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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 224-225

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Bentham et l'économie: Une histoire d'utilité. By Nathalie Sigot. Paris: Economica, 2001. 265 pp. € 28.20.

The writings of Jeremy Bentham on political economy rank among the most difficult terrain for any scholar. Most remained in manuscript, disordered and sometimes indecipherable. Others were edited, translated, and sometimes revised by Bentham's friend the Calvinist pastor, and latterly Genevan statesman, Étienne Dumont. As is well known, many of Bentham's most influential writings, such as the Principles of Morals and Legislation, appeared first in Dumont's French before retranslation into English. An additional difficulty is presented by the work of Bentham's close friends James Mill and David Ricardo, who were recognized as utilitarians by contemporaries and have been presumed by posterity to be Bentham's spokesmen.

Nathalie Sigot's first claim is that Bentham had a distinctive voice in matters of political economy. Surpassing previous scholarship, she makes a convincing case by paying careful attention to Dumont's editorial pen and the complicated chronology of Bentham's manuscripts. One of her most important conclusions is that Bentham needs to be removed from the shadow of Mill and Ricardo. Sigot recovers and analyzes such forgotten works as Bentham's Sur les prix, which both Mill and Ricardo considered unworthy of publication in 1810–11 and which can now be found in manuscript at the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genève. In doing so she condemns scholars who have attempted to compartmentalize Bentham's economic writings and accordingly distinguish them from his broader pursuits as jurist, legislator, and moralist. In her view, political economy was for Bentham a useful tool in the grand project of fostering the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In showing how he evaluated economic reform proposals from this perspective, she underlines the sterility of debate about Bentham's presumed liberalism, authoritarianism, or presentation as a rational choice theorist avant la lettre.

The Bentham who emerges would on occasion have shocked his friends who considered his views to be identical to their own. An example is Bentham's defense of luxury. Jean-Baptiste Say saw Bentham as the most important writer on matters of legislation since Adam Smith and united with him in condemning the example of Britain's constitution, which he feared would be embraced by French reformers [End Page 224] during the Bourbon Restoration. Successive editions of his Traité d'économie politique attacked advocates of luxury as anglophile corruptors of youth and enemies of good sense. Say presumed Bentham's critique of Britain's constitution to be the analogue of a critique of its commercial practices, as it was in his own work. Sigot reveals that Bentham's actual position was more complicated, because of his rigorous and imaginative application of the felicific calculus.

Having reconstructed Bentham's views in the first part of the book, Sigot examines their British reception and resulting differences of opinion with Mill and Ricardo. In addition to elucidating Bentham's theory of money, Sigot argues that Bentham should not be described as a classical economist. Certainly his view of public credit deserves attention, as this issue was the most divisive in political economist circles in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

A final section is concerned with Bentham's posthumous reputation and, Sigot claims, his misunderstanding by neoclassical economists. Her conclusion is that economists, political philosophers, and social theorists still have a lot to learn from Bentham's economic writings. In many respects this section is the least convincing, because of the diversity of Bentham's writings relied upon. Sigot's strongest suit is textual scholarship. Had the final section dealt with the history of utility in France, rather than projecting a "what if economists had really understood Bentham," a book as fascinating as Halévy's may have emerged. But Sigot does show that a new edition of Bentham's economic writings deserves publication. If this comes to pass, Sigot ought to act as a Dumont for a new age...


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pp. 224-225
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Archived 2005
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