Liberty Matters

James Mill on Liberty and Governance: A Reply to Professor Peart

The problem of the “few” and the “many” is a perennial theme in political thought, and one grappled with at length by such luminaries as Aristotle, Machiavelli, and John Adams. In her essay, Professor Peart explores how James Mill, the utilitarian reformer, defined and attempted to resolve this problem in early 19th-century England. As Peart indicates, Mill’s ideal resolution would go well beyond a mere willingness of distinct groups and classes to simply “coexist.” Strictly speaking, the notion of “coexistence” entails little more than mutual tolerance or forbearance, such as the “peaceful coexistence” that marked the Cold War. As a zealous reformer with a utopian bent, Mill hoped to transcend mere “coexistence” and usher in an era of social unity, harmony, and beneficence.
But how? Professor Peart suggests that Mill believed the divisions, or “factions,” in society could be overcome through a combination of economic liberty, representative government, an extended franchise, education, and open discussion. This is accurate at the level of generality. Mill did vigorously champion these measures as well as numerous other reforms that would enter into the mainstream of the Liberal tradition. On closer inspection, however, there are aspects in Mill’s body of thought that fit rather uneasily into this legacy. Let us first examine his “solution” to the problem of the “few” and the “many.” At the political level, Mill thought he found a civic elixir in representative government, “the grand discovery of modern times. . . .”[35] He believed that frequent elections based on a broad franchise would almost magically transform the political landscape. It would not only serve as a check on the “few” (who, unchecked, are always corrupt and abusive) but align the interests of the “few” with the interests of the “many.” This is not a vision of “interest group” or “broker” politics, but a plan to nearly abolish politics altogether! Mill’s solution was the creation of an “identity of interests” among social groups and classes, one not unlike the solution provided by Plato.[36] Yet to give everyone the same interests or opinions in a free society is impossible. Apparently, Mill had not read Madison’s Federalist No. 10.
It is also notable that Mill rejected the idea of “mixed government,” the alleged hallmark of the much-admired British Constitution. While the actual workings of the system were quite different from popular (and sometimes learned) conceptions, Mill had no use for a regime that purported to achieve balance and stability through institutional checks and rivalries.[37] Nor did he believe in the separation of legislative and executive power, not even in theory.[38] Had it been politically feasible he would have advocated abolition of the House of Lords and the monarchy (something even Bentham understood was not practical) and leave Britain with a unicameral legislature possessed of full sovereignty. Anything less would be to tolerate a kind of imperium in imperio, “two authorities in a state, the one capable of barring whatever the other would do.”[39] As it was, Mill advanced a plan to limit the ability of the Lords to obstruct legislation passed in the Commons: a measure passed three times in the Commons would be law without the consent of the Lords.
It should be noted that Mill wrote very little about the specifics of institutional reform or political architecture. One will search his writings in vain for anything like his son’s extended treatment of these in Considerations on Representative Government.[40] Yet given the elder Mill’s doctrine of “identity of interests,” there was little need to engage in such discussions. His one political treatise, “Government,” has long been a byword for what Leslie Stephen called “simple-minded audacity.”[41] Accordingly, Mill has little to offer the student of political theory in terms of substance, and his place in histories of political thought is correspondingly thin. This is not entirely fair to Mill, who fancied himself a philosopher and theorist, but is perhaps better described as a polemicist, an advocate, and a publicist in the cause of “radical” reform. In this capacity he was far more distinguished and successful than as a political thinker. Moreover, almost every major reform he championed was eventually adopted. Slavery was abolished, education extended, criminal law reformed, Catholics emancipated, prisons humanized, the franchise expanded, representation equalized, the press freed, trade liberalized, and the Lords, monarch, and Church reduced to ciphers. Of course, Britain witnessed other developments in the century after Mill’s death far less in accord with his reformist vision. Yet it remains an impressive record.
