James Mill (1773–1836) was born in Scotland, educated for the Presbyterian ministry, lost his faith, moved to London, and became an eminent political theorist, psychologist, educationist, economist, historian, and legal, political, and penal reformer. Influential and controversial in his lifetime, Mill is now all but forgotten. He is today remembered mainly as the dour and demanding father and teacher of his more famous son, John Stuart Mill, and as Jeremy Bentham's ally and collaborator on projects of penal and political reform. The younger Mill went on to become an eminent theorist of liberty. Bentham was a wealthy and eccentric genius who was the preeminent theorist of utilitarianism.
Mill's range of interests was remarkably wide, extending from education and psychology in his two-volume Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829), to political economy in Elements of Political Economy (1826), to penology and prison reform, to the law and history, and, not least, to political theory. During his lifetime, he was best known as the author of History of British India, which appeared in six large volumes in 1817. His History was something of a sensation and secured for Mill and his large family a measure of financial independence that had previously been sorely lacking.
Mill's modern reputation as a political theorist rests almost entirely on a single essay. In Government (1820), Mill maintains that government is neither more nor less than a means to an end, namely, the happiness of the whole community and of the individuals composing it. Mill's brief essay takes the form of a clipped, concise, logically deductive argument. That argument begins with the assumption that every human being is motivated exclusively by self-interest, and in particular by a single overriding interest—the desire to experience pleasure and to avoid pain (this is the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism). Pleasures and pains come either from nature or from our fellow human beings. Government is concerned directly with the second and indirectly with the first: “Its business is to increase to the utmost the pleasures, and diminish to the utmost the pains, which men derive from one another” (Mill 1991, 4). Yet “the primary cause of government” is to be found in nature itself since humans must wrest from nature “the scanty materials of happiness.” Nature and human nature combine to make government necessary. It is human nature not only to desire happiness but also to invest as little effort as possible in satisfying that desire. Labor being the means of obtaining happiness, and our own labor being painful to us, we will, if not prevented, live off the labor of others. To the degree that others enjoy the fruits of my labor, my primary incentive for working—namely my own happiness—is diminished if not destroyed.
Therefore, Mill continues, the primary problem in designing political institutions is to maximize the happiness of the community by minimizing the extent to which some of its members may encroach on, and enjoy, the fruits of other people's labor. This cannot happen, Mill maintains, in a monarchy (in which a single ruler exploits his subjects) or in an aristocracy (in which a ruling elite exploits everybody else). Nor can communal happiness be maximized in a direct democracy since the time and effort required for governing would be subtracted from that available for engaging in productive labor. The only system that serves as a means to the end of individual and communal happiness is representative democracy, in which citizens elect representatives to deliberate and legislate on their behalf and in their interest. The question quickly arises, however, as to how representatives can be made to rule on the people's behalf rather than on their own. Mill's answer is that frequent elections and short terms in office make it unlikely that elected representatives will legislate only for their own benefit. After all, representatives are drawn from the ranks of the people to which they can, after their term in office ends, expect to return. Given what we might nowadays call the incentive structure of representative government, representatives have every reason to promote the people's interests instead of their own. Indeed, in a properly structured system, there will be an “identity of interests” between representatives and their constituents.
There are marked methodological affinities between Mill's deductive approach to political theorizing and modern rational choice theory. Both begin by assuming that human beings are by nature self-interested and that most if not all political behavior can be explained as attempts by political actors to promote their own interests.
See also Bentham, Jeremy; Democratic Theory; Economics and Political Thought; Mill, John Stuart; Liberalism; Liberty, Theories of; Nineteenth-Century Political Thought; Scottish Enlightenment; Utilitarianism
Born the son of a shoemaker in the Scottish village of Forfar, Mill was a boarder at Montrose Academy before being sent by...
After attending the Montrose Academy, Mill distinguished himself as a Greek scholar at Edinburgh University. Although...
In the course of a busy journalistic career he met Bentham (1808), whose enthusiastic disciple he became. Mill's History of...