The Transition from Monarchy to Democracy as Told by John Stuart Mill   Leave a comment

Mill’s narrative is reminiscent of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s point in ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’ that, though marred with many imperfections, a monarchy at least has the benefit of giving the populace a sense of ‘class-consciousness’. The monarch is forever unstable in his position and can only remain at the top by being relatively liberal and relatively restrained in his expropriations, otherwise the people will rise up and rebel. On the other hand, remove the monarch and replace him with a President and you have no class-consciousness; everybody can become Head of State one day, in theory, and so there is an illusion of “self-government” or “rule of the people, by the people, for the people”. In theory, of course, and not in practice, since only a plutocratic elite do in fact rise to the top even in the best of democracies. And yet, there are comparatively fewer rebellions and protestations against higher taxes and new laws in a democratic society than under an absolute or a constitutional monarchy for the simple reason that each citizen in a democracy will put up with higher taxes today if he thinks that tomorrow he can be in the receipt of higher welfare payments or a higher state pension or that he can vote one of his friends into office. Thus, in a democracy, privilege doesn’t disappear, but it is only masked or blurred by the substitution of the “will of the people” for the “Divine Right of Kings” as the legitimising ideology of the State. As Hoppe says, “privileged people” and “personal privilege” are replaced by “privileged functions” and “functional privileges”. Yet, the most important point of Hoppe’s – and the point he tends to labour, though that is no bad thing – is this: as democratic rulers are by their nature temporary caretakers of the machinery of the State, they will not take care of it. In fact, democracies have higher tax rates, higher expenditures, higher debts, and go to war more often than traditional monarchies did, for the simple reason that while a King has to “live with” the results of his actions, so to speak, for he “owns” the State, and can pass it down to his heirs and so has a long-term interest in the well-being of the country, a democratic ruler, conversely, does not. But, I digress. The below is a thousand word extract from John Stuart Mill’s introduction to his essay ‘On Liberty’. Shortly afterwards, Mill disappoints me by qualifying his liberalism again and again. Still, this passage makes some pithy points and is a must read for all starry-eyed democracy lovers out there.

“The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government. By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did no hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It was not so with the second; and to attain this, or when already in some degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny, they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.

A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism, in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates. Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the case of such governments as they do not think ought to exist, stand out as brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had continued unaltered….

…In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth’s surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.”

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Posted August 7, 2014 by keirmartland in History

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