• Olivia Earth

John Stuart Mill’s Liberal Democracy

The work of John Stuart Mill is recognised as one of the earliest discussions of the principles of social democratic politics, the welfare state, greater state intervention, and a move away from rigid adherence to laissez-faire economics. The author deals with this topic as it is insightful for the curious with regards to African democracy and democracy’s history.

This paper will discuss how the work of John Stuart Mill differs from previous liberal theorists, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, who espoused a more protective view of liberal democracy. This will be achieved by noting the differences between the two strands of liberal democracy, protective and developmental, which emerged between the 17th and 19th centuries. In short, it will discuss how Mill argues for the new and distinct qualities from the protective view of liberal democracy of other liberal theorists. All sources used are from credible journal articles and academic books.


The History of Liberal Development

The history of the ‘currently active’ liberal democracy emerged during the 15th and 16th centuries. During the 16th -19th century’s monarchies of absolutist and constitutional natures dominated the political arena. God underpinned the rule of law and divine rights were intertwined with the state. Tensions grew and the body politic started to rift from the church and questions regarding the boundary of church’s reach began circulating in the public realm. Eventually the state commenced with the expansion of sovereign power which led to the prolific Protestant Reformation in 1517. This act of revolution was followed by an era known as the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, where the state agreed not to use coercion to rally action but instead had to employ a certain extent of consensus as its hegemony had been eroded (Held, 2006:56).

This realisation of the limits of state power inspired the enlightenment period from 1650 until the early 19th century. Liberalism emerged to seek restrictions on the powers of both the church and the state, “Religion was not to be the opium of the masses, but a horizon, which the individual could choose” (Habermas, 1989:26). Liberalism brought the idea of checks and balances into place with an emphasis on a separation of powers and a strand of privatisation where property was protected by the state but owned by individuals. Moreover, the market economy created enough freedom for the public to pursue monetary endeavours without meddling by the state. Following these progressions the notion of ‘inalienable rights’ came into play however, at this time only for men, which states that an individual has innate rights that they are born with that cannot be taken away by the state and are divisible from the state (Held, 2006:12). The role of liberalism therefore inspired questions of state power, sovereignty and individual rights which, in turn, spear-headed the industrial revolution, from the 1760s to late 1800s. During this time, two distinct strands of liberal democracy materialised; protective liberalism and developmental liberalism (Held, 2006:5). John Stuart Mill, who will be discussed later in depth, had an intense focus on the individual and believes strongly in the development of this “individuality” (Urbinati, 1991:626). Furthermore, the “liberal individualism” that Mill promotes is criticised by Marxist and neo-conservative theorists. They incorrectly encourage a fragmentation of efficient bonds and substitute them with simply “self-interested economic and contractual ties” (Shanley, 1981:230).

Variations in Liberal Democracies

The meaning of ‘liberalism’ is controversial to express as its definition and use has shifted over the years. For the purposes of this paper, David Held’s (2006:59) definition will be used: liberalism indicates the attempt to defend the values of “freedom of choice, reason and tolerance in the face of tyranny, the absolutist system and religious intolerance”. In this view, liberalism pursues the restriction of powers of both the state and the church while delineating an exclusively private and independent sphere. Liberalism slowly started paving the way forward with becoming synonymous with the doctrine that the public must be able to pursue their own interests in the fields of religion, economics and politics (Held, 2006:59). The question dominating this field was: “how is the ‘sovereign state’ to be related to ‘sovereign people’ who were recognised as the legitimate source of the state’s powers?” The balance between “might and right” has been a quandary since the conception of this democratic theory (Held, 2006:59).

Protective liberalism looks at the accountability of institutions which enable the public to pursue their self-interest (Held, 2006:5). The accountableness of institutions is seen by protective liberalists to be the primary means of prevention from the ultimate authority by the state. This view is underpinned by the notion that citizens have need of protection from the state and their politicians. This theory has many key features which discuss representation through which the state’s functions are implemented. Being a democracy, it is therefore implicit that this theory sees regular, free and fair elections take place with a majority rule. This theory is also reinforced by a centrality of the constitution to warrant liberty from subjective conduct and equality before the law (Held, 2006:78). Consequently, this should lead to the creation of an autonomous citizenry and the private tenure of the means of production.

On the other hand, developmental liberalism places most of its emphasis on the requirement of an engaged civil society. This necessitates the citizenry to be informed on political matters. It differs from protective liberalism in that it has a limited coercion with the state which has the responsibility of providing security (Held, 2006: 92). For developmental theorists, the abovementioned participation is needed for the expansion of an educated and informed public as well as the standard protection of individual interests. This will ensure a significant growth in individual abilities. The features that dominate this theory discuss, similar to protective liberalism, a representative government with constitutional checks and balances which is achieved through a separation of state powers. However, it differs from protective democracy as it focuses on participation rather than protection in that it creates a system of nation-states with established inter-relations. Additionally, it emphases the emancipation and liberation of women in the work place though, it still exhibits an old-fashioned domestic division of labour (Held, 2006:92).

