13. J. S. Mill’s Representative Government

“John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government is the first great work in political theory which argues for the proposition that democracy is the ideal form of government. The central democratic principal of universal suffrage was not only an untried and radical proposal in 1861, but it was also one that aroused justifiable fears of mob rule or, at least, misgovernment by the uneducated and inexperienced mass of working-men. Mill himself shared these fears, and he proposed weighted voting and proportional representation to overcome the tyranny of an underprivileged majority legislating in its own interest when it obtained the franchise. But he had the courage, nevertheless, to defend the principal of universal suffrage on the grounds of justice or right‒the right of every men to have a voice in matters which are the common concern of all…. “Representative Government was a tract for the times in Mill’s day. It is still one in our day, and considering the world at large, it is likely to be for some time to come a tract for the future.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 in The Great Ideas, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 177-179)

Adler and Wolff go on to sketch the life of Mill, to compare and traditional conceptions of democracy, to explain why Mill favoured representative government, and to discuss four questions about Mill’s view of representative government. Here I’ll summarize their presentation, occasionally supplementing the sketch of Mill’s life with details from other sources and the rest of their presentation with comments of my own.

The Life of Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London, on May 20, 1806, the oldest son of James Mill, an outstanding philosopher, political thinker, and practical statesman. He was educated exclusively by his father, a strict disciplinarian. He began to study Greek and arithmetic at the age of three; by the time he was eight he had read the whole of the historian Herodotus, six dialogues of Plato, and considerable history; and before he was twelve had studied Euclid and algebra, the Greek and Latin poets, and some English poetry. At twelve he was introduced to logic, and his thirteenth year (the last under his father’s direct supervision) was devoted to political economy under his father, who was working on his Elements of Political Economy. He furthered his studies with his father’s friends, studying law with Austen and economics with Ricardo.

In 1826, at the age of twenty, Mill suffered what he later called “a crisis in my mental history.” He became greatly depressed, asking himself, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness and happiness to you?” and answering with “an irrepressible self-consciousness” with “No.” This depression lasted several months and affected him for three or four years. He finally emerged from it with a new appreciation for the value of the emotions and a realization that philosophical analysis was only part of life. (The quotations in this paragraph are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 181.)

From the time he was seventeen, Mill supported himself by working for the British East India Company, where his father was an official. Like his father he worked in its examiner’s office and rose (on his father’s death in 1836) to be chief examiner. He spent thirty-five years at it, retiring in 1858 when the company was dissolved and its functions were taken over by the British Government. In addition to his regular employment, he took part in many activities tending to prepare public opinion for legislative reform; for example, he wrote often for newspapers friendly to the “radical” cause. However these activities didn’t present him from pursuing his own intellectual interests, his studies resulting in the publication of System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Mill attributed the development and productivity of these years to his relationship with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, who was the wife of John Taylor when he met her in 1830. They were married in 1851, two years after the death of her first husband. Mill later wrote that his friendship with her “has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to do hereafter, for human improvement.” Although in the seven years of their married life he published less than at any other period of his life (because of his increasing absorption in the work of India House), he thought out and discussed with her such important works as Representative Government (published in 1861) and the work that I’ll report on in my last post in this series of posts, On Liberty (1859).

Mill died on May 8, 1873, in his cottage at Avignon which had been built so that he might be close to the grave of his wife, who had died there on November 3, 1858.

Modern and Traditional Conceptions of Democracy

After observing that Representative Government is the first of the great books on political philosophy to expound the modern theory of democracy and the first one to defend this kind of government as the best form of government, Adler and Wolff explain how modern and traditional theories differ in their conceptions of democracy.

Both Plato and Aristotle were acquainted with forms of government that they called democracies. To them a democratic form of government exists when “the many” rule. However “the many” doesn’t comprise every adult or even every adult male in the state, and so this form of government is democratic only in comparison to the kinds of government to which it is opposed, such as monarchy and oligarchy. However to Mill democracy meant nothing less than universal suffrage.

In addition neither Plato nor Aristotle favours democracy, but Mill unequivocally endorses it. Plato calls it “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike” (Plato, The Republic, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 409). And although Aristotle recognizes democracy as better than oligarchy, he calls the form of democracy in which the citizens (those entitled to vote) are very numerous “the…worst form of democracy” (Aristotle, Politics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, page 523). But Mill says:

“There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general” (Mill, Representative Government, in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, page 344).

