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The economist and the enlightenment: how Cesare Beccaria changed Western civilization

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Abstract

This Article traces the influence of Cesare Beccaria’s writings on Western civilization. It explores the global impact of Beccaria’s 1764 book, Dei delitti e delle pene, later translated into English as An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. In particular, the Article highlights Beccaria’s advocacy for proportion between crimes and punishments and against the death penalty. The Article gives a short sketch of Beccaria’s life and describes the impact of Beccaria’s book and his legacy in shaping the world’s laws. The Article further describes how Beccaria’s role as an influential eighteenth-century economist has been neglected by some economic historians.

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Notes

  1. “Beccaria’s Elementi was written during 1771–1772 as his lecture notes; this is a much larger work than that of Turgot but is clearly unfinished…” (Groenewegen 2002). “It is not known why Beccaria, having informed Kaunitz in the Supplica of 20–25 September 1770 that he would publish the Elementi, never did so. The manuscript apparently reached the Turin bookseller Reycends. Pietro Custodi bought it and published it in 1804, in four parts” (Rother 2004). The comprehensive scope of Beccaria’s Elementi is described elsewhere, along with the sources and authorities, including Montesquieu’s l’Esprit des Lois (1748) and Pietro Verri’s Meditazione Sulla Economia Politica (1771), known to Beccaria at the time (Groenewegen 2002).

  2. Beccaria taught public economy at the Palatine School in Milan from 1768 to 1771. Beccaria defined “economia pubblica” as “the art of preserving and increasing the wealth of nations and putting it to its best possible use”. As one source notes: “Beccaria’s definitional comments on political economy closely resemble those of Adam Smith in the introduction to Book IV of the Wealth of Nations”. “Smith,” that source reports, “may have been aware of Beccaria’s definition, since he owned a three-volume edition of his works published in Naples in 1770–1771”—an edition that “included Beccaria’s 1769 inaugural lecture which contains these views”. Beccaria’s 1769 inaugural lecture was given after he took up the new chair in political economy at Milan (Groenewegen 2002).

  3. Beccaria’s book was originally published in Italian in 1764 as Dei delitti e delle pene. It was translated into French shortly thereafter by André Morellet, who later translated Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), and then into English in 1767 as An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (Bessler 2014; Michelis 2013).

  4. Rother (2004) notes that “[t]he great success of Dei delitti e delle pene overshadowed Beccaria’s economic work, but never entirely eclipsed it”. Beccaria’s historical role has “been studied mainly by Italian economic historians” (Rother 2004).

  5. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, “A Penological Club,” The Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy, 29, 82.

  6. The full title of Adam Smith’s famous book—as published—is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith wrote of the “invisible hand” in chapter 2 of book four (Lubasz 1995; Tieben 2012).

  7. One reference reads: “As an economist, I’m painfully aware that Adam Smith is one of the most over-quoted and least-understood figures in the history of Western civilization” (Miller 2004).

  8. “Adam Smith T-Shirts & Tees,” http://www.cafepress.com/+adam-smith+t-shirts.

  9. “Three chairs in political economy were established during the eighteenth century: two in Italy and one in Sweden. The first was founded in Naples in 1754 with Genovesi as the first appointee; the second was founded at Uppsala in the 1760s (held by P. N. Christiernin); the third at Milan in 1768 for Beccaria, who held it till 1771. Malthus obtained the first English chair in political economy in 1805 at the East India College at Hertford Castle” (Groenewegen 2002).

  10. Beccaria later become provincial magistrate of the mint and, in 1786, president of the Third Department of the Government Council responsible for trade, industry, agriculture, mining, food, hunting and schools. As one text describes the final years of Beccaria’s career: “Late in 1789, he moved to the Second Department for Justice, Police, and Health. In 1791 Leopold II called him to join a seven-man commission (Giunta) for the reform of civil and penal law in Lombardy, and a seven-man special commission for the reform of penal and police matters. While engaged in a consultation on penal code reform, he died of a stroke on 28 November 1794 in his house in the Via Brera” (Rother 2004).

  11. Jeremy Bentham later noted in his commonplace book “that Priestley was the first (unless it was Beccaria) who taught his lips to pronounce the sacred truth that ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’” (Bridgwater 1908; Bessler 2014).

  12. “The French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) argued in his 1758 book On Mind that the two main principles of human activity are the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain” (Caldwell 2014).