Liberal Theorists Preceding Mill

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 and John Locke (1632-1704) were the forerunners of the liberal tradition, however, their opinions still differed. Hobbes argued for a fascinating point of change between an obligation to absolutism and the “struggle of liberalism against tyranny” (Held, 2006:59). Locke, on the other hand, indicates the clear commencement of the liberal constitutionalist tradition. This tradition eventually came to be the prevailing notion seen in the international politics of the Europeans and Americans during the 18th century” (Held, 2006:59). Hobbes, who wrote the Leviathan, promulgated the need for a strong, protective state in order to ensure citizens’ safety. He lived in a post-civil war England and believed that human nature is motivated by self-interest which results in relentless conflict and struggle (Held, 2006:60).

Hobbes’ view marks the start of modern liberal concerns about the fine-line between the need to create freedom for the individual but enough power for the state to rule efficiently. Locke however disagrees with Hobbes that individuals can only find contentment if governed by an “indivisible authority” (Held, 2006: 62). Like, Hobbes, Locke was preoccupied by what shape legitimate government should take and about the requirements for public sanctuary. But Locke regarded this issue differently. He believed that each citizen is bounded by God and therefore lives in a world ruled by the laws of nature.

Thus, for Locke it follows that the creation of a tool of government does not automatically handover the rights of the people to the political domain. Consequently, the power remains in the hands of the people. The legislative wing of government endorses rules as the peoples’ mediator and the executive wing implements and upholds the legal system (Held, 2006:65). He does not discuss the judicial wing in this early conception of a separation of powers. In essence, Locke is split between the liberal elements of free and equal citizens who give consent and the illiberal elements of an all-powerful sovereign. Hobbes wanted to give sovereignty to a single strong protective state where Locke disagreed stating that such a move would undermine liberty. Both of these political theorists are therefore of the protectionist view.

After Locke came Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). Montesquieu, a political theorist and French philosopher, worked on Locke’s ideas and had a more advanced comprehension of how “necessary institutional innovations” are required for the accomplishment of a “reformed representative government” (Held, 2006:65). However, unlike Locke, Montesquieu asked the question about how public power should be arranged. He wrote prolifically about what Locke only touched on and became engrossed in theorising about how to ensure a representative government which would be able to reduce corruption by being devoted to the ideals of liberty. Montesquieu elaborated on Locke’s separation of powers and started discourse on the role of a judicial wing of government accompanying the executive and legislative wings (Held, 2006: 67). However, one of Montesquieu’s greatest political contributions lies in his hypothesis that a state must govern institutions that create space for individuals to be able to pursue their own interests and practice ambition. This he believed was possible by “institutionalising a separation of powers. But despite his impressive ideas, he was unable to defend his thesis sufficiently for the “protection of the sphere of private initiative” (Held, 2006:69). Thus, Montesquieu argued for a protectionist view of the state.

James Madison (1751-1836) explained some of Montesquieu, Hobbes and Locke’s political thoughts through articulate theory and strategy. Madison agreed with Locke that humans are self-interested and continued to agree with Locke that protecting individual freedom is of the utmost importance in creating legitimacy of the governors to the governed (Held, 2006:70). Madison also solidified the idea of the extent to which separation of powers is necessary in an efficient democracy and discussed the fact that the unequal distribution of property will remain the main source of “antagonism and factionalism” in the state (Held, 2006:72). Madison had concerns about politics that are based on factions and how to distinguish between the public good and private interests so he conceptualised the solution stimulated by Machiavellian republicanism. This emphasised the need to create political and institutional commitment to the citizenry and public sphere (Held, 2006:74), “our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties” (Madison, 1787:231).

Following this progression it can be said that Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836) were the first political theorists to truly tackle protective democracy in its intensified form. There had not yet been a connection between protection for all from subjective events. Thus, Bentham and Mill focused on the accountability of governors monitored through strict political instruments. They both wrote in a time of reform using secular arguments stating that the state is, and should be, far removed from the church. Both theorists decidedly rejected the notions of natural right and social contract as misleading (Held, 2006:75). And so, Bentham and Mill worked on a theory of human nature that says that humans act in order to satisfy their desires and to avoid, at all costs, pain – this idea is the forerunner to the concept of utilitarianism. In this way, the theory demands that citizens participate directly and be accountable to an electorate to ensure that the abuse of power does not occur. Bentham and Mill state, “those who govern will naturally act in the same way as the governed” (Held, 2006:75).

