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"Indirect Legislation": Bentham's Liberal Government

Stephen G. Engelmann
Polity
Vol. 35, No. 3 (Apr., 2003), pp. 369-388
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3235524
Page Count: 20
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"Indirect Legislation": Bentham's Liberal Government
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Abstract

Bentham criticism has been divided over the question of Bentham's liberalism. "Indirect Legislation"-most shockingly, its proposal for universal identity tattoos-seems to confirm Bentham's illiberalism. I read the essay to suggest instead that the question of Bentham's liberalism is ill-posed. "Indirect Legislation" shows Bentham as a theorist of liberal government rather than normative (il)liberalism. For Bentham, all law relies upon individuals to act in their interest, and liberty is to be promoted as a useful instrument of security. People are always governed; better government is more harmonious self- and mutual government. Such government requires but is not centered in the state, and state actors are themselves governed through public surveillance. For Bentham, the question about tattoos is whether they are more shameful or tyrannical than facilitative or liberating, and the perception of their shamefulness or tyranny might change over time. "Indirect Legislation" raises troubling issues regarding our own practices of freedom. Perhaps instead of worrying about Bentham's liberalism we should question our liberalism's Benthamism.

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