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'My Own Utopia'. The economics of Bentham's Panopticon

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The paper analyses Bentham's theory of the economic management of the Panopticon prison he projected in 1786 and which was approved by the British Parliament in 1794, but never constructed. Its focus is on the economic arguments employed to justify the principles of management, most of which amount to the modern economic notions of market policies and principal-agent relationships. Bentham's way of conceiving these notions can be summarized in the problem of the junction of interest and duty. This paper shows that many modern notions concerning the economics of organizations and public economics are clearly foreshadowed, and sometimes even explicitly formulated, in Bentham's writings on prison management. Bentham was conscious of the important economic dimension of the Panopticon scheme and was persuaded, albeit illusorily, that an accurate economic theory of its management could favour its approval. Well before Charles Babbage's On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), he went into a detailed theoretical analysis of the requirements and dilemmas of a complex economic organization oriented towards the joint fulfilment of the goals of a variety of stakeholders: taxpayers, the government, contract managers, keepers, taskmasters, subcontractors and prisoners. He also recognized that some institutional limits must be opposed to profit-oriented management in order to preserve the life, health and mental equilibrium of subordinates.
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Keywords: Jeremy Bentham; Panopticon; history of management theories; principal-agent relationship

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2004

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