Emma Does Politics

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John Stuart Mill and the Tyranny of the Majority

John Stuart Mill is one of the classic liberal thinkers, and one that I greatly respect. That doesn’t mean I am a “Millist” who slavishly interprets every issue in terms of his ideas (much as some Thatcherites and Marxists are said to do with their inspirational leaders). I agree with those ideas of his I agree with, and cheerfully ignore the rest. I am my own thinker, and its a happy coincidence that I sometimes agree with various philosophers of the past.

As well as being a big promoter of utilitarianism – the idea that people should work to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people — he also wrote a create deal on what liberty actually means. He is an important figure in liberal political philosophy. He was also a feminist and an atheist. In the 1860s, he was the first British MP to call for women to have the vote. Here’s some choice quotes of his…

On treating others, he foreshadowed what has since become known as Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a d***”).

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

He did not love war, but he recognised it can sometimes be necessary@

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.

He recognised that religions, regardless of their truth or lack of it, can still motivate people to do good things.

It is conceivable that religion may be morally useful without being intellectually sustainable.

On Conservatism:

I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honourable Gentleman will question it.

On the dangers of the tyranny of the masses:

Two very different ideas are usually confounded under the name democracy. The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy, as commonly conceived and hitherto practised, is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people exclusively represented. The former is synonymous with the equality of all citizens; the latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege in favour of the numerical majority, who alone possess practically any voice in the state. This is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, to the complete disfranchisement of minorities.

This last point is particularly important. Elected MPs typically only pay attention to those constituents who are members of their party, at least when it comes to responding to requests to promote specific policies. This is wrong. Regardless of their party, they are there to represent all the people in their constituency. Not their party, not their corporate sponsors, not the people who voted for them. The constituents in their entirety. Anything less is a tyranny of the majority.

And last, but not least…

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

— Monty Python

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