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The Place of Plural Voting in Mill's Conception of Representative Government

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 July 2015


While it may not be surprising that Mill's proposal for a “plural voting” scheme that would award more votes to citizens with more education has few contemporary supporters, it is surprising that so many interpreters take him to regard plural voting as merely a temporary measure meant to ease the transition from restricted to universal suffrage. Contra Amy Gutmann, Maria Morales, Wendy Donner, David Brink, Wendy Sarvasy, Bruce Baum, and Jonathan Riley, I argue that Mill believes that plural voting should always accompany universal suffrage and thus that it should be in place indefinitely.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2015 

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1 Saunders, Robert, Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848–1867: The Making of the Second Reform Act (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 101–30Google Scholar.

2 Goldman, Lawrence, “Experts, Investigators, and the State in 1860: British Social Scientists through American Eyes,” in The State and Social Investigation in the United States and Britain, ed. Lacey, Michael J. and Furner, Mary O. (New York: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993), 119Google Scholar.

3 Mill, J. S., “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson, John M., 33 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–91), 19:327Google Scholar. This work will henceforth be abbreviated CW.

4 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 326–28; J. S. Mill, Representative Government, in CW, 19:469–73. In “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform” Mill proposes the educational qualification as a more realistic alternative to plural voting; in Representative Government his support for it seems to be independent of his support for plural voting. Mill does accept that by imposing these conditions on voting a society acquires an obligation to see to it that its members are able to satisfy them, and he expresses confidence that at least so far as the first two conditions are concerned this obligation could be more or less completely satisfied relatively soon.

5 Representative Government, 471–72.

6 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 322n1.

7 Representative Government, 390–91.

8 I used these terms in Miller, , J. S. Mill: Moral, Social and Political Thought (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 171Google Scholar.

9 J. S. Mill, Autobiography, in CW, 1:177.

10 J. S. Mill, On Liberty, in CW, 18:224.

11 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 322.

12 Representative Government, 405.

13 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 322–23. See also J. S. Mill, “Tocqueville on Democracy in America [II],” in CW, 17:168–69; Representative Government, 410–12, 469.

14 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 323.

15 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 323–24.

16 Representative Government, 473.

17 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 324–25.

18 Representative Government, 476.

19 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 325; see also Representative Government, 475.

20 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 325; see also Representative Government, 474–75.

21 J. S. Mill, “Recent Writers on Reform,” in CW, 19:354–55.

22 Morales, Maria, Perfect Equality: Mill on Well-Constituted Communities (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 86Google Scholar.

23 Gutmann, Amy, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 51Google Scholar.

24 Donner, Wendy and Fumerton, Richard, Mill (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 104CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Donner continues: “Not only are these circumstances impermanent, and constantly changing, but our knowledge is generally incomplete and imperfect, because of the complexity of the social circumstances. A degree of uncertainty is present. Dogmatism and over-confidence about policies proposed to promote goals are not reasonable stances to adopt.” Note that it is not my intention to argue that Mill's commitment to plural voting was dogmatic, if that means that he would have insisted on its continued employment even if, after a trial was made, it was found not to operate in the manner that he expected. My claim is only that he did not expect a time to come at which it would be desirable to retire plural voting, e.g., his proposal is not an exercise in planned obsolescence.

25 Brink, David, Mill's Progressive Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 241; see also 284, where Brink adds that the inequalities involved in equal voting are “limited and entirely transitional in nature.” In a footnote (241n 5), Brink comments generously on the brief discussion of plural voting in my own book on Mill but then adds that I underestimate “Mill's reasons for thinking that weighted voting is ideally a temporary and transitional measure.” The failure of my previous treatment of the issue to persuade Brink influenced my decision to explore the topic more thoroughly.

26 Sarvasy, Wendy, “J. S. Mill's Theory of Democracy for a Period of Transition Between Capitalism & Socialism,” Polity 16, no. 4 (1984): 582CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Ibid., 587.

28 Baum, Bruce, Rereading Power and Freedom in J. S. Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 243CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Baum cites Sarvasy following the last sentence in this passage.

