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The principle of utility  Identification versus anonymity in e-government
 Bentham on identification and control


Bentham on social control

In his Theory of Legislation, Bentham proves to be a master of social control thinking, fully mastering contemporary terminology such as ‘surveillance’, ‘observation’, etc., and the diversity of the actors involved. He is a prime advocate of full and extensive use of all possible sanctions, and of Hood’s four key resources of government power: nodality or centrality in an information network, treasure, authority and organization (Hood, 1983). In the following, we select some of Bentham’s abundant suggestions to improve the mechanisms of social control.

A nice starting point is his discussion of postal delivery. How can a government speed up this service? In order to speed up postal delivery and laxity of carriers, Bentham suggests, government should avoid using authority and organization. By relying on nodality and combining carriage of mails and the conveyance of passengers, the travellers who then accompany the letter-carrier will become inspectors of his conduct. They will impose constant and unpaid surveillance on them and are ready to inform government on negligence of duty. General happiness will increase. The state saves on information and legal proceedings and the services will be rendered quickly and cheaply (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIII).

Bentham is very keen on nodality and state use of information. It allows him, without making him too illiberal, to propose some very illiberal measures to improve citizens or enforce virtue. Public virtue, belief in the general Principle of Utility and patriotism are for Bentham important prerequisites to keep people away from over privatization, the sentiment of benevolence and bastard patriotism; states should not refrain from ‘disabusing’ the minds of people to relate this message. Deceit, trickery and ‘secret controlling of public opinion’  are by no means illegitimate. Sometimes a mere change of name is enough to overcome resistance. If people accept the term Emperor, but not the term King, use the former. The legislator may manipulate the deceptive power of terms such as liberty, equality and subjects, and use the force of example to alter public opinion, or simply wait till the mind of the people changes.

Authority should be used to establish all sorts of registries, titles and stamps, certificates and so on. Since everyone wishes to obtain for himself all possible security about his legal (trans)actions, most people will comply. ‘The utility of authentic attestations of this character is beyond all manner of dispute.’ Property owners and consumers have more security about their transactions and the whole will facilitate the payment of taxes and the combat against crime and smuggle (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LII).

Authority should also be used to adopt coercive laws to regulate behaviour of men. Bentham proposes to ‘refine’ the tool of legislation. Everybody knows that offences can be combated by punishments (direct legislation), but the Sovereign should also consider the use of preventive laws (indirect legislation). Direct legislation assails the mischief by means of a frontal attack; indirect legislation has recourse to what he calls ‘oblique’ methods.

One of Bentham’s central propositions on social control is ‘To prevent Offences by making it the Interest of Many Persons to prevent them(Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIII). Additionally and if needed states should make use of treasure. Bentham makes strong arguments in favour of rewards for those that assist in the prevention of crime and in delivering the guilty person into the hands of justice, and in favour of paid informers and government spies (Principles of the Penal Code, Part II, Chapter XVI). Using spies may be one of the indirect measures of a ‘refined legislator’.

Treasure may also be used to pay for public instruction in order to enlighten and ‘disabuse’ the minds of the people, and to shape the public opinion or ‘control openly’ public opinion through a system of rewards to confer additional honours on those who are adjudged fit to receive them  (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIX).

Of course, when nothing works there is always organization and force. One part of organization is the physical interference in the life of the governed. Bentham sees an important role for private policing (infra) and identifies only practical and financial boundaries for the growth of government and police organizations. One of the boundaries that the Sovereign should respect is the public opinion. He has to take care not to shock the national sentiment and not to harass the people with police measures in times of tranquillity. In the capital of Japan everyone is required to bear his name on his outer garment, Bentham observes, ‘a precaution which will seem desirable, idle, or arbitrary, according to the trend of popular prejudices’. Bentham suggests that people should have their names tattooed on their wrists, since such measure would eliminate anonymity and render it possible to relax the rigor of criminal proceedings. Unfortunately, ‘the state of public opinion nowadays presents an insurmountable obstacle to the adoption of this practice’. However, not all is lost. Propaganda and example can do a lot and ‘opinion might undergo a change if we devoted to the advocacy of such a scheme a good deal of patience and tact’ (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIV).


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