bentham's panopticon was supposed to be intimately connected with a woodworking machine that his brother Samuel had invented in Russia about the same time as the panopticon workshop. What better use for thousands, if not many thousands of inmates than to be busily and cheaply at work making an enormous amount of wood? Samuel's woodworking machine proved to be too costly to be built and powered by a steam engine; so why not, in Bentham's own terms, ‘human labour to be extracted from a class of person, on whose part neither dexterity nor good will were to be reckoned upon,... now substituted to the steam engine...?’
That Bentham scarcely aimed to confine the panopticon to the class of prisoners is shown particularly by his panopticon poorhouse scheme. Written originally in 1797 and reissued in 1812, Bentham's Pauper Management Improved envisioned a joint-stock company, like the East India Company, contracted by the government to operate 250 ‘Industry Houses’, each to house 2 000 paupers subject to the ‘absolute’ authority of a contractor-inspector-governor, in a building and suffering under a regimen very similar to the panopticon prison.
Who would constitute the class of paupers living under the slave labour regime of the panopticon poorhouse? To Bentham, the company – of which he, of course, would be the head – would be assigned ‘coercive powers’ to seize anyone ‘having nether visible livelihood or assignable property, nor honest and sufficient means of livelihood’. On that rather elastic definition, the average citizen would be legally encouraged to aid and abet the coercive powers of the poorhouse company by seizing anyone he considered of insufficient livelihood and trundling him off to the panopticon poorhouse.
Bentham's envisioned scale of the network of panopticon poorhouses was nothing if not grandiose. The houses were to confine not only 500 000 poor but also their children, who were to continue bound to the company, even if their parents were discharged, as apprentices until their early 20s, even if married. These apprentices would be confined in an additional 250 panopticon houses, bringing the total number of inmates in the industry houses up to no less than one million. If we consider that the total population of England at that time was only nine million, this means that Bentham envisioned the confining in slave labour, regimented and exploited by himself, of at least 11 per cent of the nation's population. Indeed, sometimes Bentham envisioned his panopticons as incarcerating up to three-fifths of the British population.
Jeremy Bentham conceived of his panopticon in 1786 at the age of 38; five years later, he published the scheme and fought hard for it for two more decades, also urging France and India in vain to adopt the scheme. Parliament finally rejected the plan in 1811. For the rest of his long life, Bentham mourned the defeat. Near the end of his life at the age of 83, Bentham wrote a history of the affair, paranoiacally convinced that King George HI had sabotaged the plan out of a personal vendetta arising from Bentham's opposition, during the 1780s, to the king's projected war against Russia. (The book's title is History of the War Between Jeremy Bentham and George III (1831), By ‘One of the Belligerents’.) Bentham lamented, ‘Imagine how he hated me... But for him all the paupers in the country, as well as all the prisoners in the country, would have been in my hands’.13 A tragedy indeed!
Jeremy Bentham started out in life as a Tory, a typical eighteenth century believer in ‘enlightened despotism’. He looked to the enlightened despots, whether Catherine the Great of Russia or George III, to put his reforms and crank schemes for the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ into effect. But the failure to push through the panopticon soured him on absolute monarchy. As he wrote, ‘I... never suspected that the people in power were against reform. I supposed they only wanted to know what was good in order to embrace it’. Disillusioned, Bentham allowed himself to be converted, partially by his great disciple James Mill, to radical democracy, and to the panoply of what came to be known as philosophic radicalism. As Himmelfarb summed up the new radicalism, its innovation ‘was to make the greatest happiness of the greatest number dependent upon the greatest power of the greatest number’, the greatest power to be lodged in an ‘omnicompetent legislature’.14 And if, as Himmelfarb puts it, the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ might require ‘the greatest misery of the few’, then so be it.
It seems scarcely an exaggeration when Douglas Long compares Bentham's social outlook with that of the modern ‘scientific’ totalitarian, B.F. Skinner. Bentham wrote toward the end of his life that the words ‘liberty’ and ‘liberal’ were among ‘the most mischievous’ in the English language, because they obscured the genuine issues, which are ‘happiness’ and ‘security’. For Bentham, the state is the necessary cradle of the law, and every individual citizen's duty is to obey that law. What the public needs and wants is not liberty but ‘security’, for which the power of the sovereign state must be unbounded and infinite. (And who is to guard the citizen from his sovereign?) For Bentham, as Long puts it:
by its very nature the idea of liberty more than any other concept posed a continual threat to the completeness and stability Bentham sought in his ‘science of human nature’. The indeterminate, open-ended quality of the libertarian view of man was alien to Bentham. He sought rather the perfection of a neo-Newtonian social physics.
The philosophic radicals, despite their proclaimed devotion to laissez-faire, adopted not only Bentham's later democratic creed, but also his devotion to the panopticon. John Stuart Mill, even when most anti-Benthamite in the course of his eternally wavering career, never criticized the panopticon. More starkly, Bentham's brilliant ‘Lenin’, James Mill, despite his eagerness to bury Bentham's statist economic views, admired the panopticon with the extravagance of the Master himself. In an article on ‘Prisons and Prison Discipline’, written for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1822 or 1823, Mill praised the panopticon to the skies, as ‘perfectly expounded and proved’ on the great principle of utility. Every aspect of the panopticon received Mill's plaudits: the architecture, the hammocks instead of beds, the all-seeing inspection, the labour system, the contract system, the perpetual slavery of the ‘released prisoners’. Mill's lavish praise was private as well as public, for in a letter to the editor of the Encyclopedia, Mill insisted that the panopticon ‘appear(s) to me to approach perfection’