Front Page Titles (by Subject) 21.: PARLIAMENTARY REFORM MORNING CHRONICLE, 3 OCT., 1823, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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21.: PARLIAMENTARY REFORM MORNING CHRONICLE, 3 OCT., 1823, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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This letter may be read as a Radical corollary of James Mill’s “Government.” Many of its arguments appeared in J.S. Mill’s writings in this period (e.g., the assertion of an unlimited desire for power is also in No. 20). The signature “Quesnai” presumably alludes to François Quesnay (1694-1774), the French economist, who argued that the principle of general interest should govern the economic life of nations, and looked to liberty, security, and justice as the means to prosperity for all classes of society. Headed as title, subheaded “To the Editor of the Morning Chronicle,” the item is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A letter signed Quesnai, on the consequences of denying the capacity of the people, in the Chronicle of 3d October 1823”
(MacMinn, p. 4).
The difference between the Reformers and the Anti-Reformers of this country is, that the former are friends to a popular government, and the latter to an aristocracy.
The only ground on which Reform can stand, is the assumption that if the people had the power of choosing their representatives, they would make, if not the best, at least a good choice. This accordingly is the doctrine of the Reformers; and if this be true, it is evident that the question as to reform admits of no farther debate. The Anti-Reformers on the other hand, allege that the people are factious, turbulent, inimical to social order, and to the existence of property. On this ground they maintain that the existing form of Government, over which the people exercise no controul, and which is in the strictest sense of the word Aristocratical, should be preserved.
Let us grant to the Anti-Reformers, the full benefit of the assumption upon which their resistance to the Reformers is grounded. Let us admit that the people, if they had the choice of their Rulers, would infallibly make a bad choice, and so bad a choice, as to render the attainment of good Government in this mode utterly hopeless. That this would silence the claims of the Reformers is unquestionable. Let us examine, however, whether it is not equally unfavourable to the pretensions of their opponents.
It is indisputable, that if any person has the power of pillaging the people for his own benefit, and of forcing them to act in entire subservience to his interests, he will do so. This is implied in the common outcry against despotism. And if this be admitted of one man, it cannot be denied of any set of men less than the majority of the whole population. Against this propensity to pillage the people, and to reduce them to subservience, no check can be opposed, because the people alone have an interest in establishing a check; and the people, by supposition, are not to be trusted. All which can be done, is to vest unrestrained power in such hands, that the motive to abuse it shall be reduced within the narrowest possible limits.
Now it is evident, that as far as pillage is concerned, far less will suffice to satiate the rapacity of one man than of a thousand; and then, as to personal subservience, it is a smaller evil to serve one master than a great number. In so far, therefore, as the personal desires of the Sovereign are concerned, less mischief is likely to arise from the rule of one, than of an irresponsible few.
This appears at first sight inconsistent with history. But if we look back to the annals of despotism, we shall find that the oppressions which they exhibit have been severe exactly in proportion as the Monarch has been insecure. The tyrants in Greece were so sanguinary, only because they were in continual danger of being overthrown. The Pachas in Turkey plunder the people with such grinding extortion, only because they do not hold their office on a week’s tenure. In fact, it is evident, that if the Monarch were perfectly secure, perfectly certain of never being molested in the exercise of his power, he would be satisfied with extracting from the people such a portion of the annual produce of land and labour as would abundantly supply all his appetites and passions; and when there is but one man to satiate, this is but a small portion. Despotism would be very moderately oppressive, if the despot were perfectly secure, but not being so, he is under the necessity of purchasing support by the plunder of the people. He must maintain a large military force to compel passive obedience—a large ecclesiastical establishment to inculcate it.
But as this Army and this Priesthood will employ their power, not for him, but against him, unless he can make it their interest to do otherwise, he cannot support his dominion unless he satiates, not himself alone, but them, with the spoil of the people. Despotism, therefore, owes by far the greatest part of its mischievousness to the insecurity of the Monarch. If he could be made perfectly secure—if he were released, not only from all legal, but from all moral responsibility—if men could be persuaded, that to oppose the behest of their Sovereign, or even to speak of him or of his acts with any thing short of the most unbounded and submissive veneration, was a most important violation of morality—then the Monarchs would be to them nearly as a shepherd to his flock. He would oppress them no farther than by extorting from them the means of satiating every possible desire, and in every other respect, it would be decidedly his interest to leave them perfect freedom of action.
It appears then, that if the people are not to be trusted, the least bad of all possible Governments must be, that in which all the powers of Government are concentrated in the hands of one man, and when that man is entirely exempt from all controul, either from the laws of from public opinion, a more unlimited despotism than has ever yet existed in the world.
There would, it is true, be grave inconveniences attending on this form of government. First, pillage even by one man is an evil, but this is not the worst. An absolute King, having little or no motive to acquire distinguished intellect, weak Monarchs would frequently fill the throne; and although they would not oppress the people more than Monarchs of vigorous intellect, they would be less capable of protecting them from the aggressions of one another. But although the folly and weakness of the Monarch would prove highly mischievous, it could not produce such lamentable effects as infallibly arise from an aristocratic government, whose interest it is to extract from the people as much in every way as they can be prevailed on to part with, and who, in proportion as they are wiser and better instructed, will only pursue that interest with more unerring certainty.
Thus, then, it appears that, to a man who reasons consistently, there is no medium between advocating a popular government, and standing up for absolute despotism. If the people are capable of making a good choice, with them the choice ought to rest. If they are not capable, he with whom the general happiness is the regulating principle of his judgments, will stop no where short of the completest conceivable despotism. But, he who, while he professes a horror of absolute power, opposes all propositions tending to vest an effective checking power in the people—such a man leaves no inference to be drawn, save either that his reasoning faculty is in a deplorable state of depravation, or that he is blinded by being himself a member of the governing aristocracy, whose rule is far more inimical to happiness than a secure and unlimited despotism. Hobbes, who is branded by all Englishmen as the advocate of despotism, had this advantage over the anti-reformers of the present day, that he reasoned consistently from the principle of the incapacity of the people,1 which they equally with him adopt, but from which they reason only so far as suits the particular end which they have in view.
[1 ]Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan (1651), in English Works, ed. William Molesworth, 11 vols. (London: Bohn, 1839), Vol. III, pp. 153-70 (Pt. II, Chaps. xvii-xviii).