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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 15 – Liberalism, Democracy and John Stuart Mill

In moving from Locke to John Stuart Mill in the development of the liberal tradition in politics we are overlooking some very important developments. Much in the history of liberalism since the time of Hobbes was a set of important challenges to his special theory – to Hobbes’s emphasis on the necessity of an absolute sovereign. Later classical liberals, most importantly John Locke, as we’ve seen, argued persuasively for a limited sovereignty, and argued in a direction that brought them closer to the idea of  popular sovereignty in something like Rousseau’s sense of the term. For Locke, at least some of the people are the true repository of sovereignty, and their consent is the final court before which governments are to be brought. As you will remember, Locke also argued (although not without ambiguity) that the power of the sovereign is inherently limited because individuals in the state of nature were sufficiently rational to recognize only a limited right against others. It was only this limited right that they transferred to the sovereign majority and its trustees in a social contract. The government’s existence was conditional upon its staying true to its role of protecting the rights of individuals to “Life, Liberty and Estate”.

Other liberals, such as Montesquieu, and the American “Founding Fathers” (Madison and Hamilton) were, during the eighteenth century, constructing arguments that further challenged Hobbes’s idea of the state. They were emphasizing the need for a separation of the powers of government and a system of checks and balances that would serve as a protection of the rights of individuals and of property and would constitute a bulwark against abuses of power and tyranny.

Liberalism has, then, been a changing and evolving doctrine, in which certain strains have always been quite critical of other strains. But one of the major cleavages in liberalism has been related to the evolution of liberalism into liberal democracy. Up through the end of the nineteenth century and beyond there have been many liberal thinkers who have opposed democratic ideas and institutions. And although most liberal thinkers have come to accept democracy as inevitable and even beneficial, there is still a suspicion of democracy that is common to liberals, even inherent in liberalism. John Stuart Mill was not the founder of liberal-democratic theory. That honour belongs to two slightly earlier thinkers in the tradition of philosophical utilitarianism – Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (John Stuart’s father) – about whom we will have to say something in a short while. But John Stuart Mill was and is certainly liberal democracy’s most important, most comprehensive and most central figure.

Now, the evolution of liberal theory can be seen to be a result of the fact that liberalism has had two quite different meanings or tendencies. But before we define those, it would perhaps be a good idea to take a brief look at what people generally mean when they use the terms “liberalism”, “democracy” and “liberal-democracy”. Each of these terms is not particularly easy to define> As Nietzsche said, everything that has a history escapes definition. But at least we can begin by pointing out a number of features, some or most of which are common to most every liberalism.

  1. Liberalism places a great deal of significance in the ability to choose and replace governments or legislatures (although it is important that this choice is not held to extend to a choice about public, or private bureaucracies).
  2. Liberalism has historically been committed to a relatively broad franchise (the franchise means  the legal power to elect legislative representatives), but only recently has it committed itself to a universal franchise. (The proper extent of the franchise was something about which liberals argued fiercely among themselves, especially during J.S. Mill’s 19th century).
  3. Liberalism  puts a very heavy emphasis on the protection of important civil liberties, for example: liberties of conscience, speech, association, privacy, mobility; liberties from arbitrary arrest and detention, and so on… These are seen as, among other things, being important to making the right to choose governments an effective right.
  4. Liberalism insists upon formal equality before the law.
  5. It may and often has insisted on the legal protection of various sorts of minorities.
  6. It has a strong and broad commitment to constitutionalism in one form or another.
  7. At a theoretical level, liberalism puts at its center some principle of maximum individual freedom consistent with the freedom of others; these days this principle is often expressed as “the priority of the right over the good”
  8. Liberalism has a view of government as something necessarily separate from society, and which therefore has its own interests and which develops its own tendency towards power. Liberalism believes that government should therefore inherently be limited. Government or the state are seen as necessary, but necessarily dangerous.
  9. In liberalism, both society and government are seen as a means for independent and instrumentally rational individuals to realize their private purposes. Both society and government are therefore seen as something formed as a result of an association of individuals. Following from this, liberalism emphasizes the need to keep public affairs separate from private affairs.

The list could be continued, but this will do as a working and moving definition of liberalism. Democracy is easier to define, since it has had much less of an actual history than liberalism. Its history is mostly the history of a movement or an “ideal”.  So let this be a working, though bare, definition: democracy is the equal ability of all individuals in a society to form and make the decisions that affect their lives. There is perhaps more in this brief definition than immediately meets the eye (e.g. note that it includes the ability not only to make decisions, but to form them; or note that it refers to an ability, and not merely a formal right). One might also want to note that democracy here, in even this bare definition, means more than simply majority rule.

Now, in everyday political speech we tend to conflate and confuse these two things, democracy and liberalism. And it may not be obvious that they are not at all the same. Historically, virtually all liberals have insisted that things like the protection of minorities, limited government and maximization of individual freedom mean promoting a system of property compatible with capitalism. Democrats, especially before the nineteenth century, have insisted not only on a formal equality in politics (such as electoral politics) but on a substantial economic and social equality as well. Democrats have therefore often been anti-capitalist (Rousseau would be a case in point, and perhaps Jefferson).