Bentham and Mill are protective democrats which is seen through their liberal democracy which holds governors accountable to the governed. As discussed above, rulers are able to overstep their boundaries and abuse power, because power corrupts, which is why Bentham and Mill argue for such a protective state. The beginning of utilitarianism challenges the centralisation of power in the state which is avoided by curtailing the state’s reach. These ideas led to a new conception of state politics known as ‘selective intervention’. The state, in 19th century English liberalism, acted as an umpire for enforcing the rules of the state but did not get involved in state affairs unless the rule of law was broken, this saw the growth of the prison system. In other words, this view of liberalism could be seen as a competitive exchange between citizens with minimal interference by the state (Held, 2006:76). In essence, the enactment of new laws was to defend the principle of utility as the government had four main aims to uphold: enabling subsistence to the workers through their protection, production of goods in copious amounts (by removing interstate trade barriers), protection and upliftment of the welfare state by supporting equality’, and maintaining the security of individual goods which gives the public an incentive to work as they can protect their goods (Held, 2006:76). These changes and new goals of the government created the space in which large industrial democracies could flourish.

Lastly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), another protectionist theorist, studied democracy in America but specifically, the prison systems. De Tocqueville was a French philosopher who enlightened the “enfranchisement and extension” of democracy which corrected social conditions (Held, 2006:85). He believed that the state was the centre from which all conflict originated due to the threat of a majority rule. Tocqueville was of the impression that traditionalism and rationalism should be scrutinised due to his belief in man’s free will. He states that people lose their “will” to choose if they do not think that their vote makes a difference or to support the idea of rights or legal institutions which are in fact created to uphold liberty. “Liberty requires a metaphysical foundation” (Ceaser, 1985:666), that which is not supported by rationalism.

Tocqueville was prepared to expense with the idea of sophistication of a society to a certain extent of “coarseness” as a fee for protecting citizens from the theorists who sought to control the citizen’s lives and means of living liberally (Ceaser, 1985:665). Moreover, Tocqueville considered that freedom of association might “after having agitated society for some time…strengthen the state in the end”. This would occur due to the enhancement of the political system’s legitimacy through “accountability, responsiveness, inclusiveness [and] effectiveness”. Eventually, this would ameliorate the capacity of the state to rule and, “to command voluntary obedience from its citizens” (Diamond, 1994:11).

John Stuart Mill’s political theory

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) transcended the ideals of a protectionist democracy and established a new and distinct theory which has been dubbed ‘developmental democracy’. He was writing at a time, similar to the abovementioned theorists, of incredible reorganisation of the monarchy’s place in the political system and the drafting of a constitutional order. Mill’s goal was to defend the idealistic notion of political life made clear by “enhanced individual liberty, more accountable government and an efficient governmental administration unhindered by corrupt practices and excessively complex regulations” (Held, 2006:80). Additionally, Mill offers tactical advantages during the discussion of aristocratic liberalism (Kahan, 1992:4). However, it is important to note that Mill states that we cannot progress ethically and morally in society without the institution of democracy.

Mill’s unique approach to liberal theory is best observed in his writings of On Liberty, Considerations of Representative Government (1859). He is perhaps the most influential theorist in shaping liberal democracy and explores things such as the “nature and limits of power legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill, 1895:6). Mill believed that the government should only interfere with regards to preventing harm, known as the ‘Harm Principle’. This principle states that the state may “coerce a person only if it can thereby prevent harm to others” (Holtug, 2002:358). This view of governmental intervention aided in the creation of what we consider today to be constitutional givens for example, the liberty of association, publication and speech. And so, an immense tension of liberal theory is the balance between state intervention and the states implicit obligation to help people achieve freedom. In other words, to what extent should the governors be involved in facilitating equal opportunities for the citizenry? This idea of tension is nicely summed up by Mill himself (1895:106): “A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development”. He continues that the trouble begins when, “instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies”, the governors replaces its own doings for the individuals. The government should be “informing, advising, and, upon occasion, denouncing” but instead, it forces these individuals to work in shackles for the government itself.

Mill then sets out his ideal state. He believes there must be a clear distinction between democracy and the bureaucracy which he intended to rectify the tension between. There cannot be parliamentarians writing up the laws if they lack the expertise. In order to be successful, skilled administrators must be employed into specific occupations. Mill focuses much of his attention on his concerns of despotic power in a swollen state (Held, 2006:81). However, his solution is simple; employ a representative system in which people can exercise their own thoughts (freedom of speech) and vote accordingly. In this way parliament is simply a referee and competition is maintained through elections. There could be potential issues here if the government does not uphold its validity with the people. Mill introduces some controversial ideas here and states that although all adults should vote, the votes of the wisest and most talented should be weighted with higher importance and count for more (Held, 2006:86).

