Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Becarria (1738-1794), was an Italian jurist and economist. He was the author of the most influential and celebrated volume on criminal justice and a pioneer in systematic economic analysis.
Cesare Bonesana Beccaria was born into a noble family in Milan on March 15, 1738. Following his graduation from the university at Padua in 1758, he discovered and was deeply impressed by the writers of the French Enlightenment, especially the Baron de Montesquieu. About 1761 Beccaria joined a group of young intellectuals and reformers in northern Italy. A year later he published a monograph on the reform of the Milanese monetary system. From 1768 to 1771 he served as professor of political economy at the Palatine School in Milan. Thereafter he held a succession of public offices in Milan until his death on Nov. 28, 1794.
The intellectual ferment in 18th-century Europe produced no volume of greater or more enduring practical influence than Beccaria's Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; Of Crimes and Punishments). His achievement is even more remarkable when it is noted that the treatise was published by a man of 26 who possessed little knowledge or experience of courts or prisons and who required urging from his friends to complete the work. Beccaria's argument consists of a series of deductions from the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." The purpose of punishment is to protect society by preventing or minimizing the commission of crimes. One corollary of this proposition is that of "penal proportion": punishments should be greater or lesser depending on the degree to which the crime endangers society. A second deduction is the principle of economy in punishment: penalties should be no more severe than required for the purposes of crime deterrence; greater severity is tyrannical and self-defeating.
In connection with the last-mentioned point, Beccaria launched an eloquent and devastating attack on the brutal and irrational criminal procedures of his time, including torture, forced confessions, secret proceedings, and unregulated discretion of magistrates. His was one of the first important voices to protest capital punishment, and he may properly be regarded as a founder of the movements to abolish the death penalty that have persisted throughout the world to the present day.
The impact of Beccaria's book was immediate, and six editions were issued within 18 months. Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia referred to the volume in projects for recodification of the criminal law. No doubt, this influence reflected a widely shared popular conviction of the necessity of reform, but the cogency and lucidity of Beccaria's argument are important in explaining the success of this work.
Beccaria's most important contribution to economics is his Elementi di economia pubblica (Elements of Public Economy), published posthumously in 1804. In it he anticipates a number of basic ideas, including the division of labor, the effect of population on food supply, and the relation of labor and capital.
Two studies that discuss Beccaria are Coleman Phillipson, Three Criminal Law Reformers: Beccaria, Bentham, Romilly (1923), and Marcello T. Maestro, Voltaire and Beccaria as Reformers of Criminal Law (1942). For an analysis of Beccaria's contributions to economics see Joseph A. Schumpeter, ed., History of Economic Analysis (1954).