29 Riley, Jonathan, “Mill's Neo-Athenian Model of Liberal Democracy,” in J. S. Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, ed. Urbinati, Nadia and Zakaras, Alex (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 221–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the passage quoted is at 230.

30 Ibid., 247n19.

31 Ibid.

32 Riley, Jonathan, “An Extraordinary Maximizing Utilitarianism,” in Individual and Collective Choice and Social Welfare: Essays in Honor of Nick Baigent, ed. Binder, C., Codognato, G., Teschl, M., and Xu, Y. (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2015), 328Google Scholar.

33 Ibid., 315.

34 Ibid., 329.

35 Riley, Jonathan, “The Interpretation of Maximizing Utilitarianism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 26 (2009): 313CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Riley, Utilitarian Ethics and Democratic Government,” Ethics 100 (1990): 345Google Scholar, where he says that Mill “can be interpreted to prescribe simple majority voting in an ideal liberal context where all citizens have achieved some given liberal standard of education.”

36 In private correspondence Riley has indicated that this is indeed his view.

37 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 324.

38 “Recent Writers on Reform,” 350.

39 Representative Government, 478.

40 Ibid., 508.

41 On this see Miller, J. Joseph, “J. S. Mill on Plural Voting, Competence, and Participation,” History of Political Thought 24 (2003): 647–67Google Scholar.

42 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 327.

43 Representative Government, 490.

44 Ibid., 488–89.

45 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 328.

46 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, in CW, 10:255.

47 I discuss Mill's conception of justice in J. S. Mill, 101–8.

48 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 324. See also Representative Government, 474, where Mill asks whether it is “most conformable to the general fitness of things” for the “wiser man” to give way to the “more ignorant” or the reverse, in a matter that concerns them both, and then asks, “if it be deemed unjust that either should give way, which injustice is greatest?” One might take Mill to be allowing here that departing from equal voting is unjust, albeit less unjust than not departing from it. But given that he frames this sentence as a question and not an assertion, I do not take him to be committing himself to the claim that departing from equal voting is any injustice at all; rather, he is simply noting that even if this is true, as some of his readers might believe, retaining it would still constitute a greater injustice. And in any case, this passage still supports my claim that Mill believes that plural voting is a requirement of justice, all things considered.

49 “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” 324

50 Representative Government, 474; see also 476.

51 Representative Government, 447.

52 Kendall, Willmoore and Carey, George W., “The ‘Roster Device’: J. S. Mill and Contemporary Elitism,” Western Political Quarterly 21, no. 1 (1968): 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For more discussion of this strand of Mill's thought see my J. S. Mill, 176–80.

53 Representative Government, 447.

54 Utilitarianism, 243–44.

55 See, e.g., Representative Government, 411.

56 Representative Government, 478.

57 Utilitarianism, 243.

58 Ibid., 245.

59 On Liberty, 224.

60 See Utilitarianism, 259.

61 Representative Government, 467.

62 Ibid., 477–78. See also Mill's letter of 28 April 1865 to George Jacob Holyoake, in which he says that “for the present” he attaches more importance to “Mr. Hare's Plan” than to “plural voting” (CW, 16:1039).

63 Autobiography, 261–62. Compare Mill's statement in Representative Government that he would not even require institutions of universal education to be in place before imposing an educational requirement for voting: “When society has not performed its duty, by rendering this amount of instruction accessible to all, there is some hardship in the case, but it is a hardship that ought to be borne” (Representative Government, 263).

64 John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, introduction, in CW, 1:xix–xx.

65 Wendy Donner takes this passage to show that Mill was never firmly committed to plural voting (Mill, 101). In fairness to Donner, this may be partly due to a sentence that I did not quote, in which Mill relates that he had never discussed plural voting with Harriet Taylor Mill and does not know what she would have said about it. Still, given Mill's unequivocal pronouncements in favor of plural voting in “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform” and Representative Government, it is much more likely that he was initially quite convinced that the proposal should be adopted, with what Donner calls his “uncertainty and wavering in the extreme” only beginning several years later.