Mill moves on from the protectionist ideals and towards a new developmental dialogue. Developmental democracy for Mill stresses the fundamental principles of political participation for the “development of citizens as human beings” (Keating, 2004:418). He states that protection for citizens against the tyranny of the governors is simply not enough to ensure liberalism. Mills developmental approach to liberalism works in a circular way, development can be indorsed through the implementation of a free market economy encouraged by the government, which in turn creates an environment through which development can be worked on (White, 1995:27). However, there also needs to be protection against the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” and protection from the propensity of human culture to enact its very own philosophies and practices on those who disagree with their ideas (Mill, 1895:9). Mill maintains his notions of weighted voting and it can be observed that these ideas may have stemmed from his fixation on class in society. Mill believed that the voting system should be weighted in case the unemployed, who are most likely to be the least educated, should not be allowed to outvote the privileged who are expectedly more educated and have formulated better theories of the state and so make more informed votes. Mill justifies his sentiments by saying that without this system in place there may be a reaction against liberty by the working class and unemployed. He uses another controversial and undemocratic idea of “intellectual justification” (Held, 2006:85).

Mill also cautioned against two distinctive threats; that of despotic power and that of infringement on liberty by state. The latter discusses, in depth, the swelling of the state which could, in essence, become too big and lead to a swollen bureaucratic state. Mill’s solution to this problem is to have a representative and restricted government (Mill, 1787:83). Thus, Mill argued for laissez-faire economic principles and a continuous expansion of the state. This would allow the broadening of functions like education, health care and the economy as to curb citizens becoming too dependent on governmental resources.

According to Mill, the representative government will ensure that accountability and professionalism are upheld and that the bureaucracy is well balanced as democracy and the bureaucracy have a mutual relationship of dependence. And from this stand point, Mill starts to streamline his ideal of how much action the state may have. He says that the state should simply prevent harm, create and maintain a free market economy and ensure freedom for its people due to the “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers” (Mill, 1895:6). Mill eventually comes to a conclusion which he believes limits the coercive power of the state to the “lowest possible extent” (Held, 2006:88).  This conclusion can be called the “dynamic, harmonious equilibrium” of democracy due to its attention on self-development for the citizen and equal and competitive institutions (Held, 2006:88). Representation is therefore an important example of a microcosm of the bigger systems in which it is entrenched. Representation thus reflects the difference between the elite and the rest of the citizenry in a greater sense of the political sphere (Krouse, 1982:511).

Mill’s developmental liberalism holds humanity and its values in high esteem and states that during the process of developing ones individuality, “each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others” (Mill, 1895:59). Not only is the development of individuality important to Mill but also “independence and self-cultivation” (Claeys, 1987:123). Mill’s conceptions of wellbeing states that one of its essential characteristics is the development of individuality in terms of both education and culture, he continues that “there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued”, if this were the case, and that, “the adjustment of the boundaries between liberty and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty (Mill, 1895:53).


It is therefore clearly noted that the work of John Stuart Mill has been prolific in terms of defining liberal democracy today. His ideas and new conceptions of the state differed from his predecessors who focused their attention on the protection of the citizenry through participation and limited government intervention. Mill’s work leaves a legacy of developmental democracy which discusses the importance of a representative government between the 17th and 19th centuries and attempts to rectify the mistakes of liberal theorists in the past.

Reference List

Ceaser, J. 1985. Alexis de Tocqueville on Political Science, Political Culture, and the Role of the Intellectual. The American Political Science Review, 79(3): 656-672.

Claeys, G. 1987. Justice, Independence, and Industrial Democracy: The Development of John Stuart Mill’s Views on Socialism. The Journal of Politics, 49(1):122-147.

Diamond, L.J. 1994. Toward Democratic Consolidation. Journal of Democracy, 5(3): 4-17.

Habermas, J. 1989. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 16(1):26-28.

Held, D. 2006. Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press. Holtug, N. 2002. The Harm Principal. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 5(4):357-389. Kahan, A.S. 1992. Aristocratic liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Keating, C. 2004. Developmental Democracy and its Inclusions: Globalization and the Transformation of Participation. The University of Chicago Press, 22(2):417-437.

Krouse, R.W. 1982. Representation: James and John Stuart Mill. The Journal of Politics, 44(2):509-553.

Madison, J. 1787. The Federalist Papers No. 10. New York: New American Library. Mill, J.S. 1895. On Liberty, Considerations of representative government. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books Limited. Shanley, M.L. 1981. Marital Slavery and Friendship: John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. Political Theory, 9(2):229-247. Urbinati, N. 1991. John Stuart Mill on Androgyny and Ideal Marriage. Political Theory, 19(4):626-648. White, G. 1995. ‘In Third World conditions, Western-style democracy is as much use as a three-piece suit in the desert’. Democratization, 26(2): 27-36.

Cover image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDAnwrhGi8E

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