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Sinister interests: Bentham's warning about politicians

27 January 2010

The MPs' expenses scandal has shown the naivety of trusting our politicians to display noble conduct, writes UCL postgraduate student James Shafe.

Jeremy Bentham's 'auto-icon'

Jeremy Bentham, philosopher and spiritual founder of UCL, warned us 200 years ago that politicians are selfish creatures who need clear incentives if they are to work in the community's best interests. Is it time for performance-related pay for MPs, asks James Shafe (UCL Political Science)?

A key lesson of 2009 is that we will get the best out of our MPs only by catering to the worst in their natures. In 2009, the Daily Telegraph published a series of expenses claims made by MPs from all three main British political parties. Officially, MPs can only claim parliamentary expenses for costs 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the performance of a Member's parliamentary duties.' However, the claims published by the Telegraph revealed widespread and systematic abuse of the system. A number of explanations of the scandal have been offered by the popular press, but naive trust underlies many of them. 

Bentham: Assume politicians' self interest

Should we blindly trust our MPs not to abuse the system in this way? The 2009 expenses scandal suggests not. The British political philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued 200 years ago that politicians should not be trusted to act selflessly. His  analysis of power explains why secrecy caused these recent misdemeanours, and suggests what can be done to prevent their reoccurrence. Addressing the problem requires clear rewards and punishments for 'success' and 'failure', and a definition of what these mean in a political context, clarifying the rhetorical yet ambiguous language used by our politicians.

Bentham, unlike many political commentators, carefully emphasised the fallibility of those who wield power. He warned against relying on politicians' benevolence and argued that we should instead assume their 'sinister' self-interest. While other political thinkers have also emphasised politicians' self-interestedness - for example David Hume's in his 1742 essay 'Of the Independency of Parliament' - few provide a more comprehensive explanation of how to harness egoism than Bentham. Like an owner who trains his reluctant dog to obey by rewarding him with biscuits, Benthamite political systems make governors self-interestedly desire to serve us. Conversely, MPs should be wary of harming us (through excessive expense claims or corruption) because the repercussions of these actions will be detrimental to them. Like dogs who respond to treats, MPs react more to praise and blame, financial rewards and fines, than high-minded ideas. Anyone who understands the self-interest of MPs should not be shocked when some of them act improperly when confronted with temptation and secrecy.

Communities and secrecy affect good governance

Communities can play an active role in promoting good governance, because public opinion provides some of the incentives needed to make egotistical politicians serve our collective interest. The threat of being discovered and exposed should, in principle, scare the corrupt or inept. In his essay 'On Packing', Bentham argued that libel laws work against the public interest because they prevent corruption being held up to public view. These criticisms have particular resonance in Britain given the exploitation of the country's famously tough libel laws to protect commercial interests. Specialist media lawyers such as Carter-Ruck have recently used super injunctions to stifle public criticism of their corporate clients. The paperwork for these injunctions (proceedings for which often take place in secret) are anonymous, so that no researcher going through court records could ever learn of what happened.

Similar secrecy has until recently surrounded MPs' parliamentary expenses claims. Yet many commentators have seemed almost surprised that politicians act improperly under cover of secrecy. For Bentham, this would have been no surprise: how else would egoists act when there is little chance of getting caught? What is truly dangerous, however, is for the sources of politicians' personal interests (including donations and expenses) to remain secret, because this makes public figures feel invulnerable to the threat of public opinion. In Bentham's words, secrecy allows the powerful to indulge in 'sacrifices of public welfare to private convenience.'

The expenses scandal demonstrates that while public exposure is a necessary tool, it is nevertheless not always a sufficient one. In October 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked former senior civil servant Sir Thomas Legg to lead an independent report into abuse of the expenses system. His letters to MPs, suggesting that they repay various amounts, demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of relying on publicity. Bentham assumed that the community's condemnation would often be enough to deter wrongdoing because the displeasure we feel at others' disapproval is a strong deterrent. Clearly, though, this 'social' sanction' is not always enough. Faced with public revulsion at their behaviour, some MPs still insist that their claims were justified and ignore public outcry. James Purnell MP, for example, faces no danger of deselection, despite claiming over £9,000 to cover grocery bills whilst earning over £140,000 per year. For the well-connected and experienced, claiming for cleaners and duck houses might be embarrassing, but its revelation is not career-ending. The shame of exposure can deter many, but not all culprits.