Why Mill Favoured Representative Government

In Chapters 1 and 2 of Representative Government Mill deals with two preliminary problems, the solution of which will help explain why Mill favoured representative government‒how far governments are subject to human choice (in Chapter 1) and the criteria by which we judge the goodness of a particular form of government (in Chapter 2).

With regard to the first problem, Mill concludes that men can do something about their governments but that not every form of government is possible for every kind of people. He identifies three conditions which must be taken into account in considering whether a form of government is suitable for a given country:

“The people for whom the form of government is intended must be willing to accept it; or at least not so unwilling as to oppose an insurmountable obstacle to its establishment. They must be willing and able to do what is necessary to keep it standing. And they must be willing and able to do what it requires of them to enable it to fulfil its purposes.” (Mill, Representative Government, page 329)

He concludes that within the limits set by these three conditions “institutions and forms of government are a matter of choice” (Mill, Representative Government, page 331).

With regard to the second problem, Mill concludes that the best government is one which fulfils the purposes for which governments are established. He then considers what the purposes of government are and concludes:

“The merit which any set of political institutions can possess…consists partly of the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including under that phrase advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency; and partly of the degree of perfection with which they organize the moral, intellectual, and active worth already existing, so as to operate with the greatest effect on public affairs” (Mill, Representative Government, page 338).

In Chapter 3 Mill argues that the representative form of government best fulfils these two purposes and thus is the ideally best form of government. Regarding the former, he claims that the best and happiest kind of person is one who is not content merely to remain what he is but who constantly tries to improve himself and that this active type of character is encouraged by self-government but suppressed in varying degrees by other forms of government. Regarding the latter, he claims that self-government uses the existing good qualities of a people in the best way because it promotes the common good by enlisting the energies of all the people. This just shows the superiority of democracy over other forms of government, but

“since all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally in any but some very minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of a perfect government must be representative” (Mill, Representative Government, page 350).

Four Questions about Mill’s View of Representative Government

What means does Mill propose in order to counteract the “tyranny of the majority?”

Mill presents the problem thus:

“The pure idea of democracy…is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practised is the government of the people by the mere majority of the people, exclusively represented” (Mill, Representative Government, page 370).

But this is not just.

Mill’s proposed solution is proportional representation, a system of voting which gives minority parties representation in a legislation in proportion to their popular vote. Adler and Wolff comment:

“There is something very persuasive in the arguments advanced by Mill and others in favor of proportional representation. It definitely results in a legislative assembly that is a more exact image of the divisions of popular opinion than can otherwise be obtained. And it seems just that the assembly should mirror the country as a whole. [But] proportional representation seems to encourage unstable governments.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 189)

Years ago, when I was a member of the Reform Party of Canada, I favoured proportional government. However now I think that its disadvantages outweigh its advantages and thus favour our present, non-proportional system of representation.

Who governs in a representative government?

Mill answers:

“The proper duty of a representative assembly is regards to administration is not to decide them by its own vote, but to take care that the persons who have to decide them shall be the proper persons” (Mill, Representative Government, page 358).

And those people, the executive, should be allowed to govern.

Does Mill think that all men are entitled to vote?

Mill answers affirmatively, arguing that only children, illiterates, those who don’t pay taxes, and those on public relief are properly excluded. Adler and Wolff add, “We may assume that he would as a matter of course also exclude convicted criminals” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 192). The following passage shows how important Mill considers suffrage, from the point of view both of utility and of justice:

“Whoever, in an otherwise popular government, has no vote, and no prospect of obtaining it, will either be a permanent malcontent, or will feel as one whom the general affairs of society do not concern… “It is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in which he has the same interest as other people.” (Mill, Representative Government, page 382)

Should everyone’s vote count equally?

Although Mill thought that everyone is entitled to vote, he also thought that some men should be able to vote two or three times. He justifies holding both opinions thus:

“Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody, and stamped as of no account at all. No one but a fool…feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion…is entitled to a greater amount of consideration than his” (Mill, Representative Government, page 384-385).

This method of voting is called “plural voting.” In arguing for it, Mill said that it shouldn’t be based on accidental circumstances, such as the possession of property, but on some just qualification, such as superior education or mental ability.

Personally, I disagree with plural voting, for both practical and moral reasons. I think that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to select a characteristic to base it on that everyone would agree with. I also think that it is unjust, being incompatible in my opinion with the concepts of representation and universal suffrage.


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