  13. Comprehensive collections of Pietro Verri’s and Cesare Beccaria’s extensive writings have been published in Italian. Michelis (2013) references “the National Editions of the Works of Cesare Beccaria, edited by Luigi Firpo and Gianni Francioni, and the Collected Works of Pietro Verri, edited by Carlo Capra”. Pietro Verri’s best-known works include Discourse on Happiness (1763), Reflections on Political Economy (1771), and Discourse on Pleasure and Pain (1773) (Groenewegen 2009; Porta 2010).

  14. Both Verri and Beccaria—leading thinkers of the Italian Enlightenment—wanted to reform Lombardy’s penal justice system. “[B]etween 1770 and 1777, Pietro Verri contributed by writing a pamphlet on torture, Osservazioni sulla tortura (‘Observations on torture’), which was published posthumously in 1804, when torture was abolished in Lombardy by Joseph II…. Verri had previously written a pamphlet against torture in 1763….” (Baldoli 2009).

  15. A search of the newspapers.com database for the period from 1861 to 1865 revealed no references in American newspapers to Beccaria himself or his ideas. It was only after the Civil War, when a delegation of Italians petitioned President Andrew Johnson to spare former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, from the gallows, that Beccaria’s name resurfaced. J. L. Pennington, “The Very Latest by Last Night’s Mail,” The Daily Progress (Raleigh, NC), Oct. 28, 1865, p. 1; “Petition from Italy in Behalf of Jefferson Davis,” The Wilmington Herald (Wilmington, NC), Oct. 30, 1865, p. 1; “From Italy—Petition in Behalf of Jefferson Davis,” The New Berne Times (New Bern, NC), Nov. 4, 1864.

  16. Thanks to the transatlantic book trade, Beccaria’s ideas quickly flowed from Europe to the Americas (Bessler 2014). “By 1984,” one source notes, “twenty-two French, sixteen English, fourteen German, nine Spanish, six Russian, five Portuguese, three Hungarian, two Greek, two Polish, two Serbo-Croatian, two Swedish, one Danish, one Dutch, one Czech and one Turkish edition were recorded, but the list is far from complete” (Beccaria 1767).

  17. “In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, inspired by Pietro Verri, used the presumptio innocentiae as an argument for rejecting the use of torture as an investigative method for establishing the truth (a confession), because using torture is a punishment imposed before guilt has been established in a court of law” (Ballin 2012).

  18. U.S. Const., amend. VIII.

  19. While Rousseau insisted that only the sovereign, representing the “general will,” had the right to establish laws, Beccaria’s view of the social contract—as one criminology text notes—is “unlike the total surrender of rights of which Rousseau spoke” and is “much closer to Locke’s idea that the sovereign is purely fiduciary and that the people forming a state make only a minimal surrender of their liberty” (Tibbetts and Hemmens 2010).

  20. “Progress in the development of the social sciences during the second half of the eighteenth century was given an additional boost by the publication in 1748 of Montesquieu’s masterpiece, l’Esprit des Lois, which liberated the social sciences from their former theological encumbrances and which induced enormous activity in history, sociology, political philosophy, jurisprudence and, of course, political economy. The impact of Montesquieu’s work on Smith, Beccaria and Turgot is both great and demonstrable”. According to Groenewegen (2002): “Beccaria’s indebtedness to Montesquieu as an influence on the development of his thought is in many ways even more striking than that of Turgot and Adam Smith. In the autobiographical letter to Morellet (26 January 1766) … Beccaria wrote that he owed his conversion to philosophy in 1761, when he was twenty-three, to a reading of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes”. As Groenewegen writes of Beccaria: “In an earlier letter to Carli (dated 4 August 1762), written when he had just published his first work on economics—the study of the monetary problems of Milan—he praises the genius of Montesquieu on monetary questions. Indeed, Beccaria’s first work quotes several times from Montesquieu’s l’Esprit des Lois while his later works in their introductions refer to the important contributions of the ‘immortal’ Montesquieu” (Groenewegen 2002).

  21. Pietro Verri was, himself, a well-known figure of the time. As an Italian scholar, Pier Luigi Porta, notes: “The ‘School of Milan,’ as Voltaire called it, was established by Pietro Verri (1728–1797). The notion of felicita pubblica, or public happiness, best conveys the meaning and significance of the contribution of the Milanese School” (Porta 2015).

  22. Before the U.S. Civil War, three U.S. states—Michigan (1846), Rhode Island (1852), and Wisconsin (1853)—also abolished the death penalty. “In 1863,” one source notes, “Venezuela became the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and by the mid-twentieth century Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina had removed the punishment in peacetime” (Krieger 2012). Argentina abolished the death penalty for political offences in 1853, and for all crimes in 1921 (Hood and Hoyle 2015).

