Of the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation

Jeremy Bentham


``Thus far, then'', I think I hear a reader say, ``you have proceeded in your inquiries: thus far you have determined, or endeavoured to determine, what is expedient to be done in the way of law. But where, and when, to be performed? for some country and some period of time you must necessarily have had in view. If expedient in any country and at any time, it must be expedient in some individual. country, at some individual period of time, that shall be assigned. Suppose, then, that country, suppose that period to have been assigned: let it have been your own, or not your own; let it have been this, or that, or any other. Will the laws, then, which you propose for the given country (what concerns the article of time need not any longer be repeated) would they be equally good for every other? If not, what is the influence of place and time on the expediency of what you propose? To give the question at once a universal form: What is the influence of the circumstances of place and time in matters of legislation? what are the coincidences, and what the diversities, which ought to subsist between the laws established in different countries and at different periods, supposing them in each instance the best that can be established?''

I will reduce the question at once to that form in which the solution of it has the most immediate relation to practice, and if just, will be productive of the most immediate benefit. I take England, then, for a standard; and referring every thing to this standard, I inquire, What are the deviations which it would be requisite to make from this standard, in giving to another country such a tincture as any other country may receive without prejudice, from English laws? I take my own country for the standard, partly because to that country, if to any, I owe a preference; but chiefly because it is that, with the circumstances of which I have the best opportunity to be informed.

This, then, is the hypothesis:---The laws which I would propose are established in this my country; and they are, of course, according to my conception of them, the best that can be devised. In this magnificent and presumptuous dream I indulge myself without controul; and in it, for the purpose of the argument, I must be allowed to indulge myself. This, then, is one term in the comparison: but there wants another. The problem, as it stands at present, is: the best possible laws for England being established in England; required, the variations which it would be necessary to make in those of any other given country, in order to render them the best laws possible with reference to that other country. But the problem, it is evident, must in strictness admit of as many solutions as there are countries which, in the point in question, are different from England and from each other. To make the tour of the globe in this manner, would evidently be an endless task. All that can be done here, is to pitch upon some one country in particular for an example: we might choose Russia, since, for a single empire, that includes the most ample tract, over which any system of laws could, according to the present divisions of territory, by possibility be extended. But what likelihood is there that laws passed in England should be received in Russia? We might choose Canada; for to that country, conquered by the arms of England, laws framed in England have been in contemplation to be transferred. But the differences of all kinds that can influence the inquiry are too inconsiderable between England and Canada to furnish that instruction which another example may afford. That it may be as instructive as possible, this second country should, in regard to the circumstances in question, form as strong a contrast with England as possible. Such an example we seem to have in the province of Bengal: diversity of climate, mixture of inhabitants, natural productions, face of the country, present laws, manners, customs, religion of the inhabitants; every circumstance, on which a difference in the point in question can be grounded, as different as can be: add to which, that between these two countries, a transfer of the kind in question has actually been made, or attempted to be made, in reality. In regard to almost any two other examples that could have been chosen, the question would have been a mere question of speculation: in regard to this, whatever just remark may happen to be made, is of immediate use, and applies immediately to practice. To Bengal, then, let us direct the principal measure of our attention; not precluding ourselves from casting, every now and then, for the sake of variety, a transient glance towards other countries, according as chance may present them to our view. To a lawgiver, who having been bred up with English notions, shall have learnt how to accommodate his laws to the circumstances of Bengal, no other part of the globe can present a difficulty.

These being the two countries between which the comparison is to be drawn, let us see upon what principles it is to be made.

It is our destiny, as soon as ever we have got a glimpse of perfection, to leave it by the way. Complete perfection requires universal accuracy: universal accuracy requires infinite detail. It would be something, however, to trace, though it were ever so general an outline, of the model of perfection; and like Moses, the Jewish lawgiver, to point out, though we enter not, the Promised land. To draw up in a perfect manner a statement of the difference between the laws that would be the best for England, and the laws that would be best for Bengal, would require three things: First, the laws which it is supposed would be the best for England, must be exhibited in terminis: next, the leading principles upon which the differences between those and the laws for Bengal appear to turn, must be displayed: lastly, those principles must be methodically applied to practice, by travelling over the several laws which would require to be altered from what they are in the one case, in order to accommodate them to the other. According to this plan, were it rigorously pursued, a complete code of laws for England, accompanied with a collection of all the laws for Bengal which would require to be different from those which are for England, would form a part only of the matter belonging to the present head.

The impracticability of this plan is such, as need not be insisted upon. On this plan I would, however, wish the reader to fix his eye; for though it would be impossible to travel over the whole extent of it upon paper, be may upon occasion travel over any or every part of it with what degree of attention he thinks proper, in his own mind.

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