Reply To: Mill – society vs. the state


Dear Matthew,

For Mill, state and government come to pretty much the same thing. Government is what the state does and what the state does is to govern. What Mill has to say about the state is contained, for the most part, in his Considerations on Representative Government. For Mill, government is something we must have and government is a, or rather the, function of the state; anarchy is not an option.

I’ve summarised what I think are the main points that can be gleaned from Mill’s account of government; government as the preserver or order; as the generator of social progress; as that which is best done by experts, supervised by our representatives.

From his utilitarian perspective, Mill adopts the position that the function of government (or state) is to preserve order, and bring about some measure of social progress and human development. Of the two functions, Mill is inclined to rate the second higher than the first, something with which Kant would violently disagree. Given his perfectionist tendencies, Mill want government not only to take on standard task of creating happiness, or at least the conditions for happiness; he also wants it to become responsible for encouraging the greatest degree of mental cultivation in its citizens.

A standard problem for political philosophy has been to justify the gap between rulers and ruled. If our rulers can be in some way identified with us, then there is no possible tension between a ‘them’ and an ‘us’. There is no principled obstacle to a government’s having popular support. But only some forms of popular government are conducive to the active participation of citizens, something that is desirable in any society, which has learned the virtue of obedience.

Much of the Considerations on Representative Government is devoted to developing the details of a scheme for representative government. It is not necessary to give or to grasp a blow-by-blow account of the details of Mill’s scheme which are of a very familiar kind apart, possibly, from his development of the role of the expert.

Which form of government is best for a given society is related to that society’s stage of development. He writes, ‘the proper functions of a government are not a fixed thing, but different in different states of society; much more extensive in a backward than in an advanced state.’ [Considerations on Representative Government, §II, 2, 2!7]

Mill says, ‘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 ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, but the personal discharge of some public function, local or general’, a kind of democracy, if you will. [Considerations on Representative Government, §III, 7, 244] He points out, as Rousseau does too, that genuine popular government, however, is possible only in very small states. On the other hand, the benefits of advanced civilisation are only available in very large states. Is there some way to combine the benefits of popular government with the advanced civilisation that comes with large size? Yes. The answer lies in representative democracy.

Is democracy the best form of popular government? Mill is prey to conflicting tendencies. On the one hand, he is inclined to widen suffrage but then, the problem of mob rule rears its head. Should the people be given what they say they want or what their betters know to be really good for them? His utilitarian upbringing inclined him to the former; his perfectionist tendencies inclined him to the latter. Democracy has dangers, one of which is ‘the danger of class legislation; of government intended for (whether really effecting it or not) the immediate benefit of the dominant class, to the lasting detriment of the whole.’ [Considerations on Representative Government, §VI, 19, 299] If representative government is to work, the people as a whole must be prepared to receive it, to preserve it, and to shoulder the burdens which it imposes upon them. [see Considerations on Representative Government, §IV, 2-3, 257]

One of the most distinctive things about Mill’s is the importance he concedes to the expert. Mill believes that the core areas of government—legislative, judicial and executive—require a level of competence beyond the capacity of the man in the street and also beyond the capacity of his representatives. Such governmental competences belong only to the expert. It is not the function of the citizens’ representatives to govern; rather, it is their task to control the experts who carry out the actual government. For the time in which he was writing, this was a new and significant twist. Mill writes, ‘while it is essential to representative government that the practical supremacy in the state should reside in the representatives of the people, it is an open question what actual functions, what precise part in the machinery of government, shall be directly and personally discharged by the representative body….There is a radical distinction between controlling the business of government, and actually doing it. The same person or body may be able to control everything, but cannot possibly do everything; and in many cases its control over everything will be more perfect, the less it personally attempts to do.’ [Considerations on Representative Government, §V, 5, 271] If this sounds familiar that is hardly surprising, since this is more or less the orthodox current understanding of how our representatives should function. Of course, because of what is known as the agent/principal problem, it is very far from how they actually do function but this is just another example of the divergence of reality and ideality. As Mill himself admits, ‘The natural tendency of representative government…is towards collective mediocrity…’ [Considerations on Representative Government, §VII, 13, 313]

Is there not always a danger that a supposedly popular government will descend into factionalism? Yes. Mill is rightly suspicious of government by faction, however large that faction might be. ‘If democracy means government of the whole by a majority which alone has representation, the ends of democracy are bound to be frustrated, for the minority, having no representatives, has no assurance that its rights will be protected, and the majority will be in a position to pursue its sinister interest. (In this context, one might call to mind the history of the government of Northern Ireland for much of its existence, and of many African countries since they have become independent.) Mill fears, for example, that a representative body representing the interests of the working class will jeopardize the property rights of the wealthy, and thus undermine the economy of the nation.’ To ensure that everybody was in fact represented, Mill proposed a complex system of proportional representation. History has shown that Mill was right to fear government by faction. Practical politics in most democracies is a contest between various gangs fighting to determine which of them can get its hands on the tiller of the ship of state. History has also shown that Mill was wrong to think that his proportional representation system would solve his problems. This wasn’t because there was some particular flaw with his system but because there is a basic flaw with the whole notion of representation to begin with.

I hope this helps,

Best wishes,

Gerard Casey