Bentham Project

Jon Elster's new book Securities against Misrule takes its inspiration from Bentham

Elster - Securities against Misrule

Jon Elster, Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, has published Securities against Misrule: Juries, Assemblies, Elections (Cambridge University Press, 2013), in which he ‘proposes a normative theory of collective decision making, inspired by Jeremy Bentham’. Elster does not commit himself to utilitarianism, or any other substantive moral philosophy, but finds a whole range of insights and institutional devices within Bentham’s writings (particularly in Political Tactics; Rights, Representation and Reform; First Principles preparatory to Constitutional Code; Securities against Misrule; and Constitutional Code) that, he argues, should be adopted in contemporary democratic institutions. The book contains a long and fascinating chapter devoted to Bentham.

In the Preface, Elster explains his interest in Bentham as follows: ‘A few years earlier [i.e. before he delivered a series of lectures at the Collège de France between 2008 and 2011], I had become aware of Bentham’s writings on the design of political assemblies. Although I did not immediately recognize their full significance, I have come to believe that Bentham’s negative approach to institutional design—providing securities against misrule—is more robust and realistic than the numerous positive approaches proposed in the literature. Shorn of their eccentric and occasionally ridiculous aspects [what could these be? ed.], his analyses of assemblies and legislation have provided the lodestar for my work. I thank the director of the Bentham Project at University College London, Philip Schofield, for helpful guidance and, more generally, the editors of Bentham’s Collected Works for their superb scholarship. Although most work on Bentham has been devoted to his writings on the law, a few kindred spirits, notably Philippe Urfalino and Adrian Vermeule, have shared my enthusiasm for his work on political decision making. I suspect there is much yet to be mined in Bentham’s writings.’

The Bentham Project has always argued that Bentham’s ideas are not just of historical importance, but also of great contemporary significance. It is gratifying to see this claim substantiated by one of the world’s leading social scientists.