Views of John Stuart Mill on Representative Government–Essay

Mill began his discussion of this subject by introducing Bentham’s concept of sinister interests. How does representative government ensure that the common interest of society is being furthered instead of the partial and sinister interest of some group or class? Even though Mill distinguished between short term and long term interests, he was certain that every individual and every class is the best judge of its own interests. He scoffed at the idea that some human beings may not be aware of their ‘real’ interests, retorting that given these persons’ current habits and dispositions, what they choose are their real interests.

It follows then that participation in the political process must be as extensive as possible, so that every individual has a say in controlling the government and thus protecting his interests. It is on this basis that Mill demanded the right to vote for women. He advocated the extension of the suffrage to cover everyone except those who could not read and write, did not pay taxes.

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It was this same impetus for wanting everyone to be represented that made Mill support Hare’s system of proportional representation for electing deputies to Parliament. Under the current system Mill pointed out, minorities went unrepresented, and since they too needed to protect their interests, another electoral mechanism should be found to ensure their representation. Whereas his belief in participation led him to advocate a widening of the franchise, his belief in competence led him to recommend plural voting.

In fact, he said that the franchise should not be widened without plural voting being introduced. Plural voting meant that with everyone – having at least one vote, some individuals would have more than one vote because they were, for example, more educated.

It assumed a graduated scale of educational attainments, awarding at the bottom, one additional vote to a skilled labourer and two to a foreman, and at the top, as many as five to professional men, writers and artists, public functionaries, university graduates and members of learned societies. Plural voting would ensure that a better calibre of deputies would be elected, and so the general interest would not be hampered by the poor quality of members of Parliament.

Mill sought to combine his two principles in other institutions of representative democracy as well. Take the representative assembly, for instance. Mill said that this body must be a committee of grievances and ‘a congress of opinions’. Every opinion existing in the nation should find a voice here; that is how every group’s interests have a better chance of being protected.

At the same time, Mill argued that this body was suited neither for the business of legislation nor of administration. Legislation was to be framed by a Codification Commission made up of a few competent legal experts. Administration should be in the hands of the bureaucracy, an institution characterised by instrumental competence, that is, the ability to find the most efficient means to fulfill given goals.

Mill’s arguments employed two kinds of competence instrumental and moral. Instrumental competence is the ability to discover the best means to certain ends and the ability to identify ends that satisfy individuals’ interests as they perceive them. Moral competence is the ability to discern ends that are intrinsically superior for individuals and society.

Morally competent leaders are able to recognise the general interest and resist the sinister interests that dwell not only in the government but also in the democratic majority. The purpose of plural voting is to ensure that morally competent leaders get elected to the legislature.

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