John Stuart Mill’s On Representative Government was one of the first prominent appearances of an argument for proportional representation. Mill was much concerned with the “tyranny of the majority”, and this is just one of the issues he feels proportional representation would be able to combat, along with the representation of minorities, and greater participation within the polity.
This essay will analyse more closely Mill’s arguments for representative government, and why he feels proportionality to be of such importance. It will compare his arguments with those of Madison, who also feared majority tyranny, but perhaps would provide a different solution than that which Mill provides. Thus, this essay will use James Madison’s essay Federalist No.10 to compare with the arguments of Mill’s On Representative Government.
In Mill’s third chapter of On Representative Government, he outlines his argument for representative government. Firstly, Mill provides a strong rebuttal against the idea of a despotic ruler, or a “leviathan” as Hobbes would write (Hobbes, 2008). For Mill, the possibility of a “good despot” is highly unlikely, due to the fact this one individual must be in charge of a vast plane of people and land, know all the goings-on of his state, and have the ability to choose the best men out of the millions in his land to serve their government (Mill, 1977).
However, Mill places a greater moral and intellectual case against the despot; in submitting to an all-powerful, all-controlling despot, the citizen’s “moral capacities are equally stunted”, along with their rational abilities (Mill, 1977, p. 400). In this sense Mill breaks from the utilitarian view provided by Bentham. Bentham’s theory was based on what actions create the greatest happiness, and limit the pains (Bentham, 2008). Mill saw Bentham’s theory as too simplistic, and instead provided a more qualitative perspective to his theory, by including the concept of man’s “higher faculties”, such as moral and intellectual capacities.
Thus, Mill sees the despot as being detrimental to these higher faculties, resulting in a “dumbing-down” of society – an idea he maintains across his texts, particularly in On Liberty (Mill, 2008). Therefore, Mill believes involvement in the political system to be of benefit to the health of man’s higher faculties, as shown below.
Mill argues political participation allows for greater education; an idea that echoes somewhat of Rousseau’s participatory democracy in the Social Contract (Pateman, 1970). For Mill, this education must begin at local level, before one participates in national politics (Mill, 1977). However, unlike Rousseau, Mill does not see democracy as being fully participatory. Rousseau wrote his Social Contract from the perspective of a Genevan: at the time a city-state like the ancient democracies of Greece, Geneva was one of the democracies in which it was possible for the populace to become involved in each of the political issues raised in the city.
However, Mill’s critique of Rousseau stems from the size to which democracies in the 19th century had reached, and so Mill believes representative government, with a high amount of participation, to be of most practical benefit to the democracy, but also to the citizenry (Mill, 1977). In such a system, sovereignty would remain vested in the people, not a despot, and the citizen would be called upon “occasionally” to allow his voice to be heard in the government.
These opportunities would allow for Bentham’s ideas of utilitarianism to be actualised, whereby the citizen can pursue his pleasures, but also minimise his pains by raising his voice against infringements on his rights and liberties (Bentham, 2008; Mill, 1977). Therefore, we conclude that Mill agrees with Rousseau in that participation has a moral and intellectual benefit to the individual, and allows for the defence of his rights and liberties, but realises the problems that arise with direct – or participatory – democracy in the larger states of the 19th century in which Mill was writing.
The second question Mill raises is how to best allow the voices of each section of a society to be heard, and so guard against a tyranny of the majority. “Tyranny of the majority” is a term most closely associated with Mill, but which has strong ties to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – a book which Mill praised highly.
De Tocqueville noted in his writings of the power exercised by the majority in America, and how the American system of government actually allowed the majority to thrive: the majority were able to decide who was put in power, at legislative and executive level; the majority set the agenda on how politicians acted, for the latter would be moved to appeal to the majority so as to be re-elected; and the majority had greater say over the definitions of right and wrong over the individual (de Tocqueville, 2010).
In chapter seven of On Representative Government, Mill makes clear his concern over majority tyranny, raising two possible forms of democracy: representation of the whole people by the whole people, in equal terms; or the representation of the whole people by a majority of the people, in unequal and potentially tyrannical terms (Mill, 1977).
Therefore, Mill believed a truly equal democracy to be one of proportional representation, whereby each minority would have the amount of representation owed to it in government as it makes of society. For instance, 50.8% of women make up the population of the USA, and so Mill would argue this should be reflected in the representatives in the assembly.
