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Mill’s Alternative

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In his essays “Considerations on Representative Government” and “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill makes a convincing argument in favor of representative democracy. The system he proposes strikes the necessary balance between the “philosopher kings” advocated by Plato and the directly democratic rule by the “general will” that Rousseau argues for. Mill sees a system like Plato’s to essentially be leadership by a “good despot”. Although it may be well intentioned, Mill believes that this system will never adequately address the desires of the people. And even though he largely agrees with the principles of direct democracy advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he shows that this is not realizable in a state system. Despite aspects of Mill’s proposal with which I do have concern, what he presents is a vision of a real alternative. Mill’s system could actually transcend the problems of mingling a utopian direct democracy with an effective despotism.

Mill’s vision of government is one of an elected ruling body entrusted with making the laws of the state, the representatives who comprise this body being chosen through a process of universal suffrage. All citizens are given the right to vote, however not every citizen would get the same amount of votes. Mill advocates a system known as plural voting; the most highly educated people would receive more than one vote. Mill also hoped that every citizen would at some time be called upon to fill some civil service position. Finally, he advocated a set of rights that would protect the basic liberties of all and prevent a “tyranny of the majority”. (On Liberty, ch.1, Considerations on Representative Government, Lecture of Nov. 6th)

Mill believes that a government ruled by the general public is the only way to safeguard the interests and liberty of all citizens. He bases this on the claim that people generally act in their own self-interest. Therefore, any government that does not give each person a role in its administration will only act in the interest of the governors themselves. (Considerations) Rousseau and other advocates of direct democracy share this opinion. They call for a system where all laws are made by popular voting. (The Social Contract) Plato contends that the general populous is not intelligent or responsible enough to handle making decisions that affect the affairs of state. He calls for an elite class known as the “guardians” to legislate based on moralistic considerations. (The Republic)

Under representative democracy, both considerations are entertained. People choose representatives who will fight for the issues they believe beneficial to their self-interest. These representatives are compelled to vote on their behalf when laws are formed for the necessity of their reelection. This prevents the governors from acting in their own interest; if they are judged to do so they will be removed from power. Although there are no safeguards to ensure that only intelligent people are elected, this is hard to avoid do to the competitive nature of the electoral process. Mill’s system creates a small ruling group of intelligent individuals much like Plato’s, however these rulers are responsible to, and at the mercy of, the people.

The method of plural voting that Mill advocates has merit as well, but is more problematic. Mill believes that this system will help assure that intelligent decisions are made because highly educated people will receive more than one vote. Those who have previously occupied elected office would also receive more than one vote. Although the rational for this is evident, it is not justified based on Mill’s own argument that people act in their own self-interest. (Considerations) There is no reason why those entrusted with more than one vote would use their influence to seek any interests beside their own, no matter how educated. This idea is undemocratic, and a pitfall of Mill’s vision. If votes are seen to represent the interests of individuals, the interests of the less educated are being subordinated to the interests of the more educated.

More interesting than plural voting is Mill’s plan for each citizen to occasionally staff a public office. Mill believes that this will give people more stake in their government as well as another way to influence public policy. Furthermore, it will be a learning experience for those who would not usually have the opportunity to perform such tasks, a process of education for those that are otherwise not further being educated. (Considerations) This is a very democratic notion; it gives people an entirely new avenue into the state system. Voters will now have hands on experience when it comes to the functioning of government institutions; an experience that would allow them to make more informed decisions in who they vote for.

One reservation about democracy is that if decisions are made by majority rule, there are no assurances that minority interests will not be swept aside. Mill states that “the ?tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. (On Liberty, ch. 1) He believes that the best way to do so is by securing a set of universal rights. These rights will protect minorities from persecution or abuse and infringements upon their liberty, however they will not ensure that minority interests are secured in every situation. A Platonic moral despotism is the only way to ensure that all citizens’ interests are given equal consideration, but to what degree remains undetermined.

In conclusion, Mill’s system of representative democracy is not perfect, but it is good. Through the process of election, people are able to exercise their opinion and vie for their interests. The set of rights secures their liberty, as does their ability to expel any leader who challenges them. The responsibility for making laws is confined to a select group of elected elites, alleviating citizens of the time commitment and stress inherent in a direct democracy. These representatives maintain law making as their sole responsibility, not as an addition to their everyday routine; this gives them the ability to properly consider legislation. In this way Mill is able to blend together many of the best aspects of the systems proposed by both Plato and Rousseau.

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