Considerations on Representative Government

In this work, Mill explores the nature of democracy.

Chapter II: The Criterion of a Good Form of Government

Part 1
Since the form of government of a country is a choice, Mill uses this chapter to consider "what are the distinctive characteristics of the form of government best fitted to promote the interests of any given society." To do so, we must first figure out what the role of a government should be. Mill admits that this is easier said than done, since, first, different societies will have have different needs and expectations out of their government. Second, governments are capable of doing many bad things beyond the "legitimate sphere of governmental functions," so that one must considered the much more complex measure of "the whole interests of humanity."

Because measuring this interest is so complicated, political philosophers have tried to develop a number of types of interests, although the best they have been able to do, according to Mill, are two broad categories: Order and Progress. This classification becomes difficult for Mill because of differing definitions of these concepts. Progress is rather straighforward, as it is simply Improvement. Order, however, does not have a very clear definition.

On one hand, Order could mean Obedience, since it is "requisitem in order that [the government] may accomplish some other purpose." Still, not every degree of obedience is good, as unconditional obedience can actually be bad for society. While necessary, obedience, then, cannot be an object of government.
Order could also mean the "preservation of peace by the cessation of private violence" where people use the government rather than private force to settle matters. Mill says that this expresses a condition for government, not a purpose of a government. For instance, people could readily submit judgment to a government, but that government could deal with the situation in the worse possible way. Therefore, cessation of private violence cannot be a sole purpose of good government.

Instead, Mill defines these two purposes by saying that Order is "the preservation of all kinds and amounts of good which already exist, and Progress [is] consisting in the increase of them." By this definition, Order and Progress are not two separate criteria to be met in different ways, but require the same factors and tools, both within individuals and in a society, to both create and preserve things that are good. One objection to Mill's argument could be that change often results in disorder and serves as a threat to preserving things, yet Mill says that "things left to take care of themselves inevitably decay," claiming that the same ingenuity and invention that leads to progress also helps preserve the old from new dangers and threats.

Progress, in this way, incorporates Order. Yet, while philosophically correct, this classification does not really work for Mill, since it only reveals part of the truth behind good government, since it simply focuses on preventing regression rather than promoting progress, which Mill feels is the general direction that humans can and should go in. To do this, however, a society must tamper the goals of both the cautious and the bold in terms of change, so as to reach a happy medium where society can progress while preserving the good it already has. In this way, good government lies in "the importance in compisng the personnel of any political body" so as to tamper its extreme tendencies.

Part II
Mill says that good government is dependent above all else on the quality of human beings by which society is comprised--"government consists of acts done by human beings." Therefore, the judicial system, however noble its rules are, will be illegitimate if its judges take bribes, and laws will not be able to be enacted if they are voted upon by jealous individuals who are unwilling to compromise. Since good government must be comprised of intelligent and virtuous individuals, then, the first priority of government should be to promote "the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves."

Once intelligent and virtuous individuals are installed into government positions, Mill identifies the machinery of government itself as the next most important "constituent element of the merit of government." He defines the machinery of government as being the institutions and rules that must be set up--the framework of government. In the judiciary system, these include the mode of taking evidence, the allowance of transparence and public discussion, and a lack of media censure. In the executive departments, the machinery includes checks against favoritism and bribery, proper tests for the qualification of officers, and and accurate record-keeping. The machinery of government, overall, should organize the intelligence and virtues of the individuals of government in the most effective way possible. Individual virtue and intelligence is the most important element of good government, but these traits are worthless without a good system.

Mill says that the form of government affects the welfare of the community in two ways: the way it acts as an agency of national education, and the way it uses the current educational state of the community to direct its affairs. Mill writes that of these two ways of affecting welfare, the second depends much less on the type of government than the first. Therefore, whether the government be monarchy or democracy, institutions such the judicial system, financial administration, taxation, etc., should be able to operate similarly--only minor details should differ. In the education of the people themselves, however, the form of government matters greatly, and different types of governments must implement different types of institutions to "civilize" their citizens.

