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James Mill on Who are to watch the watchmen? (1835)

The Philosophic Radical James Mill (1773-1836) believed that the answer to the age old problem of “who is to guard us from the guardians” lay in regular elections and a free press:

This has ever been the great problem of Government. The powers of Government are of necessity placed in some hands; they who are intrusted with them have infinite temptations to abuse them, and will never cease abusing them, if they are not prevented. How are they to be prevented? The people must appoint watchmen. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who are to watch the watchmen?—The people themselves. There is no other resource; and without this ultimate safeguard, the ruling Few will be for ever the scourge and oppression of the subject Many.

As an instance of our differences of opinion about abuses, we may point to what we consider the master abuse, the want of sufficient power in the people to choose their representatives. We say, that the means exist, even under the Reform Act, of taking away the power of choice from the people, to the extent of a majority of the whole number. Our opponents say that this is no abuse, but an advantage. They have talked loudly about the Reform Act as a final measure. Sir Robert Peel has lately grounded his accession to it on his belief, a declaration which gives the measure of the man, that it was an arrangement for ever,—a new ‘original compact,’ of everlasting and indefeasible obligation.

We can state, in narrow compass, the reasons on which we consider any defalcation in the power of the people to choose their representatives, as a master evil.

We go upon the postulate, that the power, by which the class qui pillent succeed in carrying on their vocation, is an evil; and ought to be abated. This postulate, indeed, has been refused, and with cries of great indignation; but we have not time at present to examine them.

We assume, then, that this power ought to be taken away; and we say, that we know but one way of accomplishing our object, which is, to grant to the people the entire and complete choice of their representatives.

This has ever been the great problem of Government. The powers of Government are of necessity placed in some hands; they who are intrusted with them have infinite temptations to abuse them, and will never cease abusing them, if they are not prevented. How are they to be prevented? The people must appoint watchmen. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who are to watch the watchmen?—The people themselves. There is no other resource; and without this ultimate safeguard, the ruling Few will be for ever the scourge and oppression of the subject Many.

‘All free governments must consist of a Senate and People. The People, as Harrington observes, would want wisdom without the Senate; the Senate without the People would want honesty.’—Hume’s Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.

The representatives are the watchmen of the people; and two things only are wanting to make the people very perfect watchmen of the representatives; First, the perfect power of choice, which implies the power of speedy removal; Secondly, the full benefit of the press, which gives them the necessary knowledge of the behaviour of the representative. So circumstanced, the representatives will have a paramount interest in consulting the interest of the people, and in resisting every exercise of power which would trench upon it. And we reformers, till we have brought the state of the representation to this state of perfection, will not cease to have a grievance, which our best exertions will be strenuously and incessantly employed to remove.

About this Quotation:

When James Mill, the father of John Stuart, wrote these words he was hard at work defending and lobbying to extend electoral reform following the passage of the first Reform Act in 1832. This had enabled the better off tax-payers in the middle class to vote for the first time but it still excluded the poor and of course women. Mill and his fellow Philosophic Radicals believed that democracy was a crucial weapon in the struggle against the powerful and wealthy aristocratic elites, land owners, the established Church, and financiers who controlled the British state. In this essay he sums up the “state of the nation” in 1835 and in doing so expresses some of his key ideas about “the ruling Few” and “the subject Many”, the processes by which the ruling Few use their control of the state (especially Parliament) to “pillage” the subject Many, and how the latter can defend themselves by having access to the vote, participating in frequent elections, and using the freedom of the press to expose the corruption and privileges of the elite. His answer to “the great problem of Government”, namely “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or, as he translated it, “Who are to watch the watchmen?” was to give ultimate oversight to “the people themselves”. He does not address the problem here of what happens if democracy itself becomes corrupt, when “the ruling Few” turns into a “ruling Many.” He no doubt thought that with a free press and a more broadly based system of education this would be impossible.

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