So, both liberalism and liberal-democracy have come to mean two things: 1. belief in a capitalist or capitalist-market society (here one needs to be careful: a capitalist economy need not necessarily operate purely through the market; at present much of the economy is oligopolistic and therefore works through an administered price system).  And 2. liberalism and liberal-democracy also mean the striving for a society where each is equally free to realize their individual capacities.

Although historically these two beliefs were for a long time joined together, they are potentially in disagreement with each other. It is this potential for disagreement that animates and structures a good deal of John Stuart Mill’s political theory, and by extension the political theory of liberal-democracy. Why are they in disagreement? At the very least, this would be a result of the fact that some are either more skillful at, or better placed from the start in the market, so that they will hold positions of power over others. And secondly, the very operations of the market seem to lead to a situation in which there are large concentrations of privately owned wealth which can then, or must then, reach out to exert control over the market and also the state (and increasingly, one might say, over culture).

For a long time, nearly all liberals thought that democracy was an extremely dangerous threat to growing capitalist economies. And in spite of their own ideas about the fundamental equality of all individuals, most liberals fought tooth and nail for the rule of what John Stuart Mill would call “the leisured, civilized, propertied classes” over, yet on behalf of, the “poor, ignorant and incompetent”. So, before the nineteenth century, democracy was always considered  -- by democrats and liberals alike – to be impossible in a society divided into economic classes. That is, both liberals and democrats thought that political democracy would mean the end of liberal economic inequality. Liberals were always struggling with the problem of how to protect the right to the unlimited accumulation of private property, how to keep the great unwashed, or Locke’s “quarrelsome and contentious” from using political equality to “level property”. At the same time, liberals were basing their claims to liberty on the fundamental equality of all individuals.

Democrats, on the other hand, were always struggling with the problem of how to realize the right of all individuals to determine their lives in the face of a situation where all possibilities of material well-being and progress seemed to require private property of at least some type and degree.   

Liberal-democracy attempts to resolve this problem by theorizing the compatibility, by attempting to synthesize the class-divided society accepted (or embraced) by liberalism with some version of political equality; in other words, by marrying capitalist economic inequality with democratic political equality.

Marx and socialism were attempting to resolve this problem by theorizing the self-destruction or transformation of capitalism in a transition to a situation where social and political equality had a priority over economic relations.

The great achievement, and great problem, that liberal democracy in the hands of John Stuart Mill reached, was to somehow show that liberalism needed – of all things -- democracy. For Mill, liberalism needed democracy for two reasons, or in two senses: first, it needed democracy for ethical reasons. For a society to be truly liberal, i.e. for it to truly maximize the freedom of all individuals, meant, among other things, that at least the lower classes could not be denied political equality (or some approximation to it). But secondly, and somewhat more hidden, liberalism needed democracy in a pragmatic sense: it needed to avoid the total disaffection of the lower classes, i.e. of the vast majority. It was necessary, for the sake of survival, to grant them access to at least the vestibule of the corridors of power. Moreover, this would be a powerful way of enlisting their energies and, not least, of drawing them away from anti-capitalist, anti-liberal conservatives (who were at that time at least as dangerous as democrats and socialists).

So J.S. Mill’s political thought is a response to a number of different contenders, and is an attempt to both answer objections from and incorporate into liberalism features from a variety of positions hitherto hostile to liberalism.

Mill had to argue, to and against conservatives, that democracy was not only inherently a good thing, but was not essentially dangerous to social order and the rule of the better sort of individual – the morally excellent member of the wealthier and leisured classes. 2. He had to argue against anti-democratic or simply frightened liberals that democracy was necessary to the progress of liberalism, to the maximization of individual freedom, and was not dangerous to the basic conditions of capitalist development. 3. Against radicals and socialists he had to vie for the allegiance of the lower classes, not only by arguing that liberalism recognized the necessity for political reform in the direction of greater equality, but also by arguing for economic reforms that would substantially alleviate the misery and increase the dignity of those without or with little property.

This is quite a challenging situation, and given Mill’s starting point, it would be difficult to blame him personally for some of the failures and confusions of his theory. Yet Mill is not simply a liberal democrat, he is a liberal democratic of a certain sort, committed to a certain type of general philosophy. His theory is not based, like that of Hobbes or Locke, on the idea of certain inherent natural rights of the individual, but upon the doctrines of utilitarianism. The relation between Mill’s synthesis of liberalism and democracy is actually based upon his reform of earlier utilitarianism. So it is to utilitarianism and to Mill’s reform of it that we must first turn. Luckily the general theory of utilitarianism is fairly easy to state, and we need not go in much detail into how it was developed in the hands of Mill’s predecessors.

Utilitarianism is based upon the propositions

  1. that the only true criterion of what was good for any and every society is the greatest happiness of the greatest number;
  2. that happiness can be quantified (at least in rough terms; greater or lesser than…), and happiness is defined as the excess quantity of pleasure over pain (unhappiness would be the excess quantity of pain over pleasure)
  3. that in measuring the happiness of the whole society, each individual is to count for one, i.e. aggregate happiness was to be measured in units of happiness per individual.