If there was little confusion and contradiction in Mill’s practical commitments this cannot be said of his theorizing. Professor Peart notes that Mill adopted Adam Smith’s view of man’s social nature as portrayed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and there is certainly evidence of this influence in Mill’s economic and educational writings. Yet elsewhere, such as in the essay “Government,” man qua man is portrayed as an inherently selfish and vicious creature lacking even the “diffidence” of Hobbes’s odious Yahoo. Many of Mill’s expositors have observed this seeming contradiction. Some have attempted to extenuate his inconsistency with reference to Hume’s dictum that when considering politics, every man should be counted a knave. Yet the tension remains. As Leslie Stephen writes, Mill, “who has been laying down as a universal law that the strong will always plunder the weak, and that all rulers will reduce their subjects to abject slavery, is absolutely convinced, it seems, of the possibility of somehow transmuting selfishness into public spirit, justice, generosity, and devotion to truth.”[42]
Hobbes, in advocating absolutism, would seem to have been more consistent with his view of human nature than Mill, who advanced popular government. Yet Mill had a far more elastic view than Hobbes. On Mill’s view, human beings are capable of overcoming much of their selfishness and greed through proper training on one hand and institutional arrangements on the other. The former accounts for Mill’s great emphasis on education, anchored in a psychology that allowed for an indefinite malleability of character to the point of human perfection. However ill-founded this idea, it does serve to mitigate the charge that his view of human nature was wholly contradictory. It may be that Mill’s two versions of human nature, the reprobate and the redeemed, mirror the two sides of his animus: one, his hatred for the greed and stupidity of the Establishment (particularly the aristocracy and the Church), and two, his cherished vision of a reformed and enlightened humanity. Mill was, after all, much like a secular Calvinist.            
It would appear that like Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Dewey, Mill looked to moral and mental instruction as the master-key to social and political improvement and mankind’s future felicity. Yet in his essay “Education” just the reverse seems to be the case. Here “political education” (as opposed to “domestic,” “technical,” and “social”) is hailed as “the key-stone of the arch; the strength of the whole depends upon it.”[43] As Professor Peart rightly observes, Mill placed a great deal of confidence in the power of social approbation (and disapprobation) to motivate individuals to act in socially desirable ways. For the purposes of ordinary life, the family, school, and local society (properly arranged) are sufficient to provide the appropriate sanctions to encourage correct conduct. Yet to attain “the grand objects of desire,” viz., approbation on a grand scale, it is necessary to enlist what Mill somewhat ominously calls the “political machine.” The following passage is the soaring crescendo of the essay “Education.”
Now this is certain, that the means by which the grand objects of desire may be attained, depend almost entirely upon the political machine. When the political machine is such, that the grand objects of desire are seen to be the natural prizes of great and virtuous conduct – of high services to mankind, and of the generous and amiable sentiments from which great endeavors in the service of mankind naturally proceed – it is natural to see diffused among mankind a generous ardour in the acquisition of all those admirable qualities which prepare a man for admirable actions; great intelligence, perfect self-command, and overruling-benevolence.
This, one of the most inspired passages in Mill’s vast writings, is distinctly at odds with the popular image of James Mill as a dry, passionless, prosaic philosopher of hedonism. This speaks to another incongruity in Mill’s thought – one recapitulated in that of his son: the coexistence of Benthamite hedonism with high-minded idealism. As W. H. Burston has written, for Mill “the pursuit of personal happiness meant almost precisely the reverse of what we would call a life of pleasure . . . .”[44] The passage from “Education” cited above certainly captures Mill’s idealist side, but it also raises questions about the role of the state (“political machine”) in shaping the values and directing the conduct of citizens. (It could easily be mistaken for a quote on behalf of Napoleon’s Legion of Honor.) In conjunction with Mill’s views on labor, leisure, and leadership, it reinforces the charge that Mill was a “democratic elitist.”[45] If so, this is hardly the worst of his sins, if a sin at all. Mill may have deceived himself regarding the capacity of education to transform character and for charter to transform society, but in adhering to the view that even a reformed society would remain an intellectual pyramid, he remained fast-anchored in abiding reality.
[35.] “Government,” in Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1825; </titles/mill-government> also </titles/mill-the-political-writings-of-james-mill-1815-1836#lf1624_head_015>.
[36.]  The comparison may seem far-fetched but I am not alone in drawing it. See W. H. Burston, James Mill on Philosophy and Education (London: The Athlone Press, 1973), p. 236, and Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians, vol. 2 (London: Duckworth & Co., 1900), p. 89. Mill was a great admirer of Plato and betrayed signs of Plato’s “intellectual politics” throughout his career.
[37.][N]o security for good government can be found in an organization of counter-forces, or a balance in the constitution . . . ,” “Economists,” in James Mill, The Political Writings of James Mill: Essays and Reviews on Politics and Society, 1815-1836, ed. David M. Hart (Liberty Fund, 2013); /titles/2520#lf1624_head_013. See also “Government.”
[39.] “Aristocracy, ” London Review, April-July 1835 </titles/2520#lf1624_label_391>. See also “Economists” </titles/2520#lf1624_head_013>.
[40.] In John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XIX – Essays on Politics and Society Part II, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977); </titles/234>.
[41.] Stephen, English Utilitarians, p. 85.
[42.] Ibid., p. 83.
[43.] “Education,” in Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica </titles/2520#lf1624_head_014>.
[44.] Burston, James Mill, p. 230.
[45.] See Robert A. Fenn, James Mill’s Political Thought (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987), p. 153.