To determine the form of government best suited for each particular civilization, Mill says the civilization must realize its shortcomings and defects that prevent it from progressing. The best form of government for a civilization, then, is the form that gives them "that for want of which they cannot advance," and yet simultaneously preserves the progress that they have already made.

Chapter III: That the Ideally Best Form of Government is Representative Government

Mill feels that democracy constitutes progress, in that democracy provides for freedom, which in turn leads to liberty (aren't liberty and freedom the same thing? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006), which leads to individuality, which tends to the progress of society (could make the connection with the argument of on liberty. In fact, however, Mill also suggests other reasons for why representative government is the best form of government: harnessing of the energies of the people, for example). The idea that a despot would be the best form of government assumes that "good laws would established and enforced, bad laws would be reformed" and that there would be a virtuous and intelligent performance of all the duties of government: (399). The despot would have to be all-knowing and all-seeing, and would essentially be "one man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a mentally passive people" (400). It is not entirely likely that there would be someone with good intent who would consent to this task. (Why do you bring in the discussion of the despot? What is the connection? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)

Furthermore, with a despot, no one has a voice in their destiny, and "all is decided for them by a will that is not their own" (400). Mill then asks what kind of people we should expect to form under such a system, and what kind of development should arise in thinking and active faculties of the people. He says that both the intelligence and moral capacities of people will suffer, expanding to say that "a person who has nothing to do with his country...will not care for it" (400). As long as all decisions are left to the despot, the people will not grow nor care for the advancement of the country or themselves, and will turn unwards to their private life, which does not help the progress of society.

At the point where this is the situation in a given society, an era of decline arrives; "that is, if the nation had ever attained anything to decline from" (401). If despotism is in place, it will stagnate, but if soemthing of a higher order has been achieved, the society "relapses a few generations" (401). But this is not just a relapse into a state of tranquility where things can start over. It most often means being conquered and reduced to slavery by a stronger despot.

But if a despot begins to introduce some aspects of constitutional government into society, problems arise. If there are freely chosen councils in the government and public opinion is expressed in public affairs, the leader will face some opposition. If the opposition comes from a majority of the people, there is a choice to be made. However, neither ends well. If he succumbs to them, he is no longer a despot and becomes removable. If he tries to suppress the opposition, antagonism towards him will surely arise, and "not even a religious principle of passive obedience and 'divine right' would long ward off the consequences of such a position" (402). Thus characterized, this despotism "would possess few of the advantages supposed to belong to absolute monarchy; while it would realized in a very imperfect degree those of a free government" (402), this because no matter what liberty the citizens might have, they know that at any moment it could be taken away.

(will add more of chapter soon) (Missing. Would like to know more about how this is related to Mill's argument for the goodness of representative government - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)

(We need a summary of chapter IV, or at least a quick sketch on the conditions under which representative government is applicable - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)

Chapter VI: Of the Infirmities and Dangers to which Representative Government is Liable

Mill first defines two kinds of defects that could be present in any form of government:
  1. Negative – the authorities do not have sufficient power to fulfill the necessary offices of a government; the citizens have not developed active capacities and social feelings.
  2. Positive – general ignorance and incapacity in the controlling body; the danger of being under the influence of interests not identical with the general welfare of the community. He uses as examples governements whose ministers lack th intelligence to fufill their responsabilities.

