Economic Analysis Has Promoted Communicative Pain

face of a prisoner

Restricting communication to develop treatment expertise became the dominant solution to the communication problem at the foundations of economic analysis. With memorable words, Jeremy Bentham declared:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.^

After a few more sentences, Bentham made a more important but less appreciated change in direction:

But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved.

The new enterprise for Bentham as a proto-economist was to invest in pain and limit communication:

Dry and tedious as a great part of the discussions it {Bentham’s pioneering work in political economy} contains must unavoidably be found by the bulk of readers, he knows not how to regret the having written them, nor even the having made them public. ….

One good at least may result from the present publication; viz. that the more he has trespassed on the patience of the reader on this occasion, the less need he will have so to do on future ones…. The narrower the circle of readers is, within which the present work may be condemned to confine itself, the less limited may be the number of those to whom the fruits of his succeeding labours may be found accessible.^

Bentham thus offered readers an opportunity to make an investment that would serve both as a barrier to entry and a source of future returns. Perhaps aware of anti-commercial prejudices of some readers, Bentham also appealed to the heroic allure of a risky venture into the intellectual unknown:

Are enterprises like these achievable? He knows not. This only he knows, that they have been undertaken, proceeded in, and that some progress has been made in all of them. He will venture to add, if at all achievable, never at least by one, to whom the fatigue of attending to discussions, as arid as those which occupy the ensuing pages, would either appear useless, or feel intolerable. He will repeat it boldly (for it has been said before him), truths that form the basis of political and moral science are not to be discovered but by investigations as severe as mathematical ones, and beyond all comparison more intricate and extensive.^

While Bentham wrote this work about 1780, it wasn’t published until 1789. It was largely ignored until 1802. It subsequent became enormously influential. In the twentieth century and beyond, mountains of dry, tedious, severe, apparently useless, and scarcely read scholarly articles, not just in economics, but in many fields of social science, testify to the enduring value of Bentham’s approach.

While economic analysis has tended to become less explicitly about pain, the imposition of pain and the suppression of communication remains central to economic analysis. An economist who led twentieth-century work on crime and punishment and won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences declared of economic analysis:

The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it.^

Here imposing pain is oriented toward the objects of study (applying assumptions of economics “relentlessly and unflinchingly”) rather than toward scholarly disciples. Both directions of application seem to be important in modern economic education and practice. Being called “rigorous,” which suggests the recent death of a living body, has become one of the highest possible compliments for an economist.

Economic analysis that many persons might freely choose to read scandalizes the very foundations of economics. So too does economic analysis that strives to be enjoyable and perhaps even provide some amusement and pleasure. Nonetheless, such economic analysis is probably the most promising means for achieving more rational regulation of prisoners’ communication with family and friends.

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