Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Political Trust and Distrust
by Jonathan R. Bruno, Harvard University
Distrust of public authorities is a mainstay of democratic politics. In recent decades, however, political scientists concerned with surging civic suspicion have increasingly emphasized the value of trust for good government. This essay advances a novel reading of the political theory of Jeremy Bentham to shed light on the promise and perils of these two dispositions. Trust and distrust go together, Bentham maintains. In making this case, I reexamine Bentham’s account of publicity, and distinguish between two points of view implicit in his theory—the perspective of institutional design, and the perspective of popular oversight. This distinction brings clarity to Bentham’s surprising recommendation: stable, sober distrust toward public authorities generally, together with particularized trust in those (and only those) institutions or officials who prove themselves worthy of it. Cultivating such an orientation involves the continuous exercise of rational judgment—judgment of the existing standards of publicity or transparency, and of other checks upon official conduct; and judgment of the available evidence about who can be trusted, at least tentatively, to exercise public authority in the public interest. In this way, distrust supports both vigilance and (the possibility of) public confidence.