He then evaluates different types of governments in light of these defects. He comments that:
Monarchies do not suffer from negative defects, as the monarch has all the power he wants. However, they may suffer from positive defects, namely general ignorance and/or self-interest of the ruling executive. However, most successful monarchs are only so in exercise because of the existence of there are mentally qualified bureaucracies behind the scenes (check grammar - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). Mill states that monarchs aim to increase tax rates and power, while citizens attempt to repulse these efforts. (Is this the main difference? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)
Aristocracies are historically the most remarkable for mental ability, but only ones with a very elite oligarchy who devoted their lives to the study of state affairs and identified themselves with it. Both of these exceptions (which exceptions? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006) were essentially bureaucracies.
It thus appears that the only governments, not representative, in which high political skill and ability have been other than exceptional, whether under monarchical or aristocratic forms, have been essentially bureaucracies” (438). Aristocracies do not represent the will of the people, but Mill says officials in aristocracies do want to increase the prestige of the state which may benefit the populace.
(What is the upshot of Mill's argument here? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)
Representative democracies are comparable to bureaucracies. Bureaucracies have their advantages and disadvantages. They accumulate experience, acquire well-tried and well-considered traditional maxims, and makes provisions for appropriate practical knowledge. However, they often die of routine and they subjugate the individual as a person to the sole idea of the majority, which leads to an “obstructive spirit of trained mediocrity.” Moreover, bureaucracies often hinder conflicting influences, which Mill acknowledges as necessary to keep one another alive (This is not clear - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). Pursuit of only one good object without some other that should accompany it leads to leads to the decay of what has been exclusively cared for. Therefore, an appropriate degree of freedom within the government is necessary if complemented with a trained and skilled administration.

One of the main goals of political institutions is to secure the great advantage of the conduct of affairs by skilled persons – people who are entirely vested in general control and are truly representative of the people (Could be clarified too - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). He admits that this goal is often impeded by the sinister interests of ruling individuals (those that conflict with the general good of the community). In such a situation, the king or aristocracy may keep the people down with ignorance or foment dissent among themselves in order to continue abusing power in his/their own self-interest and prevent being expelled. On the other hand, this goal may also be impeded by a tyrannical majority, which will essentially and legitimately dominate the wishes of the minority party. Mill uses class and race as two dividing lines which may precipitate (word choice - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006) tyrannical majorities.

However, he then confesses that such abuses of power rarely occur (Does he? I don't remember this - can you provide some evidence? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). He also questions the mental capacity of the laboring class to self-govern (How is this related to the previous paragraph? - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). The important consideration is “not what their interest is, but what it is supposed to be” and it is hard for the numerical majority to set aside their immediate interests in favor of long term considerations. Moreover, the interests of man depend on their motives, and their motives depend on what kind of men they are. Every man has selfish and unselfish, present and distant interests. Every man decides through habit which interests will take priority in his life. One cannot rationally change a man’s interests, even if it is for the better, because of the good he perceives for himself for his chosen actions (Check sentence grammar - it's unclear. The "because" clause seems to be missing something - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006). Nevertheless, “on average, a person who cares for other people, for his country, or for mankind, is a happier man than one who does not.” A man’s selfish interests (or a class’s selfish interests) are intensified with the amount of power they hold and make it more probable that they will be corrupted.

Lastly, he notes that governments should be made for people as they are – not as they ideally should be. Citizens will experience apathy, people’s views will be influenced by their social class, people will rationally act in their own self-interest, and people will make mistakes. One of the greatest dangers of a democracy, therefore, is that the holders of power will legislate their own sinister interest of immediate benefits to the lasting detriment of the whole. Therefore, the state should seek a representative body which fairly balances the wishes of all classes in order to justly pursue the common good of everyone.
(What's the general upshot of these arguments? What is Mill saying, generally speaking? We need a better sense of Mill's overall point - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)

Chapter VIII: Of the Extension of the Suffrage

Mill spends this chapter on the argument of why extending suffrage is overall a good thing, although this extension may be gradual to avoid possible abuses by the majority class. Mill sees democracy as an important tool toward education and active participation. By making people involved in the political process, democratic institutions produce a marked superiority of mental development in its population. By making people involved in the decision making process, it allows them to gain personal interests in far off events. Through discussion, he becomes aware of the feelings of his fellow citizens and a member of the larger community. Those who do not have a comparable voice will not receive the same benefit largely due to a lack of self-interest.

