James Mill on the Nature of Those Who Govern

James Mill

This quote from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century thinker and journalist, James Mill (1773-1836) expresses the essential point, one that extends back to ancient historical times, that those who are entrusted with setting the rules and protecting the peace of a community, must themselves be kept within the laws of that community.

Whenever the powers of government are placed in any hands other than those of the community, whether those of one man, of a few, or of several, those principles of human nature which imply that government is at all necessary, imply that these persons will make use of them to defeat the very end for which government exists.

From James Mill’s “Government,” in Supplement to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. With Preliminary Dissertations on the History of the Science (Edinburgh, Archibald Constable and Company, 1824).

From this perspective, governors, however chosen, and whether they are few or many in number, do not change their essential human nature when they are granted political power, but will continue to pursue their own personal well-being, only now augmented with the powers of government that have been vested in them. Consequently, Mill argued, those powers must be severely circumscribed and institutionally ordered such that these governors will remain focused on the essential duties of government to maintain the laws and good order of the community. It is this essential point that remains true throughout the broad range of ideas associated with a belief in limited government. James Mill stood in a long line of such thinkers who developed what has generally been called the classical liberal tradition of political thought.

In this vein, James Mill is usually classed among those who approached the question of individual liberty from the perspective of utilitarianism, arguing that human actions were ultimately motivated by the quest for personal happiness or “utility.” In this he was powerfully influenced by the philosophical writings of his contemporary, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Rather than arguing from the perspective of rights as stemming from either a higher law or the dictates of reason, utilitarians contend for the establishment of rules and institutions that permit each person to pursue his or her understanding of the good in the most efficient way possible with the least infringement on the ability of others to do the same. In this approach to the question of liberty, James Mill was deeply influential on his more famous son, John Stuart Mill, who later formulated the basic concept of “equal liberty” as a succinct encapsulation of the liberal utilitarian principle.