  23. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre & William Spottiswoode 1866).

  24. “Most recently,” Harcourt (2011) states, “contemporary scholars of law and economics have embraced Beccaria as one of their own. Richard Posner traces his intellectual genealogy, in the area of penal law, specifically to Beccaria”. As Harcourt (2011) adds: “On Crimes and Punishments is celebrated as the first economic analysis of crime and Beccaria is revered as the first economist to have applied rational choice theory to the field of crime and punishment”. As another source reports: “According to a theorem proposed by Cesare Beccaria and Gary Becker, the deterrence of massive sanctions is less effective tha[n] the deterrence of accurate enforcement. Thus for the offender, a sanction of 100 with a 50 percent likelihood of its application means a probability of paying 50, while a sanction of 80 with a 65 per cent likelihood of application means a probability of paying 52” (Forte 2010).

  25. Beccaria’s writings have thus framed the deterrence debate, as well as the arguments against vengeance-seeking for past criminal transgressions, for more than two-and-a-half centuries. As Harcourt (2011) emphasizes: “The purpose of punishment is not to look backward, Beccaria emphasized—foreshadowing English utilitarianism. It will not undo a crime already committed. ‘The wailings of a wretch,’ Beccaria wrote, cannot ‘undo what has been done and turn back the clock.’ The purpose of punishment to Beccaria was ‘nothing other than to prevent the offender from doing fresh harm to his fellows and to deter others from doing likewise’”.

  26. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 820 (1991) (opinion by Rehnquist, C.J.); Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 343 n.85 (1972) (Marshall, J., concurring); Ullmann v. United States, 350 U.S. 422, 450–452 & n.6 (1956) (Douglas, J., dissenting).

  27. As one commentator writes: “The origins of most modern theories of deterrence can be traced to the work of the Enlightenment-era legal philosophers (Beccaria 1764; Bentham 1789). The motivation for their work was their mutual abhorrence of the administration of punishment without constructive purpose”. “The theory of deterrence,” that writer observes, “is predicated on the idea that if state-imposed sanction costs are sufficiently severe, criminal activity will be discouraged, at least for some”. “[T]he argument that the probability of punishment, not severity, is the more potent component of the deterrence process goes back to Beccaria,” he explains, noting that the Italian philosopher “observed that ‘one of the greatest curbs on crime is not the cruelty of punishment, but their infallibility…”. The certainty of punishment, even if moderate, Beccaria believed, “will always make a stronger impression” (Nagin 2013).

  28. “The World Moves Towards Abolition,” Amnesty International, International Death Penalty, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/international-death-penalty (“International death penalty trends are unmistakably towards abolition. Use of the death penalty worldwide has continued to shrink, and use of the death penalty has also been increasingly curtailed in international law”).

  29. The Complete Works of Edward Livingston on Criminal Jurisprudence (New York: National Prison Association of the United States of America, 1873), Vol. 1, pp. 36–37.

  30. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217 A(III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948).

  31. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976 (Article 7).

  32. Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Aiming at Abolition of the Death Penalty, G.A. res. 44/128, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 207, U.N. Doc. A/44/49, entered into force July 11, 1991 (Article 1).

  33. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987.

  34. The Christian Examiner and Theological Review (Boston: David Reed 1826), Vol. 3, pp. 204–205.

  35. The Life of Sir Samuel Romilly (London: John Murray 1842), Vol. 2, p. 94.

  36. “Lewis E. Lawes, Former Sing Sing Warden, Succumbs,” The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), Apr. 23, 1947, p. 2.

  37. The Death Penalty: Abolition in Europe (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing 1999), p. 182.

  38. Death Sentences and Executions in 2015, Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2016/04/death-sentences-executions-2015/.

  39. State v. Santiago, 122 A.3d 1, 38 (Conn. 2015).

  40. Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2767 (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting). This dissenting opinion is annotated and contextualized in a new book (Breyer 2016).

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Correspondence to John D. Bessler.

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The author’s recent book, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014), about Cesare Beccaria’s influence on American law, was the recipient of the 2015 Scribes Book Award, an annual award given out since 1961 by The American Society of Legal Writers. The Birth of American Law also received a First Prize in the American Association for Italian Studies book award competition (18th/19th century category) and was the Gold Winner in the INDIEFAB Book Award competition in the history category. His forthcoming book, The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition (Carolina Academic Press), also discusses Beccaria’s Enlightenment-era advocacy against torture.

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Bessler, J.D. The economist and the enlightenment: how Cesare Beccaria changed Western civilization. Eur J Law Econ 46, 275–302 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10657-016-9546-z

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