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J.S. Mill, Individual, Democracy and Proportional Representation


J.S. Mill, Individual, Democracy  and  Proportional Representation

With the rise of the concepts of individualism and utilitarianism in Europe, the concepts of individual rights and liberty also became prominent. The political thinkers like Bentham and J.S. Mill played dominant roles in defining the roles, responsibilities and liberty of individual in relation to the society. Both were great English philosophers and political thinkers of 19th century whose works on liberty justified freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control.

They both were the exponents of utilitarianism, but there were marked difference between the basic ideas of both the thinkers. The basic differences in their ideologies are in the ethical, psychological and sociological aspects of the theory of utilitarianism. The discussion in this article is regarding the concepts of J.S. Mill related to individual liberty, Representative government and Proportional Representation.

Mill lived at a time when the policy of 'laissez faire' was being abandoned in favor of greater regulation by the state of the actions of the individual. Besides, due to the growth of democracy, the individual was getting lost in the society.

To Mill, this increasing regulation and elimination of the individual was a wrong and harmful development. He believed that the progress of society depended largely on the originality and energy of the individual.

He, therefore, was a great advocate of individualism i.e. of the supreme necessity and importance of the individual developing in his own lines, as far as possible, to the supreme perfection of his personality, for his own good and that of the society.

Mill believed that an individual had two aspects to his life i.e. (1) the individual aspect which concerned him alone, and (2) the social, because every individual was also an integral part of society. The actions of the individual may similarly be divided into two categories i.e. (1) self regarding, and (2) others regarding.

With regard to actions in which he alone is concerned, his liberty of action is complete and should not be regulated by the state. However, in actions of the individual, which affect the society, his actions can justifiably be regulated by the state or society.

The sole end for which mankinds are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Mill seemed to overemphasis the liberty of the individual and did not favor sanctions from the government regarding individual liberties.

As Mill is in the favor of individual liberty in the same way he believes democracy to be the best form of government. He insists that democracy is the best form of government though it does not suit all peoples.

It is best because, due to innate selfishness, each individual is the best judge and defender of his own interests and should have a right of participation in government. Development of character depends on exercise of character through participation in civic duties such as service on juries and casting of votes.

Democracy can not mend public affairs without amending the public i.e. raising the moral tone of the people. Mill holds that the best government is not that which is the most efficient but that which best promotes the virtue and intelligence of the people i.e. one which best promotes the moral and intellectual qualities of the people.

General prosperity depends on the amount and variety of personal energies enlisted in promoting it. This is best done through the association of the people in public affairs. Therefore, to Mill there is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, with every individual having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty.

But at the same time, Mill was very alive to the dangers and weaknesses of democracy. He feared democratic despotism as something worse than monarchial despotism. Extreme democracy would kill individuality.

Democracy generally means that rule of the majority and the tyranny of the majority practiced over the minorities. It leads to sectional legislation and promotion of class interests. Representative democracy, though generally better than other forms of government, suffers from two dangers i.e. (1) general ignorance and incapacity in the controlling body in the state and in the average member in the parliament and (2) the danger of the democratic machinery being in the controlling hands of a section of population whose interests are not identical with the general welfare of the whole community.

Representative democracy gives undue prominences and power to sheer numerical majority. It tends towards collective mediocrity. It leads to under representation of the minorities in the parliament and therefore suppression of their interests.

Ordinarily, in a representative democracy, the majority party succeeds in securing a larger number of seats in the parliament than its proportionate number of votes would justify. As a rule, minorities suffer from under representation in the parliament.

To guard against this injustice to minorities and to make sure that majorities and minorities get their due share of representation in the parliament, Mill supported the system of proportional representation which he regarded as necessary for representative democracy.

Moreover, though he supported universal suffrage, he gave the idea of weighted suffrage i.e. plural votes to higher educated citizens. This would give proportionate weight to men of superior intelligence and in order to prevent the rich higher educated men practicing class legislation, he was in favor of the poor getting plural votes by proving their superior intelligence by voluntary examinations. Thus, Mill's weighted suffrage suggests that he was not in favor of political equality but was for intellectual aristocracy.

Though Mill's ideas regarding individual, democracy, representative government and proportional representation are not perfect and contain evident shortcomings, yet they have potential to guide political systems towards better form of government, and that's what they did in the history of political development that followed in Europe.

The juvenile democracies like that of Afghanistan can also benefit, albeit with certain amendments, from the concepts of individual liberty and proportionate representative of J.S. Mill to guarantee better governance for its people and proper representation to different ethnic groups in the country.

Dilawar Sherzai is the permanent writer of the Daily outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at outlookafghanistan@gmail.com

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