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Brown Political Review

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A ristotle famously began the Nicomachean Ethics with a declaration : “Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good.” He contends that a “final good” must exist in order to surmount the difficulties that would arise from an endless regress of ‘good things.’ Aristotle concludes that“what is the highest of all goods that action can achieve…[is] Happiness.” In many respects, this ethical pronouncement provides the philosophical foundation for the utilitarianism advocated by Jeremy Bentham and, to some degree, John Stuart Mill. If the final end of human action, as Aristotle claimed, is “happiness,” it follows that the institution of a political state – a product of human action – also aims at happiness.

Under utilitarian philosophy, a “good” government is only “good” as long as its policies maximize happiness. The implications of this for fiscal policy are clear: Any evaluation of a government’sinterferenceinthe market ought to be assessed by whether such interference maximizes collective happiness. Moreover, utilitarians would contend that the emphasis on a free market for the sake of a free market compels governments to behave in ways directly contrary to happiness (or utility, as Bentham and Mill termed it).

At first glance, utilitarian thought may seem to direct state leaders to institute egalitarian policies and ensure that everyone has roughly the same income; however, this is not the case. Although the law of diminishing marginal utility on income provides a justification for redistribution in a limited capacity, utilitarians tend to recognize that economic liberties and competition are essential to increasing state wealth.

And yet, in their advocacy of economic liberties, utilitarians distinguish themselves from other schools of political thought by contending that market freedom is only good insofar as it promotes maximum public utility. Consequently, a utilitarian government can justly interfere in the market when such action promotes higher utility for all of society by preventing market-borne infringements on economic freedom and negative externalities.

Although it is difficult to define utility, it seems clear that economic growth and increased standards of living are essential goods that work toward the end of increasing collective happiness. As a result, utilitarians find Adam Smith’s classical liberal emphasis on economic freedom compelling because the vision of a free market that he advocated has raised the floor for the average quality of life.

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© 2016 Brainstorm
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