These requirements would change throughout time, with Mill arguing those interests which are most important should be represented, thus placing time, place and circumstantial conditions on what opinions are represented. For instance, in discussions on the rights of ethnic minorities (such as at the time of the Civil Rights Movement), it is important for those minorities to be more greatly represented at that time. Mill, however, remains somewhat ambiguous as to the actual individuals who would be elected: could a white middle-class representative, who stands for the rights and represents the voice of the black working-class minority, be considered a proper representative of that group? Or does Mill take for granted that each minority will ultimately select a candidate that completely reflects itself: women elect women, hispanics elect hispanics, Muslims elect Muslims, and so forth?
Perhaps not. Mill instead makes it plain that representatives should be of a certain intellectual standing, and be of a sufficient temperament and wisdom to perform as effective representatives (Pateman, 1970). Thus, Mill leaves readers in the dark: how can lower-class citizens – who traditionally have lower levels of education – be able to elect a low-class representative, if they fail to meet the educational requirements Mill places on a representative? Thus, perhaps it is to the likes of Dahl one must approach for an answer, as his theory of polyarchy allows for representatives to be representative of a collected group of interests; for instance, the election of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom may be seen as a victory for small businesses, upper classes, “eurosceptics”, and lower taxes (Pateman, 1970).
Nevertheless, the critical element within Mill’s argument is for a system of election in which each group has equally weighted votes, wherein they receive an amount of representation within the parliament which is proportional to their population in the state.
Countries such as Scotland, the Netherlands, and Northern Ireland use different versions of proportional representation in their regional elections. In the Netherlands, elections for the lower house use the “Hare Quota”, which Mill advocates, and the results are evidence of great proportionality; in the 2012 Dutch elections, the victorious People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy achieved 26.6% of the vote, whilst receiving 27.3% of the seats in the House of Representatives. Therefore, one might see how proportional representation can be successful in modern democracy. Furthermore, the existence of party politics may also answer the ambiguity left by Mill in his argument for who represents a minority; instead of a candidate representation a set of interests, perhaps it is a party who do so. However, Mill remains unclear in this.
Finally, this essay will now analyse Mill’s proportional representation with use of Madison’s theory of factions in the Federalist Papers. Madison believes that there is a serious risk of majority tyranny within a republic, or what he terms “majority faction” (Madison, 2008). Because of this, Madison sees a relative degree of proportionality in the number of representatives to the number of constituents as an important factor: too few, and the voices of a few will dominate; too great, and therein resides confusion (Madison, 2008). In terms of what opinions are represented, though, Madison is arguably on the same page as Mill.
For Madison, factions are inevitable – although Madison would prefer factions to not exist at all (Shapiro, 2011) – and so to attempt to destroy factions would be an infringement on the freedom’s of the citizens; however, to stand by and do nothing would result in one faction becoming dominant, and also trampling upon individual liberties (Madison, 2008). Thus, what must be done is increase the number of factions, to the point at which they cross over one another, and the risk of one faction dominating the rest is reduced. Therefore, those who are sometimes in the majority faction on one question will be less inclined to oppress a minority faction, as it is possible that at some point that member of society may be within that minority (Shapiro, 2011).
Therefore, in his pluralist idea of democracy, Madison would agree with Mill in that the voices of the minority would be heard within Mill’s representative government. With more voices in the society, voicing more opinions and interests, there is less possibility of a majority faction emerging. However, it would be a condition of Madison that the democracy within which Mill prescribes be an extensive one, so as to avoid the oppression caused by a concentrated state. Furthermore, Madison would argue these voices must be mediated. Whereas Mill would argue for a “delegate” style of representation, Madison instead believes in the “trustee” model, whereby the representatives would mediate the voices of the populace, so as to avoid exacerbated conflict between factions (Madison, 2008). The difference, thus, lies more in whether there is to be a democratic society, or a democratic government: Madison would prefer a heterogeneous society, but trustee government; Mill would argue in favour of both, with representatives in the government representing the diverse views in the society.
In conclusion, this essay has provided an explanation of Mill’s key concepts of representative government, and why he believes it to be the “best” form of government. Furthermore, it has established Mill’s view of proportional representation as a means of guarding against the tyranny of the majority, which has been feared in works by de Tocqueville, and John Adams. Finally, it has compared this concept of proportional representation with Madison’s view of cross-cutting cleavages in a pluralist society, in which the risk of majority faction is reduced by the increased number of voices in the assembly. It argues Madison would be in favour of Mill’s proposal, but would make minimum and maximum limitations in the proportionality of representation of representatives to citizens, and would prefer a trustee model of representation over a delegate one.
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