James Mill on Government Power

James Mill

James Mill wrote a dozen articles for the 1824 Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, including one on “Government,” which is primarily concerned with the necessity of limiting government power. Before turning to his main theme, however, he offered a thumbnail sketch of the origins of government from a utilitarian perspective.

“Of the laws of nature, on which the condition of man depends, that which is attended with the greatest number of consequences, is the necessity of labour for obtaining the means of subsistence, as well as the means of the greatest part of our pleasures. This is, no doubt, the primary cause of government; for, if nature had produced spontaneously all the objects which we desire, and in sufficient abundance for the desires of all, there would have been no source of dispute or of injury among men; nor would any man have possessed the means of ever acquiring authority over another.”

While Mill avoids the language of natural rights or social contract theory, and uses the utilitarian language of happiness and pain, his view of the origins of government parallels that of John Locke. Mill maintains that nature provides “scanty materials of happiness,” which men desirous of security and survival compete for. If nature were more generous in providing for the desires of all, Mill suggests, disputes over resources and injuries suffered in these altercations would not have occurred. To protect themselves from the predations of others, groups of men first form unions for self-protection and eventually “combine together, and delegate to a small number the power necessary for protecting them all.” Mill emphasizes the importance of property: “The greatest possible happiness of society is … attained by insuring to every man the greatest possible quality of the produce of his labour.” One of the functions of government, Mill maintains, will be “to make that distribution of the scanty materials of happiness which would insure the greatest sum of it in the members of the community taken altogether.” He concludes, “It thus appears, that it is for the sake of property that government exists.” Mill notes that his view “coincides exactly with the doctrine of Locke,” and quotes from Locke’s Second Treatise to prove his point: “The great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves

After this brief introduction, Mill then turns to the major focus of this essay: “All the difficult questions of government relate to the means of restraining those, in whose hands are lodged the powers necessary for the protection of all, from making a bad use of it.”