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

James Mill

Found in The Political Writings of James Mill (1815-1836)

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.

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.