Liberty Matters

Professor Peart’s Mill – and Mine


Introduction and Overview
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Sandra Peart has written a fine essay which has given me much food for thought. Since my differences with her views are more matters of emphasis and attention than of substance, my brief contribution to this symposium is meant to complement and supplement hers. I propose to proceed in the following way. I begin by noting a fact that Peart -- oddly, to my mind -- never mentions that Mill was a Utilitarian and an ally -- some would say "disciple" -- of Jeremy Bentham, and that this colors everything he ever thought or wrote. Next I consider Mill’s idea of the “middle rank,” which at first sight seems to run counter to the self-consciously and conspicuously egalitarian character of Utilitarianism. I then discuss the import of "political economy" in Mill's economic and political theorizing. "Politics" and "economics" are inseparable in his thinking, and in his and Bentham's "protectionist theory" of democracy in particular. Then I turn to Mill's conception of representation and representative government, paying particular attention to a concept -- viz., gender -- to which Peart pays only passing attention but which I believe to be deserving of greater notice, for reasons I try to spell out.
The Few and the Many
The theme of "the Few" and "the Many" runs like a red thread through Peart's essay, and for good reason. Mill favored the interest of the Many not so much because he was a dyed-in-the wool democrat as because he was a Utilitarian devoted to promoting "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." This pertinent fact is strangely slighted by Professor Peart. It was certainly noted by Mill's contemporaries. Macaulay, for one, was more accurate than arch when he began his "famous attack" (as J.S. Mill called it) in the Edinburgh Review with these words: "Of those philosophers who call themselves Utilitarians and whom others generally call Benthamites, Mr. Mill is, with the exception of the illustrious founder of the sect [i.e., Bentham], by far the most distinguished."[24] And Mill, like Bentham, believed that the day of the Many had finally arrived and that a new moral and political philosophy -- Utilitarianism -- is the first to take that fact into account.
Utilitarianism is the moral and political philosophy of the Common Man – a fact noted and excoriated by aristocratic critics. And yet Mill himself was no thoroughgoing egalitarian; he had his own conception of a new kind of nonhereditary aristocracy.
The “Middle Rank”
Professor Peart reminds us that Mill took a dim view of class divisions, and most especially the division between “a Ruling Class and a Subject Class.”[25] And yet, according to some critics, Mill has his own conception of an exalted class. This I believe to be a misunderstanding of Mill’s view; but first, some background.
Political thinkers as different as Burke and Jefferson believed that there is a “natural aristocracy,” not of birth but of talent, aptitude, and education. Without ever using that much-misunderstood and maligned term, Mill has his own version, which he calls the “middle rank, . . . that intelligent and virtuous rank . . . which gives to science, to art, and to legislation itself, their most distinguished ornaments, and is the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature . . . .”[26] It is to this middle rank that common laborers look for advice, inspiration, and guidance. Mill makes it clear that this middle rank is not a “class” (which, as Peart notes, is for Mill a term of opprobrium); it is instead a group of people of particular intellectual and moral merit, whose value and position are made possible by education. As more people become better educated, the middle rank will grow and will eventually constitute a majority.[27] To say that Mill set great store by education – he liked to quote Helvetius’s dictum l’education peut tout – is a gross and grievous understatement. Education exalts and refines our minds and enriches our relations with others.
The Self and Others
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Peart is certainly correct in contending that "Economists have struggled for centuries with the relationship between the self and others." To this I would add the adjective "political" before "economists," as "political economy" was the term used by Adam Smith, David Ricardo (whom James Mill persuaded to write On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation), and of course James Mill himself in his Elements of Political Economy (1821). The adjective is important inasmuch as it recognizes the central role that the state plays in the economy, and perhaps particularly in protecting private property. This is the thrust of Mill's most explicit essay on political theory, “Government” (1820).
As Professor Peart reminds us, Mill maintains that the purpose of government is to promote the aggregate happiness of the community and of its individual members. Those individuals are motivated by self-interest, and particularly -- as Jeremy Bentham was not the first to note -- by their interest in experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. (Peart rightly emphasizes the centrality of Adam Smith in Mill's thought -- his mind never lost the impress of his Scottish education -- but, surprisingly, not Bentham, who doesn't even merit a mention in her essay.) It is the nature of human beings not only to desire happiness but to expend as little energy and effort as possible in obtaining it. Labor being the means of obtaining happiness, and our own labor being painful to us, we will, unless prevented, try to live off the labor of others. Government exists to prevent this outcome by protecting the fruits of our labor -- that is, our property -- from the predations of others. This, in brief outline, is the argument advanced in support of the so-called "protectionist theory" of democracy to which Bentham and the elder Mill subscribed.