Positive rewards to encourage good behaviour?

Part of a positive agenda for regulating selfish politicians' behaviour would ensure that they are not only punished for corruption but also rewarded when they serve communities well. As shown by numerous MPs' behaviour, monetary and not merely social sanctions are required. This raises the wider question: if, like the rest of us, legislators need the threat of exposure, losing elections or even prosecution to deter bad conduct, what positive rewards could encourage good governance?

Influential public policy theorists, such as London School of Economics professor Julian Le Grand, draw the distinction between systems that presuppose actors' motivation by self-interest, and those that assume a measure of benevolence. Le Grand argues that a mix of the two is required for any policy to effectively manage behaviour. Self-interest is used as a tool by policymakers to influence most agents in society. We use taxes, advertising and legislation to 'nudge' or even push people towards desirable actions like giving up smoking, going back to work or using less petrol. So far, politicians have been immune from these kinds of incentives, but it is unclear why. Current public policy suggests that we need rewards to shape the behaviour of such diverse social groups as smokers, drinkers, drivers, low-paid workers and mothers. Why should MPs be any different?

Recent events have already established the political necessity and principled need for an independent authority to assess MPs' pay. An obvious way of rewarding politicians' 'good' behaviour would be to link some component of their pay to 'success'. Hammering out the details could be a complicated and controversial process. First we would need an independent authority to define (admittedly rough) measures for the successful results of parliamentary activity (UK median income, the number of people in poverty, the number of failing schools). Quangos like the Care Quality Commission, Ofsted and Ofgem do something similar for a range of services from care homes and GPs to schools and energy suppliers. Different measures could apply to ministers of each government department, with separate criteria for those MPs in opposition or who serve on select committees or other parliamentary bodies. Of course, for Bentham such debates should be conducted in terms of utility (the creation of people's happiness): the single, universal currency of value.

How do we measure political 'success'?

Performance-related pay for MPs would be met with an obvious objection: how can we really measure success in something as complicated as politics? Any numerical measure of political 'success' will always be controversial. This controversy could, however, be an opportunity rather than a problem. By debating, openly and transparently, what political 'success' means to us, we could clarify what we really believe is important. Conservatives might propose that a portion of pay be determined by measurements related to homeownership, GDP or inheritance, whilst progressives might prioritise measures of child poverty or social mobility. By debating what constitutes success, the political class can tell voters where they really stand; what kind of society they want to create. Unanimous consensus on the more contentious measures might not possible, but voters could understand which explicit objectives they are endorsing by supporting a particular party. The level of parliamentary support for certain contested objectives could then determine whether they are adopted for the life of that parliament. Another portion of performance-related pay might relate to less contested measures of activity, such as attendance at House of Commons debates or service on select or standing committees.

Instead of hoping that politicians are incorruptible, we must assume that they are easily tempted. This means rewarding good performance, punishing corruption and publishing information so that the corrupt are scared of being caught. Politicians' fallibility means that communities must be consistently involved in the political process - even between elections - if power is to serve their interests. The idea of using incentives for MPs performance may appear outlandish, but this is no reason to dismiss it. Things can change very quickly, as the panic flowing around Westminster following Thomas Legg's initial letters shows. The past few months prove that naively expecting the best will not work: MPs, like the rest of us, respond to incentives. Accepting and taking advantage of this fact will continue to be a real challenge.

Image: Jeremy Bentham's 'auto-icon' in the South Cloisters of UCL

UCL context

This article was first published in issue 4 of Sophia, UCL's volunteer-run magazine that showcases research, writing and art by UCL staff and graduate students.

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