For John S. Mill, representation is the best form of government. “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; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general” (Chapter 3). For Mill, representation is essential to good government because is passes the “test” of good government; it has a high level of order and progress. For Mill, representation “promotes the good management of the affairs of society by means of the existing faculties, moral, intellectual, and active, of its various members” [order], and improves “those faculties” [progress] (Chapter 3).
Representation, for Mill, means that the government is a completely popular government – the people vote. This is necessary in representation because only the individual will consistently stand up for their rights, that an individual is only secure from being disregarded when they get involved and vote for their rights, and that each individual’s vote will even out when they are brought into the aggregate will of the voters. This is the ideal of representation for Mill. This means, according to Mill, that each individual is responsible for the protection of his rights and liberties. Because representation is the only form of government that can protect the individual’s rights and liberties, it is essential for good government.
This does not mean that Mill is an advocate for direct democracy – he is not. He advocates for a representative government. This is where the people, or some “numerous portion” of them, “exercise through deputies periodically elected by themselves the ultimate controlling power” (Chapter 5). For Mill, the “ultimate controlling power” is where one branch of the government can stop all government from doing anything – essentially a veto power. Mill states that in a representative government this power doesn’t have to reside with the people, explicitly, but does rest with them because they appoint the people in the government who then can exercise this power.
One of the pitfalls of representative government can occur when the representative body tries to do the work of the government, rather than simply deciding on the agenda of the government. This leads to inexpert legislation and regulation of various aspects of life. For Mill, this pitfall is easily avoided. Instead of granting the representative body the ability to do the work of the government, the representative body is granted the ability to decide on the agenda of the government, and then the experts in the bureaucracy are allowed to do the work. This prevents the representative body from doing the work that should be done by experts.
An example Mill gives, in Chapter 5, is how to draft legislation. In Mill’s ideal representative government, the representative body would decide what they want covered in a law, then ask the legislation committee – staffed by people who are experts at creating laws – to draw up the law. Then the representative body would vote on the law drafted by the committee and not be allowed to enter any amendments to the law. For Mill, this is a reasonable precaution to take because the representative body is not suited to doing the work – here the legislative commission would be doing the work – but only setting the agenda for the work. This avoids the pitfall of having the representative body doing the work of the government.
These are Mill’s solutions to preventing the representative government form engaging in business for which it has no expertise. The other problem a representative body faces is that the assembly is too close to the industries/people being regulated and are influenced by the very people it is trying to govern (also known as capture). In order to solve this problem, Mill suggest that people be able to vote for whatever representative you wish, and not be governed by geography. An example of this would be voting for the California State Senate in a system where you simply vote for candidates, rather than for candidates from a district.
Additionally, Mill believes that having proportional representation is better than having a majority vote because, he believes, you don’t have to vote for the person that you know, but you simply vote for what the person believes in. This enables government to remove the concept of a “safe district” which makes the elected representatives more responsive to the people and will create better candidates from which the people can elect representatives. This means that as representation improves, and as candidate quality improves, the issue of capture becomes less possible.
According to Mill, representative government can only exist when the people: (1) Are willing to be governed by representative government, (2) Are willing to do what is necessary to maintain the representative government, and (3) Are willing and able to fulfill the duties and functions that they must under a representative government. This means, that when any of these conditions fail, there will be problems in a representative government. These potential evils include: failing to invest enough power in the administration (bureaucracy) to do the work of the government, and the failure to develop active citizens; which is the “failure to develop by exercise the actual capacities and social feelings of the individual citizens” (p. 120). Mill also says that there are two problems that are specific to a representative government: That there are insufficient mental capabilities in the governing body and that the people become subject and controlled by an interest that is not their own (Mill calls these a sinister interest).
All of the issues Mill presents that could be problems in a representative government can be solved by having active participants in government. By “active” it is meant that the citizens take care of themselves, rather than have the government be paternalistic. This involves voting, being educated and looking out for the common good instead of sinister interests.
For Mill, sinister interests include majorities split by race, religion and economic status. These sinister interests don’t consider the good of society as a whole, but consider their majority status and work in their own interests. However, this can be solved by opening districts up so that people can vote for whomever they want. Then a racial minority can band together and get candidates elected to the representative body regardless of geography. The same is true for economic and religious minorities. This prevents great cleavages between classes and will result in a truly representative government, rather than just a majoritarian one.
If the people being ruled by a representative government become passive and are no longer willing to maintain the government, or are no longer willing to be controlled by their interests, Mill’s solution is to have a tyranny take over. He believes that a change in government will make a passive people become more active, which means they can progress from a tyrannical government – which can govern passive people - to a representative government. A change in government type is Mill’s prescription for people that have become passive and are no longer willing to maintain the representative government and do not want to fulfill the duties and functions that they must under a representative government.