John Stuart Mill, Sophiarchist

by Benjamin Studebaker

John Stuart Mill is one of the most lauded philosophers of the 19th century. He is most frequently praised for his magnum opus, On Liberty, in which he makes the case for free speech, free expression, individuality, and puts forth his famous harm principle, in which he states that the coercive power of the state should only be used to limit liberty when that liberty harms society, not merely when it harms the person indulging. He also receives much praise for his Utilitarianism, in which he defends Bentham’s ethical principle of utility. However, there is one thing that is somewhat less commonly known about Mill–he was a sophiarchist.

Mill’s sophiarchy was somewhat different from one the one I propose–while I have proposed a system whereby the suffrage is restricted to a politically educated subgroup which selects an executive who rules with a team of ministers for a term checked by a policy-restricting social contract enforced by judicial review, Mill proposes a simpler form of implementation–give the politically educated more votes than everyone else. This is referred to as “plural voting”, and Mill justified it on the grounds that it would improve the utility of the outcomes produced by the state and compensate for the relative smallness of the size of the politically educated population relative to the total. While Mill’s structure is different from mine, the objective is the same–improve the quality of political decision making by concentrating power in the hands of those best suited to wield it.

This proposal of Mill’s never really gained traction because it is anti-egalitarian and contravenes what are perceived to be the ideal democratic procedures–one person, one vote. The question raised, however, is why? Why is Mill’s proposal so readily rejected? What’s wrong with it? Here are the two most common counterarguments:

  1. Proceduralism: Mill’s system violates the fair democratic procedure.
  2. Demographic Objection: It is thinkable that perhaps being more educated is a net negative.

I will consider these objections to Mill in turn.

Proceduralism:

Proceduralism is the idea that we do not concern ourselves with the quality of the outcome of the decisions made by the state, but instead concern ourselves exclusively with whether or not the procedure that has gone into it is a fair one. Proceduralism rejects consequentialism, the notion that what we should do is determined by the value, for good or for ill, of the results of our behaviour, in favour of a limited deontology concerned only with fairness and not with advancing any comprehensive ethical position that appeals back to unjustifiable core values. Why should everyone get a vote? Because that is a fair way to make decisions. Why do we care if the decision making procedure is fair provided that it produces good results? Playing rock-paper-scissors is fair, but we would never use it to make political decisions because it would produce terrible results from time to time. Proceduralism rests on the logical fallacy that outcomes do not matter, a belief that, when push comes to shove, none of us hold. We would not accept the reinstitution of slavery on the basis of a rock-paper-scissors result; we have no reason to accept it on the basis of a vote. Slavery is a bad policy, regardless of the number of people who support it or how freely and fairly the vote was taken, and no state should ever institute a policy of slavery. The proceduralist might respond with a sceptical argument, claiming that we cannot know for certain that slavery is wrong or that any given political decision is ethically good or bad. This is a kind of unearned scepticism that makes any effort to pursue the good politically infeasible. It is bordering on nihilism and gets us nowhere.

Demographic Objection:

The demographic objection was made by David Estlund directly in response to Mill’s system in Estlund’s Democratic Authority. This argument holds that the value of education could be countervailed by negative traits that could conceivably be associated with education or could unbalance the decision-making. For instance, the educated could be disproportionately racist, classist, sexist, and so on. In other words, the politically educated could be more right wing than the general population. Does that sound like an accurate description of what’s going on at the universities with which you are familiar? Are not the political and social science academics stereotyped as multiculturalist feminist Marxists, the very inverse of that description? Bigotry and doctorates do not go hand in hand. But, Estlund argues, even if they are not racist or classist or sexist per say, the educated might tend to be white or tend to be wealthy or tend to be male, and, on account of that, their lack of diverse perspectives relative to the general population could be a disadvantage. I will grant Estlund that such a group is not likely to reflect the same demographics as the general population. I reject, however, the twin assumptions that this necessarily means that the educated will undermine the less represented groups deliberately by making bigoted policy and that it is reasonable to suppose that, to the extent that this represents a disadvantage of Mill’s system, a reasonable person could consider this disadvantage in any way comparable to the advantage represented by improving the education level of the voting pool. A rich white male economist may not know what it feels like to be a poor black woman, but this does not make him a bigot nor does it make him substantially less qualified to make recommendations on economic policy.

The arguments against Mill’s view are simply not very good. They read like the old apologist literature, trying to justify the unjustifiable, succeeding only because the population at the time has been socialised to buy into the views and ideas for which they are apologising. In any argument in which the democratic system did not receive this bias on account of it being part of the status quo, it would lose. We have been taught from birth that democracy is good, and so our impulse is to contort ourselves logically until we can find some rationalisation for supporting it, despite the seemingly very simple ways by which the outcomes generated by our governments could be considerably improved–increasing our consultation of expert opinion on the issues at hand, for one. As a result, we end up with the inferior government you and I regularly confront on a day to day basis. C’est la vie.