Representative Democracy
As for "the Few" and "the Many," in most previously existing political regimes, the former ruled and rode roughshod over the interests the latter. But representative democracy is different. For the first time in human history -- ancient Athenian democracy doesn't count, since so few were citizens -- it is in Mill's view possible to truly represent the interests of the many as against those of the few. Representation is for him "the grand discovery of modern times."[28]
But of course representation is a multivocal concept, with many mutually conflicting meanings.[29] In Mill's view representative government is both necessary and desirable. And that is because direct democracy would require citizens to expend undue effort and energy -- and time -- away from productive labor. Since, according to the Bentham-Mill protectionist theory, the point and purpose of government is to protect private property and the persons who acquire and own it, direct democracy runs counter to government's very raison d'être. Yet Mill's main target is not direct democracy but the claim -- advanced and defended by Burke and later by Sir James Mackintosh, T.B. Macaulay, and other Whigs -- that the Many may be well represented by the Few even if the former are not fully enfranchised. This conception of "virtual representation" was in Mill's view a sham and a smokescreen to cover the "sinister interests" of the Few, without recognizing or representing the legitimate interests of the Many.
Mill assumes without argument that each individual is the best, perhaps even the only, judge of what is or is not in his (yes, his: see below) interest. To argue otherwise, as defenders of virtual representation do, is not only factually false but morally outrageous. And yet, as William Thompson was the first to point out (Macaulay came later, and almost copied Thompson), Mill catches himself in this very snare.[30]
Gender: Mill's Moral and Logical Lapse
In what his eldest son called "the worst [paragraph] he ever wrote,"[31] Mill said that
One thing is pretty clear, that all those individuals whose interests are indisputably included in those of other individuals, may be struck off without inconvenience. In this light may be viewed all children, up to a certain age, whose interests are involved in those of their parents. In this light, also, women may be regarded, the interest of almost all of whom is involved either in that of their fathers or in that of their husbands.[32]
Thompson, and later Macaulay, pounced on Mill for condemning advocates of virtual representation while, at the same time, holding that the interests of women could be represented virtually by their husbands and/or fathers. This, says Thompson, is tantamount to letting "one half the human race" -- men -- decide what is or is not in the interest of the other half.
What might account for Mill's logical lapse? His son suggests an answer: his father was not writing "a scientific treatise on politics" but was instead advancing "an argument for parliamentary reform."[33] Advocating the extensive enlargement of the male franchise was one thing, and radical enough in its own right; to add to that a proposal for the enfranchisement of women was quite another, and a bridge too far, for purely political reasons.
But this well-meant exercise of filial piety won't wash, inasmuch as the elder Mill viewed his “Government” as a contribution to scientific theorizing about politics. It was a sketch or "skeleton map," a "comprehensive outline" in which "the principles of human nature" and their political and institutional implications were briefly and boldly traced.[34] Moreover, Mill maintained that any adequate "argument for political reform" must be based on science, not mere belief or opinion. Sometimes a contradiction is just a contradiction. And, at least where gender is concerned, Mill was quite capable of contradicting himself.
[24.] T.B. Macaulay, “Mill on Government,” Edinburgh Review, March 1829; reprinted in Terence Ball, ed., James Mill: Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 271. Hereinafter cited as PW. [See also Liberty Fund’s online edition of The Political Writings of James Mill </titles/2520>. Quote .]
[25.] James Mill, Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, 2nd ed., ed. J.S. Mill and Alexander Bain (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer), vol. II, p. 275.
[26.] James Mill, “Government,” PW, pp. 41-42. [Online quote.]
[27.] Ibid.; “Education,” PW; “Schools for All,” in James Mill on Education, ed. W.H. Burston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1969).
[28.] PW, p. 21. [Online quote.]
[29.] See Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). For a defense of the claim that there are multiple and competing concepts of representation, see Andrew Rehfeld, “The Concepts of Representation,” American Political Science Review, August 2011, pp. 1-11
[30.] William Thompson, Appeal of One Half the Human Race (London: Longman, Hurst, Bees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1825). The two Mills’, Bentham’s, and Thompson’s views on enfranchisement are analyzed in Terence Ball, Reappraising Political Theory: Revisionist Studies in the History of Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), ch. 8.
[31.] J.S. Mill, The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1961), p. 98. This cutting criticism was excised from the revised version of Mill’s Autobiography. [See online: Volume I – Autobiography and Literary Essays in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). Quote.]
[32.] Mill, “Government,” PW, p. 27. Peart takes note of this paragraph in passing (n. 16) but does not pursue it further. [Online quote.]
[33.] J.S. Mill, Early Draft, p. 134; see also Ball, Reappraising, p. 185. [Online version: The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I – Autobiography and Literary Essays. Quote.]
[34.] James Mill to Macvey Napier, May 11, 1820, British Library Add. MSS 34612, fol. 354; JM to Etienne Dumont, 8 June 1821, Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire (Geneva), MS 76, fol. 21.