66 J. S. Mill, “Representation of the People [5],” in CW, 28:84–85. Tristram McPherson has presented me with a difficult question in connection with this passage, namely why it is that Mill would not in principle favor plural voting even while the franchise is restricted. Even if there were relatively few voters, and they were relatively wealthy, would not his competence-, education-, and justice-based arguments still support the adoption of plural voting? One possible explanation is that all of these arguments are window-dressing and that the class-balancing argument really is (as Sarvasy assumes) Mill's sole true rationale for plural voting. Another is that Mill simply did not think through the implications of his own arguments. A third possibility, though, is more charitable to Mill. This is that he takes the sort of plural voting that already exists at this stage in British political history, whereby graduates of certain universities receive additional votes of a sort, to be roughly adequate, with at most its being necessary to expand the number of universities whose graduates enjoy special representation. In a letter of 1857 (to an unidentified recipient), Mill does say that he “should be glad” to see graduates of the University of London gain representation (CW, 15:544).

67 Baum, Rereading Power and Freedom in J. S. Mill, 244.

68 Mill happens to describe this speech in his Autobiography in a way that even more clearly establishes that this was his point (CW, 1:288–89). See also Riley, “Mill's Neo-Athenian Model of Democracy,” 247n19.

69 Miller, J. S. Mill, 57–59.

70 Utilitarianism, 251.

71 Riley, “Utilitarian Ethics and Democratic Government.”

72 But see Harwood, Robin, “More Votes for Ph.D.'s,” Journal of Social Philosophy 29, no. 3 (1998): 129–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fudge, Robert and Quinn, Carol, “On Harwood's Plural Voting System,” Journal of Social Philosophy 32, no. 4 (2001): 500505 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joseph Farkas, “One Man, ¼ Vote,” New York Times, March 29, 1974, 35.

73 In fairness to Mill, it is worth remarking that some of these claims do have prominent contemporary supporters. This is true in particular of the proposition that education—including especially training in the humanities and other liberal arts— transforms students not only cognitively but also affectively and cognitively in ways that make them both more intelligent and more public-spirited citizens. Martha Nussbaum develops precisely this argument for giving the humanities a central place in a university curriculum in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Nussbaum lists a variety of skills that are necessary for democratic citizenship and that exposure to the humanities can help to cultivate; these range from “the ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring to neither tradition nor authority,” to “the ability to think about the good of the nation as a whole, not just that of one's own local group,” to “the ability to see one's own nation, in turn, as a part of a complicated world order in which issues of many kinds require intelligent transnational deliberation for their resolution” (25–26). Indeed, given that Nussbaum's argument is not considered especially controversial, at least in the United States, it is perhaps surprising that Mill's proposal for plural voting has not occasioned more discussion pro and con.

74 Gutmann, Liberal Equality, 187–88; Brink, Mill's Progressive Principles, 245–49; Beitz, Political Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3240 Google Scholar.

75 Estlund, David, “Why Not Epistocracy?,” in Desire, Identity, and Existence: Essays in Honor of T. M. Penner, ed. Roshotko, Naomi (Edmonton: Academic, 2003), 5368 Google Scholar, and Democratic Authority (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 209–22Google Scholar; Sugden, Robert, “Justified to Whom?,” in The Idea of Democracy, ed. Copp, David, Hampton, Jean, and Roemer, John E. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 149–54Google Scholar; Gaus, Gerald, Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 247–53Google Scholar.

76 Richard Arneson, “Democratic Rights at National and Workplace Levels,” in The Idea of Democracy, 133–38. For additional criticism of Mill's proposal see Berger, Fed, Happiness, Justice, Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 192–94Google Scholar; Thompson, Dennis, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 100101 Google Scholar; and Urbinati, Nadia, Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 9899 Google Scholar.

77 Donner, Mill, 101.

78 My own reservations about plural voting stem largely from a combination of, first, doubts about whether it would in practice yield the benefits that Mill claims and, second, worries akin to Arneson's about what other consequences it might have.

79 Representative Government, 467. Emphasis added.

80 Ibid., 448. Emphasis added.

81 See also Autobiography, 199.