Now, this last point especially is strongly egalitarian. What it means is that the aggregate happiness of the whole is not to be achieved at the expense of  the unhappiness of some of its members. Imagine a situation in which my happiness could increase by two units for each one unit of happiness I took away from you. According to Jeremy Bentham, the founder of British utilitarianism, that would violate the greatest happiness principle (principle 1., above, which we’ll call the G2N). In principle, no one’s happiness can be subordinated to anyone else’s; there are thus no “excuses” that certain classes were meant to serve others, etc…

So far, John Stuart Mill remains in agreement with earlier utilitarianism. Where he begins his reforms (at this level of general theory)  is in the idea that pleasures differed from each other not only in quantity, but also in quality. For early utilitarianism, not only did the pleasure of each individual count for one in the general calculation, every pleasure was as good as any other pleasure. There were no better or worse pleasures, no higher or lower pleasures, no highest good as Aristotle thought. If your quantity, x, of pleasure was mostly, or entirely, derived from filling your closet with clothes, or watching six hours of soap operas a day while swilling beer and chomping Dorritos – well, that was just as desirable a social goal as my equal quantity, x, of pleasure derived from discovering the basic laws of physics, or writing poetry (all other things being equal).

Now, another way of putting this – and it corresponds with long-standing liberal belief – is that the individual is necessarily the best judge of his or her own interests.

But John Stuart Mill disagrees. Happiness is not purely a matter of the quantitative accumulation of subjective units of pleasure and diminution of subjective units of pain, because some pleasures are qualitatively superior to other pleasures. Some pleasures contribute more to happiness in ways that cannot be quantified. There is an inegalitarian potential in this view that may not be immediately obvious. We will certainly come across it in Mill’s political theory proper. The early utilitarians used to repeat the “pushpin was as good as poetry” (“pushpin” was the early precursor of pinball games). But for John Stuart Mill, poetry is a better pleasure and will lead to a more genuine happiness. The most famous general formula for this position on a qualitative difference in pleasures is in Mill’s Utilitarianism, where he says “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion then it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

Now one of the important consequences of making a distinction between lower and higher pleasures is that, unlike the early utilitarians, J.S. Mill could no longer easily equate – nor did he wish to – the greatest happiness of the greatest number with the limitless maximization of material wealth. The higher quality pleasures had to do with something fundamental to human nature that earlier utilitarianism and earlier liberalism had ignored or denied. Therefore Mill, it turns out, had a different conception of human nature than what you would find in earlier utilitarianism or in the earlier liberalism of the natural rights variety. In On Liberty, for example, he describes human nature in the following terms: “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” Mill also quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt, the German humanist statesman and linguist: “the end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal or immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”

Earlier liberalism and utilitarianism saw human beings as inherently selfish maximizers of power and consumers of wealth. For J.S. Mill, on the other hand, the essential value of the species lay not in an ability to produce and consume more and more in an ever expanding cycle. Human beings were instead now seen as capable of infinite development on all sides, through the exertion of their innate individual capacities. So the first consequence of Mill’s reform of the utilitarian idea of happiness is to introduce an ambivalence toward the “economic” model of human nature associated with capitalism, as well as a critical attitude to the imperative of capitalist economies towards infinite expansion of the gross national product. A second consequence is that Mill can no longer easily assume that individuals are necessarily always the best judges of their own interests. To some extent, but not to a radical extent – as we will see when we come to look more closely at On Liberty – Mill is prepared to look behind what people say they want. When doing so, Mill begins to sound non-liberal. He begins to sound a bit like Plato, who is quite happy to have a more enlightened and wiser class in society determine the true needs of all its individuals.

Yet Mill does never really abandon the fundamental egalitarianism of earlier liberalism. Even though, at any given time, some people know better than the rest what is good for each and everybody, Mill will hold on to the belief that when people are educated to be competent judges of their own long-run self-interest, they will themselves come to understand the superior desirability of the higher pleasures. Thus Mill’s reform of utilitarianism is actually, or actually entails, a considerable modification of liberalism as well. And this modification of liberalism has a lot to do with historical factors. In particular, it has a lot to do with the visible results of capitalist industrialization and the related rise to political importance of the working class.

Next time, we’ll look at how his reform of utilitarianism combines with his perception of the historical context to give rise to the related notions of a “tyranny of the majority” and a developmental democracy.

Mill –Study Questions:

1. What is the basic thesis of On Liberty? What is the “subject of this essay”, as Mill puts it?

2. How does Mill define freedom?

4. Why does Mill care so much about freedom of thought and expression? Why is the cultivation of individuality important? What is at stake?

5. What are the qualities or capacities that define what Mill calls the “distinctive endowments” of human beings?

6. What is the difference between the lower and higher pleasures?

7. Do you think that Mill is really an elitist? Why or why not?

8. How does Mill propose to limit freedom? Does the rule he suggests really make sense?

10. What are the threats to freedom that Mill detects? Where do they come from?

11. How are liberalism and democracy in tension in Mill?

12.  Does Mill ever see beyond the priority of the individual? What is society for Mill?

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