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James Mill on the “sinister interests” of those who wield political power (1825)

The Utilitarian and Philosophic Radical James Mill (1773-1836) wrote a series of articles for the Supplement to the 1825 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the article on “Government” he warns of the dangers of the selfish and “sinister interests” all those who wield power, unless checked by an informed people:

We have seen already, that if one man has power over others placed in his hands, he will make use of it for an evil purpose; for the purpose of rendering those other men the abject instruments of his will. If we, then, suppose, that one man has the power of choosing the Representatives of the people, it follows, that he will choose men, who will use their power as Representatives for the promotion of this his sinister interest.

We have likewise seen, that when a few men have power given them over others, they will make use of it exactly for the same ends, and to the same extent, as the one man. It equally follows, that, if a small number of men have the choice of the Representatives, such Representatives will be chosen as will promote the interests of that small number, by reducing, if possible, the rest of the community to be the abject and helpless slaves of their will.

We have seen already, that if one man has power over others placed in his hands, he will make use of it for an evil purpose; for the purpose of rendering those other men the abject instruments of his will. If we, then, suppose, that one man has the power of choosing the Representatives of the people, it follows, that he will choose men, who will use their power as Representatives for the promotion of this his sinister interest.

We have likewise seen, that when a few men have power given them over others, they will make use of it exactly for the same ends, and to the same extent, as the one man. It equally follows, that, if a small number of men have the choice of the Representatives, such Representatives will be chosen as will promote the interests of that small number, by reducing, if possible, the rest of the community to be the abject and helpless slaves of their will.

In all these cases, it is obvious and indisputable, that all the benefits of the Representative system are lost. The Representative system is, in that case, only an operose and clumsy machinery for doing that which might as well be done without it; reducing the community to subjection, under the One, or the Few.

When we say the Few, it is seen that, in this case, it is of no importance whether we mean a few hundreds, or a few thousands, or even many thousands. The operation of the sinister interest is the same; and the fate is the same, of all that part of the community over whom the power is exercised. A numerous Aristocracy has never been found to be less oppressive than an Aristocracy confined to a few.

The general conclusion, therefore, which is evidently established is this; that the benefits of the Representative system are lost, in all cases in which the interests of the choosing body are not the same with those of the community.

About this Quotation:

The Philosophic Radicals and Utilitarians who were influenced by the writings of Jeremy Bentham, such as James Mill (the father of John Stuart), were very skeptical of the intentions of those who wielded political power. Bentham had warned in his Handbook of Political Fallacies that politically powerful people would use deception and lies to promote their own interests. This idea is very similar to Frédéric Bastiat’s idea of “sophisms” which were used by powerful economic interests to promote their subsidies and tariff protection at the expense of ordinary consumers. James Mill took that suspicion a step further in the several articles he wrote for the 1825 Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, especially the article on “Government”. Here he develops the idea of a “sinister interest” which was held by all those with unchecked political power. Unless they were well chosen and closely supervised by an informed electorate, the politically powerful would inevitably use their position to promote their own selfish, private interests at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer.

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