Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 October 2022
The rise of utilitarianism and its influence on public policy
Trafalgar Square lies at the heart of London. Besides its illustrious location, sandwiched between the National Gallery and Whitehall, it has often provided space for the British electorate to make their views heard when they are in conflict with government. In 1887, Trafalgar Square hosted a demonstration against policy towards Ireland organized by the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League. The demonstration turned violent and has subsequently become known as Bloody Sunday. Tragically for British– Irish relations this was not to be the last Bloody Sunday. Over a hundred years later in 1990, the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation called for a demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the community charge, which was a flat tax on the electorate. By the evening the demonstration had developed into a full-blown riot with running battles between police and protestors. Such is the potential outcome of a clash in ideology.
This chapter explores the development of utilitarianism and its influence on contemporary public policy for both forms of liberalism. This utilitarian approach to public policy has been reinforced by the rise of welfare economics providing additional quantitative tools to help drive policy decisions. Despite criticism that utilitarianism is an illiberal political philosophy, this system largely remains intact due to its practicality for policymakers. While public policy professionals have started to measure different aspects of social and economic activity, these approaches have not yet developed an effective method of resolving conflicting claims.
Ideology is central to political discourse which helps us to understand and interpret the social and political world in which we live. As noted by Freeden, this justifies whether the political arrangements that affect society should either be altered or maintained (Syrjämäki, 2012). Liberal ideology is founded on the principles of freedom and equality, and since the 19th century these ideas have largely been represented by utilitarianism in terms of the aims of public policy. The doctrine of utilitarianism, which emerged from the writings of Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, is related to practical choices and actions which seek to maximize the happiness or pleasure of the greatest number of a society.