You know, when I look in some of those classic John Stuart Mill essays, I find a lot that’s valuable for the current era. And I also find a lot that’s racist and imperialist. It’s the mid-19th century in England – What else could I expect?
But some of the truly intriguing moments in these texts comes when they discuss an idea so outlandish, yet so strangely logical, that its utter barminess is fascinating.
Mill’s talking about a society about as complex as mid-19th century Britain. New infrastructure is being developed, new technologies integrated into existing infrastructure. The social and economic networks and relationships of society are fluctuating constantly.
For him, this is a world that needs keen scientific minds and powerful research institutions to understand it adequately. And I don’t have to tell you that, if the intelligence of the average MP is a reflection of their public statements, we aren’t necessarily dealing with the world’s most swift bunch of thinkers.
And I say this as not only a democrat, but as a member of one of Canada’s major nationwide political parties. I don’t just vote in the elections of these idiots – I help find these idiots, campaign for these idiots, and work with these idiots in intense political discussions about the future of our country. These idiots are my colleagues and friends.
One day, they might even talk me into becoming one of these idiots. I’d have to be an idiot to run for office myself.
Only expertise – technocrats, essentially – can run the government well. So you might ask why you even need a parliament or representative institutions at all?
The primary role of parliament in governance, as Mill spells it out in his Representative Government essay, is to criticize the technocrats who actually run the government on behalf of the people. Setting broad priorities, making sure everyone does their jobs well.
It’s part of the theatrical function of parliaments too. Their debates and arguments articulate the ideological divisions of the wider population. Parliamentarians play those arguments out in a straightforward way – actually arguing face to face with each other. It stands in for* the genuinely messy, potentially much more violent ideological collisions in the chaos of daily life in wider society.
* And maybe sublimates if you want to risk getting a little creepy about it.
A philosophical argument among parties in a parliament works its society through that conflict of ideas without anyone having to get shot over it. Providing anyone listens, of course.
Yet it seems remarkable to me that democracy and freedom would be such a foundational value for the originator of the modern liberal tradition, and he denigrates the real power of ordinary people to govern their society effectively. The two would make a contradiction.
I always find it curious when I see a moment in a great liberal democratic political philosopher that expresses such little faith in actual people.