Considerations on Representative Government (1861) Informative Summary

Overview:

This book explores the concept of representative government and examines its suitability for various societies and levels of civilization. Mill contends that representative government, where the people exercise power through elected representatives, is the ideal form of governance, as it best promotes individual well-being and national development. He argues against the misconception that a “good despot” could provide better government than a representative system, pointing out that such a system would stifle individual development and lead to a decline in national character.

Mill goes on to analyze the appropriate functions of representative bodies. He emphasizes that while they should hold the ultimate controlling power, they are not necessarily suited for direct administration or detailed legislation. He advocates for specialized bodies, such as a commission of legislation, to ensure well-crafted and well-considered laws. He also argues that the primary role of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government, holding it accountable to the people.

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Key Findings

  • Representative government is the ideal form of governance, promoting both individual well-being and national progress.
  • A “good despot” is a false ideal, as it would stifle individual growth and lead to national decline.
  • Representative bodies should not be directly involved in administration or detailed legislation.
  • Specialized bodies, such as a legislative commission, are better equipped to handle specific tasks like lawmaking.
  • The primary role of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government, holding it accountable to the people.

Facts:

  1. The British Crown can refuse its assent to any act of Parliament. This power is practically never used due to the unwritten maxims of the British Constitution.
  2. The British House of Commons is the real sovereign of the state, due to its power to appoint and dismiss the head of the administration. This reflects the real distribution of political power in the country.
  3. The French people are prone to place-hunting and have a strong desire to govern others, while lacking a strong desire for personal independence. This makes them more susceptible to corruption and over-government.
  4. The English people are less interested in governing others and are more concerned with personal liberty. This makes them more suitable for a representative system.
  5. The Athenian Democracy had a separate body of Nomothetæ, distinct from the Ecclesia, to handle the creation and amendment of laws. This illustrates the need for specialized bodies in lawmaking.
  6. The ancient Greek city-states were initially ruled by kings, who gave way to oligarchies. This shows that even in small communities, monarchy precedes representative government.
  7. Many peoples have progressed from a state of savage independence to civilization through warfare and despotic rule. This highlights the potential role of force in early stages of social development.
  8. French history, from Hugh Capet to Louis XIV, illustrates how a central authority can bring together various local entities and foster a sense of national unity. This shows how a strong monarchy can be a stepping stone to national development.
  9. The Jewish Prophets provided a check on the power of both kings and priests, keeping the nation from becoming stagnant. This highlights the role of religious dissent in promoting progress.
  10. The spread of moral convictions, not just material interests, has been instrumental in ending slavery in the British Empire and elsewhere. This emphasizes the importance of public opinion and moral values in shaping political change.
  11. The Egyptian hierarchy and the paternal despotism of China, while initially effective, ultimately hindered progress due to a lack of mental liberty and individuality. This highlights the dangers of overly centralized and rigid systems.
  12. The “evil eye” superstition is prominent in Oriental cultures, reflecting a high degree of envy. This points to a correlation between passivity and envy.
  13. Spaniards were known for their envy of their great men, often hindering their success. This further illustrates the link between passivity and envy.
  14. The French people, despite their impulsive temperament, have been heavily influenced by despotism and Catholicism, leading to a submissive and enduring character. This highlights the impact of institutions on national character.
  15. The “striving, go-ahead” character of England and the United States is commendable but needs to be directed towards more valuable ends than material wealth. This indicates that a self-helping spirit can be misdirected.
  16. Irresponsible rulers often prefer a quiescent populace, as their own power is threatened by active, self-governing citizens. This illustrates the inherent conflict between despotism and individual empowerment.
  17. The Athenian dicastery and ecclesia provided a unique form of public education for Athenian citizens, contributing to their intellectual and civic development. This shows how participation in government can educate citizens.
  18. The English jury system and the practice of serving parish offices offer a less extensive but still valuable form of public education for lower middle class Englishmen. This shows how even limited participation in government can have positive effects.
  19. The English government has a strong tradition of constitutional morality, which limits the use of lawful powers. This is a testament to the importance of unwritten norms and political culture.
  20. The British House of Commons has the practical power to appoint the head of administration, even though the Crown holds the formal power. This illustrates how real power can diverge from formal authority.

Statistics:

  1. 24 hours per day: This is all the time a king or any other individual has to give to governance, highlighting the challenges of overseeing a complex nation.
  2. 99: This is the number of people who have only interests compared to one who has a belief, emphasizing the power of convictions in shaping society.
  3. Three: This represents the number of co-ordinate members of the British sovereignty (the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons), emphasizing the complexity of a mixed government.
  4. One: This is the number of patriots a despotism is likely to have (the despot), underscoring the stunting effect of absolute rule on civic virtue.
  5. One: This is the number of members of a cabinet, suggesting that a legislative commission should not exceed this size for optimal efficiency.
  6. Five: This is the proposed term of office for members of the Legislative Commission, ensuring renewal and accountability.
  7. Five: This represents the number of years a Legislative Commission member would hold office unless removed on an address from Parliament, providing for a more stable but not static system.

Terms:

  1. Coup de main: A surprise attack or seizure of power, often used in military contexts or political maneuvers.
  2. Prestige: Respect, influence, and admiration commanded by a person or institution due to its position or achievements.
  3. Prima facie: At first appearance or at first glance, without further examination or investigation.
  4. Savant: A person who is highly knowledgeable in a specific area of study, particularly in science or the arts.
  5. Dilettante: A person who pursues a subject, art, or activity in an amateur or superficial manner, without serious study or commitment.
  6. Nomothetæ: In Athenian Democracy, a body of citizens responsible for creating and amending laws, distinct from the assembly that made decrees (psephisms).
  7. Ecclesia: The assembly of citizens in Athenian Democracy, responsible for debating and voting on political matters.
  8. Dicastery: In Athenian Democracy, a court of law composed of citizens, emphasizing citizen participation in the justice system.
  9. Psephism: A decree or resolution passed by the Athenian Ecclesia on specific matters, distinct from laws which were more permanent.
  10. Quis custodiet custodes? “Who will guard the guardians?” A Latin phrase referring to the problem of accountability for those in positions of power.

Examples:

  1. Colbert’s regulation of French manufactures: This example illustrates how a “good despot” can restrict individual agency and stifle economic growth.
  2. The Spanish treatment of their great men: This example illustrates how envy can hinder individual achievement and progress.
  3. The French Revolution: This example illustrates how a nation with a strong desire for power but lacking a deep commitment to individual liberty can succumb to despotism.
  4. The Athenian Democracy: This example showcases how participation in government can lead to intellectual and civic development.
  5. The British Parliament: This example illustrates how a constitutionally unlimited or practically preponderant authority in the chief ruler (the Crown) can be valuable for a nation with internal divisions, promoting gradual progress and eventually leading to a more inclusive system.
  6. The Jewish Prophets: This example demonstrates how religious dissent and moral critique can serve as a catalyst for societal progress.
  7. The Egyptian hierarchy and the Chinese paternal despotism: These examples highlight the dangers of rigid institutions that stifle intellectual and social development.
  8. The English jury system and the practice of serving parish offices: These examples showcase the positive effects of even limited citizen participation in government.
  9. Charlemagne and Peter the Great: These examples illustrate the potential of exceptional monarchs to effect substantial change.
  10. The British Constitution: This example emphasizes the importance of unwritten maxims and political morality in shaping the actual functioning of government.

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