Mill then makes his central argument for suffrage that everyone is degraded when someone else has the power to regulate their destiny without the person's consent. In order to prevent this, suffrage will not be satisfactory wherever any person or class of people is excluded from the decision making process.

Mill qualifies this argument with a set of exclusions. He argues that suffrage should not be granted unless a person has acquired the basic education to read, write, and do common arithmetic problems. He sees this basic education necessary to voting because a person must first acquire the basic capabilities to take care of themselves before they can have a stake in taking care of the nation as a whole. Therefore, universal education must precede universal enfranchisement.

Mill also argues that only those who pay some form of general taxes should be allowed to vote. He does not see how one who does not contribute to the tax revenue should have a say how others are taxed or how their money is spent when the individual does not have his own stake in the matter.

Mill then argues that although suffrage must be universal, this does not mean that one person equals one vote. Mill argues that people are not inherently equal in wisdom and virtue and therefore, their votes should be weighted on this criterion to ensure wise decision-making and leadership in the face of a majority that is greater in numbers but not in education. Mill goes on to consider how votes should then be distributed. He rejects the idea of property, since it is often a matter of luck that a person comes into ownership of large amounts of property and is therefore, not a good indicator of wisdom and virtue. He argues that votes may be given based on job superiority (management, bankers, those with more complicated interests to manage) in professions that require greater mental capacity given a prerequisite length of tenure. He also singles out graduates of universities or other tests that prove a higher level of education and virtue.

Mill argues for this plurality of votes in order to counter the force of the least educated, but most numerous class. He also states that the plurality of votes should never be so great that it gives one class a decisive advantage over the others. He then objects to plans that would create local constituencies as it would make some votes worthless if they were situated in a area that was dominated by other classes. Therefore, the person would not truly be represented in government by an elected representative that he did not vote for.

Mill concludes noting that he did not make a distinction between man and woman in his discussion. He believes that both sexes have the same interest in good government. He believes at worst, women would vote with their husbands, which would not affect the direction of government. At best, however, women's suffrage would make voting a joint concern between husband and wife. This would produce a greater discussion at home about voting choices and lead to better outcomes along the lines of Mills principles on discussion of ideas. It is on these principles that Mill argues for the expansion of suffrage.

Chapter XVIII: Of the Government of Dependencies by a Free State

(Missing - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)

Study Questions

  • What makes for a good government, according to Mill?
    • Mill considers the promotion of virtue and intelligence to the people the most important criterion of a good government. He continues (word choice - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006) that a good government must be judged by the degree in which it tends to increase the sum of the good quantities of the governed both collectively and individually. Mill also states that a good government must effectively organize the moral, intellectual and active worth already existing in order to maximize its benifit to society. (This answer could also be incorporated above, in the summary of chapter III - xmarquez xmarquez Nov 20, 2006)
  • What does he mean by a "representative" government?
  • Why is representative government the best kind of government?
* What is the difference between a representative and a non-representative government? Can we think of examples?
  • What are the social conditions under which representative government is inapplicable? Are those conditions met today (in, e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.)
    • Mill lists three fundamental social conditions in which government cannot permanently subsist. They are:
      1. That the people are not willing to receive it
      2. That the people are not willing or unable to do what is necessary for its preservation
      3. That they are unwilling and unable to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them
    • Mill also lists some other social conditions under which a representative government might exist, but another form of government might be more preferable
      1. The people lack the obedience necessary for any form of government to take place
      2. The people are too passive, and ready to submit to a tyranny
      3. The people's local concerns are too strong for them to be care about the outside interests
        1. The sectarian violence that has broken out all over Iraq may be an example of this third reason, as the interests of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurds all clash within the new Iraqi state.
  • Why is representative government sometimes inapplicable? Who decides whether a people is suited to it? Does a people always get the government it deserves?
  • Can you see any similarities between Tocqueville's and Mill's thoughts on democracy? Any differences?
  • Does Mill have a theory of historical progress?
* What does Mill think are the benefits of imperialism? Is he correct about these?